New superintendent will face school discipline conflicts

Two months after a survey of teachers indicated lack of respect and discipline in schools, steps to correct the problem are in place.

Don Fitzgerald, president of the Board of Education, this week said Central Office employees have been assigned to schools for a half-day every week “to help the principal and vice principal with whatever needs to be worked out.”

Gary Hammer, president of the Wicomico County Education Association, who, in January,  released survey results and called for swift action,  said he has seen Central Office employees in school and his understanding is they were assigned to observe.

“They’re supposed to be there to help. Some of them got an earful. They got enlightened about the problem, but it’s still up to the principal. The Central Office people are only there three hours a week,” he said.

Fitzgerald said the issue didn’t develop overnight and won’t be solved immediately.

“We have a meeting with the superintendent every two weeks and we won’t accept anything other than getting things back to the way it was,” he said.

“It starts at home. What happens in the community comes into the school system. We have the support of the Chamber of Commerce. We have the support of the Greater Salisbury Committee.

“People who grew up in this community are willing to put their money where their mouth is. I’m a graduate of Wi-Hi and things have changed, yes, but that doesn’t mean we have to put up with some of the stuff going  on,” he said.

Hammer said educators want the new superintendent “to maybe help with some of the discipline, or lack of it, that’s existing.”

“Our teachers are not feeling the love. I hope the new superintendent supports the teachers and has a better idea of how to correct the problem,” he said.

One of the candidates for superintendent, Dr. Cathy J. Townsend, meeting with the media this week, acknowledged discipline problems and said students “have a right to a safe environment that is conducive to learning.”

Even so, she said, lack of discipline isn’t constant or chaotic.

“There are such wonderful things going on in our schools. Sometimes discipline concerns outshine those wonderful things. We need to look at the positive things that are happening in our district and the successes. It’s a new day,” she said.

She praised students who excel and earn scholarships and other honors.

“We need to move forward in a very positive way, to put together strategic plans for discipline, for ways to improve Wicomico schools  and bring them back to the status they used to have. We had one of the best counties once, in testing, in discipline. It’s time we  came together and worked toward that,” Townsend said.

Early this year, the WCEA released survey results indicating 50 to 70 percent of teachers believe discipline problems are much worse this year than they had been.

About 45 percent said the code of conduct is being enforced much less than in previous years.

Forty percent stated staff and student safety is much less, 55 percent claimed student disrespect toward staff and administration is higher and 55 percent called student discipline “much worse.”

In a Jan. 6 news release, Hammer said the problem was “drastically hurting the ability of educators to teach and for children to learn – the two most important goals of any school system and called for a safe and disruption-free learning environment, calling it “an essential right.”

Hammer said another survey will be taken.

He teaches band and in his classrooms doesn’t see outrageous disrespect or bad behavior, but said it’s blatantly obvious in the hallways, where students regularly ignore the dress code and rules against profanity, wearing earbuds, using cell phones and pulling hoods over their heads.

But when Superintendent John Fredericksen met with the Wicomico County Council a couple months ago, after survey results were released, he said students behave “pretty much the same as they have been.”

He said a new assistant superintendent for student and family services had been hired and that although some students cause a spike in misbehavior, overall discipline and suspensions are the same, or have decreased.

“I think we have some kids that are bad eggs, that are not there for education, that are there for whatever reason, who have a little bit more mouth, a little bit more attitude. When they misbehave, they will be dealt with firmly and quickly,” he said.

He blamed what children see on TV shows and music they listen to, calling it “pretty offensive.”

“There are certain words you don’t use to refer to a female. There are certain words you just don’t use in normal conversation. And for some of these kids, we have to help them to understand that,” he said.

Also, newly hired young teachers might be unfamiliar with students of color, he said.

“Look at the bulk of our teachers who are coming in – 21 or 22-year-old females — who might not have had a lot of experience with children of color, or children who live in poverty. That’s a different cohort. It takes some training to learn how to interact and not be afraid. You have a 5-foot-2-inch teacher and a black male comes in, 6-feet, 5-inches, who’s on the basketball team. He might be the nicest kid on the block, but he might not know how to shut his mouth. The teacher might not know how to talk to him,” Fredericksen said.

At the time, Hammer called the comment “crazy.”

“It’s akin to the emperor who doesn’t have any clothes. How many times can you point at it and say the emperor doesn’t have any clothes before people realize he does?

“I think it’s a cop-out for a superintendent to blame teachers he hires. The idea that people in Wicomico County don’t know how to relate to African-American children is absolutely an inexcusable statement,” Hammer said.

Hammer said Central Office personnel were directing schools “not to write things up or to write them up in a different way” because a lawsuit had been filed against the school system claiming there were too many disciplinary referrals for minority children.

“They have put everybody at risk because of that lawsuit,” Hammer charged.

The WCEA has “done everything in our power to prove those statements in the survey are correct,” Hammer said.

“You can choose to believe 12 people at the Central Office and seven people on the board of education or you can choose to believe the teachers association that has numbers working in those buildings every day,” Hammer said.

Fitzgerald told County Council members he doesn’t expect teachers to put up with being afraid in schools.

“I’m holding John (Fredericksen) responsible … I don’t want any child to be afraid to go to school, either. I don’t want that,” Fitzgerald said.

This week Hammer said teachers don’t want “every kid tossed out in the street and disciplined.”

“It’s about getting kids to do what they are supposed to do. When I was in school, we didn’t get 12 chances like they do now. We’d like to see the superintendent raise expectations for student discipline,” he said.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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