Student Behavior, School Climate Concerns Discussed

SALISBURY – Concerns surrounding student behavior and school climate highlighted a school board meeting in Wicomico County last week.

In a meeting of the Wicomico County Board of Education last week, James M. Bennett Middle School parent Michele Schlehofer shared her concerns regarding student conduct and school climate.

“As you know, there have been several incidents in recent weeks regarding physical altercations and a threat of a school shooting that left students, regardless of the credibility, pretty frightened, and parents as well,” she said. “As a social psychologist, I’m pretty well aware that perceptions of the environment as unsafe can negatively impact learning. And that’s regardless of whether or not the perceptions are actually legitimate.”

Schlehofer urged school officials to address school climate issues. She said poor school climate affected grades, absenteeism and dropout rates.

“It’s really concerning, I think, that school climate is being compromised,” she said, “and we really need to address that.”

Schlehofer told the board social workers were underutilized in the school system.

“The National Association of Social Workers has standards for the number of social workers in public schools,” she said. “The recommendations are one full-time social worker to every 250 students. If you have a student population with high trauma, that ratio is recommended to be one in 50. Currently we have one full-time social worker for 1,000 students at Bennett Middle School. I’m significantly concerned about that.”

Schlehofer also encouraged the school system to train faculty and staff on de-escalation techniques and took a stance against additional disciplinary actions.

“I’m not the only parent that is concerned with additional crackdown disciplinary procedures and would like to instead see increased supports for students in the school, to mitigate issues before they begin,” she said.

Superintendent Donna Hanlin highlighted several efforts to address student behavior and school climate. In addition to creating a Youth Safety Task Force, she said the school system was also working with an organization to review supports that are in place to address social, emotional and behavioral issues.

“We did add social workers to our budget last year, as well as counselors, school psychologists, those supports for students in our schools, beginning early on in our elementary schools through our high schools,” she said. “This will be an opportunity for this organization to come in and work with us and focus groups within the community, gathering feedback and coming up with a very specific plan for what’s working and where we can do better.”

Hanlin said the school system was also re-evaluating disciplinary measures. She said officials were looking at options for increasing seats at the alternative school, as well as creating an intermediary step within the schools.

“We are also having in-depth conversation internally about discipline for our most egregious students,” she said. “Yes, intervention is what we want to do in most cases. But there are cases where we have to intervene in a more aggressive way.”

Lastly, Hanlin said the school system was working alongside the Eastern Shore delegation, as well as community groups, which have introduced mentorship programs in certain schools.

“I think it’s important for the community to be aware of the very focused attention that is being placed in this area, and not just on interventions, as our speaker has discussed, but also holding our students and parents – quite honestly – accountable for student behavior,” she said. “It’s finding that balance that’s critically important.”

Hanlin also recognized the parents, teachers, school administrators and school system officials for their efforts to improve student behavior and safety.

“Everyone is focused hard on this issue, and I’m hearing feedback that we’re seeing a difference,” she said. “But we know we are far from taking our foot off the pedal in terms of making some changes.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.