A board room full of Visalia Unified teachers speak their mind over difficult classroom experiences; plead for the district administration to hold “overtly defiant” students accountable
VISALIA – After several elementary school teachers feel as though they have no support when dealing with defiant students, several told their own stories to the school board asking for help.
At the April 25 Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) board meeting, eight teachers spoke their minds during public comment after superintendent Kirk Shrum gave a presentation on creating safe supportive innovative learning environments. The entire board room was full with other supporters in an overflow room. Teachers shared personal experiences with the board of the horrific events that ensue each and everyday at their schools and in their classrooms.
Greg Price, president of the Visalia Teachers Association said their goal was not to attack anyone or point fingers, but because the district has a systemic problem that has a possible solution. He said teachers came to discuss three main issues: one–students who wander campus, constantly tardy or refuse to attend class; two–students who disrupt the classroom learning environment; three–violence toward students and staff.
“We are here tonight because we have a systemic problem, a community problem, but one that is solvable,” Price said. “We must engage parents with these students who are chronically creating problems at our school sites. The parents must be responsible as partners to help us solve this misbehavior.”
Price explained that the students causing the extreme disturbances account for 2% of the student population. However, that 2% has a profound effect on the remaining 98%. Not to mention, Price said in a district of 30,000 students, the 2% is roughly 600 students who are creating “educational havoc.” Price also mentioned this is not simply a VUSD problem, but one that is happening nationally, but still needs to be handled.
In his three minutes, Price also expressed his concerns for the district’s plan, begging the question, is the plan effective if nothing changes or the student’s behavior continues? He told the board the discipline system can look comprehensive on paper, then asked if it was actually solving the current issues.
“We need to pair appropriate consequences with support and counseling,” Price said. “They are both important, but appropriate consequences often seem to be missing. Additionally, progressive discipline seems to be missing as well.”
Elopers, chronic tardiness, classroom disruptions
After Price, several teachers ranging at the elementary level of education spoke about what they deal with. Several of the staff members spoke of similar experiences including “elopers” or students that leave classrooms at their own leisure to wander campus or the classroom and no teacher or administrator can get them back to class.
Others spoke of students who are 20 to 30 minutes late to class each day because “they don’t feel like being on time,” according to Michelle Alvarez, a teacher who has been with the district for 33 years. She said at her school site, there are students who tear down the smoke detectors in the boys bathrooms during class time which leaves those bathrooms out of service for some time. Alvarez also said administration at her site attempted to make a deal with one student to encourage them to get to class. more than they were by allowing the student to choose one period each day they could skip.
“At my site, the administration tried to make a deal with one of the students saying ‘hey, if you’ll attend six out of seven classes a day, we’ll let you skip one class of your choice every day’,” Alvarez said. “This problem has reached crisis proportions.”
Several other teachers spoke of students throwing tantrums in class as a different form of disruption for the remaining students. Tina Smith, a fifth and sixth grade combo class teacher said passive defiance and the combination of overt defiance with overt behavior has become a safety hazard for everyone involved. Smith said every week she has students who plead with her to make the disruption stop and she reiterated that it is heartbreaking to her that there is nothing she can do for those of her students who simply want to learn.
“We see students who throw tantrums, students who take things off walls, overt defiance, passive defiance, running out of the classroom, taking others things, harassment of fellow students and people,” Smith said.
Steve Delgado, VUSD teacher and vice president of the local VUTA teachers union said he has been teaching for 20 years and recently seen “profound changes” in the teaching environment.
“The lack of effective policies and leadership within the district has led to the rise in overt defiance, excessive cell phone and earbud distractions, excessive tardies with little to no repercussions, students wandering in and outside the classroom without permission, racism, bigotry, hate speech on campuses, and the profound vulgarity becoming normalized,” Delgado told the board.
He explained there are several students and staff members who are fearful of students because students threaten violence to staff members frequently. A handful of teachers added in their own comments that they have heard several shooting, bombing and other violent threats to themselves, other students and the schools. Ashley Chavez, is a first year teacher within the district who spoke to the board pleading for help. She is a third grade teacher who has experienced students throwing objects at staff and other students, and not only small objects but desks as well.
“I have to watch students with fear in their eyes look at me anytime these incidents occur, because they no longer feel safe,” Chavez said.
Chavez said not only does the violence and verbal threats cause fear, but is also traumatizing to other students in the classroom. Holding back tears, Chavez told the board she will no longer be returning to VUSD because she refuses to subject herself and her students to this trauma.
Delgado also touched on the vulgar language and blatant racism that is spoken each day from student to student, and student to staff members without any repercussions and he was not the only one. Seventh and eighth grade math teacher from Green Acres middle school Madelyn Schneemann told the board some of the terrible words that were spoken to her by her students.
“We see verbal threats of violence, including threats to kill their teacher and fellow students verbal and written threats of gun violence and threats to bomb the school, the assaulting of staff, the attacking of other students, fights and now large groups, excessive cursing, disturbing racist slurs, sexual harassment, intimidation and extortion,” Schneemann said.
She said earlier this year before she went on maternity leave, she was “shoulder checked” by a student when she stopped him from jumping the fence. She stopped another student from listening to YouTube and he said “f— you, I hope your baby dies” just days before she left for maternity leave.
“I’ve only been back a week and I have been blatantly ignored, I’ve been told ‘f— you’ and called a ‘f—ing b—’ more than 10 times,” Schneemann said. “These are only a few personal incidences and don’t begin to represent those that are also being endured by my colleagues regularly.”
Cindy Johnson has been teaching for over 40 years and said they must address these students who are so disruptive. She brought the point to the board that some of the youngest students believe this is what a classroom environment is supposed to look like because it is all they know. Johnson said as a teacher their jobs are to plan and implement instruction, but that is not possible with such severe daily disruptions. She said they are not counselors or social workers and do not have the personnel to support students with such behaviors.
“Students who exhibit habitual disruptive and violent behaviors need to be in an environment that is equipped to support their unique needs,” Johnson said. “This ensures that the safety and well being of other students and staff are not compromised. Ultimately there can be no tolerance for the violence we have heard about the threats and the harming of students and staff.”
As for the district, during Shrum’s presentation, he said they are now “on the journey of accountability.” Shrum explained VUSD’s core beliefs are, all students can achieve at high levels and demonstrate continuous growth; family and community engagement is key to student success; learning environments should be safe, supportive and innovative.
He said they are on this journey because they have now declared their goals, or core beliefs. He applauded the board for being clear about their goals and determining a pathway to get there. Shrum explained the district is evaluating information quarterly with the hopes to improve on what they have learned and work toward where they want to be.
“We know that when you take and read each one of those beliefs and commitments, that is not the reality for every single student, teacher, staff, school, family member, right? But you don’t, and you can’t create a goal unless you declare what you believe and you’re committed to doing,” Shrum siad.
As Shrum is still new to the area and the district, he cannot go back and change things in the past, he said he can only make things better in the future. He said he is looking forward to the future and to hear from staff on how they can improve the learning environment for students.
Andy Di Meo, assistant superintendent for educational services, explained to the board how they come to certain conclusions and create expectations for students. He said they start with the educational code, which is where the district can create policies and procedures based on what the law allows. Di Meo explained the district hired over 100 additional counselors for the schools throughout the district.
“You can see things like school counselors, social workers, lots of new managers who can lead the work that we’re doing and the expanded learning opportunity program,” Di Meo said. “All of these are opportunities to help our students connect with schools, and to be better at what we need them to do in the classroom.”
Di Meo also explained the recent campaigns the district has started throughout all their schools and employees. He included ALICE emergency preparedness training, updated safety measures, the threat assessment protocol and more. The threat assessment protocol will help the district improve in the future according to Di Meo.
A big idea for the district is something both Shrum and Di Meo discussed: the idea of One Visalia Connected and bringing students closer to the community to keep them out of trouble.
“We’re worrying about what we can do differently that will give our students a better opportunity to be successful and our teachers and staff members a better chance to be able to work through their time,” Di Meo said.
The district does have a disciplinary management process in place. It states that it is the role of educators to teach students to build positive relationships and behave in ways that strengthen their ability to succeed. In the current process, administrators ask a series of questions that leads to one of two things and then ultimately the Equity and Student Services Department. They will need to provide a reflective, restorative and instructional response to the student whether that be a logical consequence or detention and skill building on campus intervention (OCI) could be used for certain groups. If it is thought the incident requires additional disciplinary action they can contact the Equity and Student Services Department.
The other series of questions could lead to providing the student with an opportunity to respond and contacting the parents or guardian and then determine if suspension is appropriate. Then contact the Equity and Student Services Department.