SALISBURY – A discussion with county leaders last week highlighted the school systems efforts to address student behavior.
Last week, Superintendent Donna Hanlin, school system administrators and members of the Wicomico County Board of Education met with the Wicomico County Council to share several initiatives aimed at improving school climate and student conduct after an uptick in violent incidents earlier this fall.
“I don’t think I need to remind everyone that we had a busy fall in terms of discipline issues, conduct issues in our schools,” Hanlin said. “It is very unusual.”
Beginning in October, for example, school system officials witnessed several student altercations at Salisbury Middle School. That same month, a 13-year-old student was charged with threat of mass violence for her involvement in a bomb threat at James M. Bennett High School.
“I do have to say in some cases – while I’m not minimizing at all what’s happening in the schools – the presence of social media is never our friend,” she said. “It appears there’s a lot of exaggeration, which makes it very difficult to us. It’s distracting to us when we have to put out those fires, those rumors, but we have been steadfast in trying to work with the facts and deal with the situations.”
Hanlin highlighted a recent incident at Parkside High School to prove her point. In November, three teachers at Parkside sustained minor injuries following a fight between students.
“The rumors that were out in the community were not at all accurate,” she said. “That’s what led us to a press conference.”
Despite recent incidents, Hanlin said school system officials have take proactive measures to address school climate and student conduct. In addition to working with community groups and parents, officials at Wicomico County Public Schools joined together with the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Juvenile Services and the Office of the State’s Attorney for Wicomico County to form a Youth Safety Task Force.
“The issues occurring in our schools, while they are very serious, they really only represent 1% or 2% of our population,” she said, “and I’m always reminding myself and others of the great things, the great students and staff, in our schools. We can’t lose sight of that.”
When asked what the school system was doing to discipline its most egregious students, school officials noted they followed the state’s guidelines for student discipline. They said exclusionary discipline, such as expulsion, was the last resort.
“As educators, we can’t lose sight of our responsibility to teach students, to try and teach them appropriate behavior, and try and intervene when we can with supports,” Hanlin said.
Officials noted that many community members have pointed to expulsion as a method of addressing recent incidents. Hanlin, however, said the school system must follow a framework for discipline.
“We will often hear individuals say, ‘Just kick them out, just expel them,’” she said. “Expulsion is not what it was when you and I were in school. Expulsion means 46 days or more and more than likely for the remainder of the school year or for a full school year, and we must educate them while they are expelled.”
Surprised to hear that no students were currently expelled in the school system, some council members questioned how recent incidents were being handled. Kim Miles, assistant superintendent of student and family services, said some cases for expulsion were under consideration.
“They are not in the school while awaiting that process,” she said.
In addition to the Youth Safety Task Force, the school system is also evaluating its social, emotional and behavioral supports within the schools. Officials are also considering plans to expand its Choices Academy – an alternative school – and implement intermediary steps before removing students from traditional school settings.
Hanlin added that officials has had conversations with Senator Mary Beth Carozza and other members of the Eastern Shore delegation on potential legislation.
“I’m not one to believes that legislation is necessarily the answer,” she said. “But if there’s something that comes about as a result of our work, then certainly we’ll be in touch with the delegation.”
Hanlin told the council the discussion on student conduct and school climate includes not only holding students accountable, but holding parents accountable as well.
“I can’t tell you the number of times that we’ve had an incident in the school and we call the parent and their response is ‘that’s your problem,’” she said. “That is a real concern and we have to have parent buy-in. Where we do, we are most successful.”