Wicomico schools officials address safety concerns

Despite a survey indicating 50 percent to 70 percent of teachers believe discipline problems in local schools are much worse this year, the superintendent said students “are pretty much the same as they have been.”

Superintendent Dr. John Fredericksen told the Wicomico County Council on Tuesday that a new assistant superintendent for student and family services is in place and that the code of discipline has not changed.

He was responding to a survey of about 800 teachers and educational staff members, taken by the Wicomico County Education Association. 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.”

WCEA President Gary Hammer released survey results and issued a news release Jan. 6, asking for answers.

“At the start of the 2015 school year, it was very apparent that student conduct at all grade levels had changed dramatically. It also became very apparent that this shift was drastically hurting the ability of educators to teach and for children to learn – the two most important goals of any school system,” Hammer wrote.

Shift in code of conduct “seemed to stay unresolved and student behavior continued to deteriorate,” he wrote.

The WCEA wants a safe and disruption-free learning environment, he wrote, calling it “an essential right.”

When board of education members met with the County Council, Councilman Marc Kilmer asked about discipline in schools.

Fredericksen said there are some students who cause a spike in misbehavior, but 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 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.

Hammer, who teaches music at Bennett Middle School, 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.

Fredericksen told the County Council if a student misbehaves in class, maybe by using his cell phone, it’s up to the teacher to discipline him, and not just immediately send him to the office. “In most instances, the teacher has a responsibility to intervene,” he said.

Council President John Cannon questioned that wisdom and said teachers shouldn’t have to take time away from lessons to “try to psychoanalyze that child who is disruptive.”

“Why not send that child to the office and let the teacher continue teaching?” Cannon said.

Hammer said Central Office personnel are directing schools “not to write things up or to write them up in a different way” because a lawsuit was 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. 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.

School board President Don Fitzgerald said 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. When I went to school, bullying was there. Was I scared? Yes. So it’s nothing new. It’s there. We’re not going to tolerate it.

“The knuckleheads need to find out, ‘Hey, you’ve had your fun but something different is going to happen.’ I want the public to know, we hear them and as long as I’m sitting here it’s not going to be tolerated,” he said.

Even so, he said he believes schools are safe.

Kilmer said some parents are sending their children to private schools, not because of a poor curriculum, but because of the perception they aren’t safe.

Fitzgerald told Council members problems must be solved by the community. “It starts at home. That’s one of the biggest issues right now,” he said.

Cannon suggested investigating how other jurisdictions tackle similar concerns and said teachers are asking “that we are listening and we are looking for answers.”

Hammer said there are plans to have parents speak at a board of education meeting and to form a task force composed of community members, parents and personnel. It must represent all sides, he said.

Kilmer said the task force “makes a lot of sense to me.”

“There definitely is a feeling in the county that something is amiss with discipline in Wicomico County schools,” he said.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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