Discipline problems have increased substantially in Wichita schools over the past four years, particularly among the district’s youngest students. Jaime Green File photo
Discipline problems have increased substantially in Wichita schools over the past four years, particularly among the district’s youngest students. Jaime Green File photo

Education

Behavior is getting worse in Wichita classrooms, data shows

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

June 16, 2017 11:56 AM

UPDATED June 16, 2017 12:10 PM

Discipline problems have increased substantially in Wichita schools over the past four years, particularly among the district’s youngest students, according to data obtained by The Eagle.

The situation is frustrating teachers, prompting some of them to leave the profession, and has inspired a new program aimed at teaching elementary school students how to pay attention, follow directions and control their emotions.

A district team also is crafting a multi-year plan to improve student behavior. Officials say it will be presented to school board members in August and rolled out to principals and teachers before students report to class this fall.

“We see more aggression, more fighting, more bullying, more noncompliance and insubordination,” said Neil Guthrie, assistant superintendent for student support services in Wichita.

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“Those are the types of behaviors that we’re trying to work with,” he said. “We have to have a more powerful arsenal … to support students who have higher needs.”

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said the rising rates of school discipline problems should be a concern to the Wichita community, not just parents and teachers.

“These are the kids who’ll be in your QuikTrips, in your grocery stores, every place in the city,” Wentz said. “If you don’t think what’s happening in public schools affects you, you’re fooling yourself.”

According to district data, the total number of discipline incidents – including suspensions, detentions and trips to the principal’s office – increased about 11 percent since the 2013-14 school year.

The trend is especially dramatic in elementary schools, where the number of discipline incidents rose from 8,762 four years ago to nearly 13,500 last school year – an increase of more than 53 percent.

Last school year, kindergartners in Wichita schools received in- or out-of-school suspensions 764 times – more than double the number of suspensions four years ago.

The district’s pre-kindergarten program reported 20 out-of-school suspensions.

Over the same period, enrollment in Wichita schools fell about 1 percent.

45,286number of discipline incidents during the 2013-14 school year

50,642number of discipline incidents during the 2016-17 school year

District officials say the rise in student misbehavior is troubling but not surprising. In increasing numbers, they say, children arrive in Wichita schools from homes of poverty or traumatic situations, including substance abuse, violence, hunger or neglect.

Many act out aggressively toward teachers and classmates. A growing number suffer from mental illness which, because of recent cuts to community mental health services, often goes undiagnosed or untreated, Guthrie said.

“We know that violence and trauma exposure at an early age begins to affect children and how they respond to teachers and their classmates,” he said.

“We have to have well-trained staff that can respond to students’ needs calmly and collectedly and correct fluently.”

‘Crisis’ mode

In Wichita classrooms, the increase in behavior problems has meant more disruptions, more start-and-stop lessons and an atmosphere at some schools that has reached crisis mode, say teachers union officials.

Discipline cases tracked by the district include offenses such as battery, weapons possession and drug possession as well as classroom incidents such as insubordination.

“Any time you have children who are so damaged that their behavior is affecting everyone else in the classroom on a more-or-less consistent basis, then I would consider that a crisis,” said Wentz, president of the union, which represents the district’s 4,100 certified employees.

We have situations where kids have been instructed to basically adhere to the earthquake protocol, hiding under their desks to protect themselves, and that’s not OK.

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita

In April, during the union’s regular address to the Wichita school board, UTW vice president Kimberly Howard cited increasing complaints about student behavior and urged leaders to address the problem.

“One of our greatest concerns is about the physical aggression of students toward other students and staff,” Howard said. “Staff should not be going home with bruises.”

Scott Pittman, 56, retired from Jardine Middle School this year – six years earlier than planned and without full retirement benefits – after becoming disheartened and frustrated by student behavior and other issues.

He says some students cursed at him regularly, broke pencils and threw them at classmates, flicked rubber bands across the room and continually showed up to class without paper or pencils, even after Pittman or other teachers had provided the supplies previously.

“I made up my mind back in September that I was going to quit,” he said. “I don’t feel there was any support whatsoever other than an occasional, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ ”

In a recent survey conducted by the union, Wichita teachers were asked several questions about behavior and discipline, including: “My building administration enforces high behavior standards for students.”

Overall, 59 percent of respondents agreed with the statement. At some schools, however, more than two-thirds of respondents disagreed.

“From building to building, it’s different,” said Wentz, the union president. “We can tell (that) where behavior standards are consistently enforced, things run better and there are fewer problems.”

On another survey question – “How effective is the process for handling misbehaving students in your building?” – more than a quarter of Wichita teachers answered “not very effective” or “poor.”

Tiffinie Irving, assistant superintendent for learning services, said a 15-member behavior team is analyzing the four-year trend data.

The team – which includes counselors, psychologists and behavior specialists – is “drilling down” to individual school, classroom and student levels to look at possible causes for the increase and come up with strategies to address it, she said.

We want students in their classrooms learning, and in order for them to be successful, we must look at not only their academic needs but also their behavior need.

Tiffinie Irving, assistant superintendent for learning services

“We want students in their classrooms learning, and in order for them to be successful, we must look at not only their academic needs but also their behavior needs,” Irving said.

“We recognize that there has been a higher number of (discipline) incidents, and we are analyzing the data and creating a plan to support our schools.”

Balancing needs

Along with rising levels of poverty, Wichita schools are serving higher numbers of children with severe behavioral and emotional needs.

Federal law requires that districts place students in the “least restrictive environment.” That means that, whenever possible, students with special needs are in regular classrooms along with their peers. Many have aides, such as para-educators, who assist with lessons and help monitor their behavior.

Joy Eakins, a Wichita school board member who has served as a substitute teacher and school volunteer, said the wide range of student needs creates challenges.

“We’ve asked teachers to be experts on autism, on ADHD, on children who’ve dealt with trauma. They might have all of that in their first period,” Eakins said.

“And then we’ve asked them to deal with it successfully, without the training of someone who’s dealt with that.”

Wentz, the union president, said not all discipline problems involve children who have special needs. But handling students with severe behavior issues – including ones who may have regular meltdowns – becomes a matter of balancing that student’s needs with the rest of the class.

And that isn’t easy, he said.

If a student stays up all night taking care of his baby brother because his parents are unable to, Wentz said, “We say, ‘My God, no wonder. I completely understand that.’

“We are going to have to deal with that child. We’ll try to help that child.

“But I would submit that keeping and expecting that child to be at their best for six hours in a classroom with other kids is unreasonable and irresponsible.”

According to the Wichita teachers contract, a student who “is substantially disrupting the instructional program to the detriment of other pupils” can be removed from class by the teacher and referred to a school supervisor or administrator.

Prior to that, a Behavior Intervention Support Team (BIST) protocol in many schools requires that a student be moved to a “safe seat” within the classroom, a “buddy room” in another class and then a “recovery room” elsewhere in the school, where the student can calm down, write an apology and craft a plan to make better choices.

But sometimes programs and protocols don’t work, Wentz said, and teachers have to think about the class as a whole.

“Those who are making the decisions about implementing this or that program are taking the drone’s-eye view of the situation,” he said.

“And I suggest they land their drone, come down to the ground into a first-grade classroom, and see what’s really going on.”

Second Step program

Beginning this fall, all Wichita elementary school students will get daily lessons on social and emotional skills as part of Second Step. The district paid $238,000 for the program, which is being financed through funds targeted toward at-risk and special education students.

During 20-minute lessons conducted by their classroom teacher, students will talk about how to understand and manage their emotions, be aware of others’ feelings, control their reactions and make responsible decisions.

Many of the Second Step lessons include songs or games, said Stephanie Anderson, coordinator of guidance and counseling services for the district. A classroom kit for kindergarten and first-grade teachers features hand puppets – Irresistible Puppy, who has ADHD, and his friend Slow-Down Snail, who implores Puppy to “Sloooow down, stop and think.”

“Sometimes what is being modeled at home for how to manage emotions is not healthy or appropriate, but that’s all they know,” Anderson said. “This curriculum offers the opportunity for it to be demonstrated, modeled and practiced in a healthy way.”

A Second Step classroom kit for kindergarten and first-grade teachers features hand puppets – Irresistible Puppy, who has ADHD, and his friend Slow-Down Snail.

Irving said the emphasis on social skills is similar to what the district did four years ago, when it mandated an intensive focus on phonics after data showed many kids weren’t able to sound out words or read at grade level.

“Students enter our classrooms with different abilities and different skills, but our job as educators is to teach them those skills … whether that’s academics or behavior,” she said.

The district’s behavior plan may include regular lessons in middle and high schools as well, Irving said. Some secondary schools will pilot Second Step’s program for older students, she said.

Wichita superintendent John Allison said student behavior reflects what’s happening in society, and improving it will require a community-wide effort. He said recent struggles with school funding, as well as reductions in community services for low-income families, have affected classrooms.

“It’s always a work in progress,” said Allison, who is leaving the district this month to become superintendent in Olathe.

Discipline will continue to be a priority for incoming superintendent Alicia Thompson. But reductions in teacher training time and a recent cost-cutting measure that cut 15 days from the school calendar makes it difficult to juggle priorities, he said.

“What we’re able to do with the time we have is triage,” Allison said. “You can only do so much in the time that we have available, and until that is corrected I think we’re going to struggle to make the types of gains we want.”

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Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias