Letter: Concord teachers say they don’t feel safe in classrooms

Monitor staff
Published: 1/11/2020 7:11:53 PM

Concord teachers say they are being physically and verbally assaulted by students in school. Kids, mostly at the preschool to elementary school level, are acting out, at times using profanity, damaging workbooks, computers and other teaching materials in their classrooms during moments of crises, teachers report.

These behaviors, although only exhibited by 1% or 2% of the student population, are making Concord teachers feel unsafe at work, according to a letter presented to the school board by Concord Education Association President Michael Macri.

Similar complaints have been lodged by teachers in districts across the state, who say they are seeing an increase of concerning behaviors from students. The Keene Education Association spoke to its school board about similar issues last fall.

In Concord, the union has asked for more staff, training for managing student behaviors and a resource officer at each school.

“We have so many new young teachers who are thinking of leaving the profession due to their concerns about the safety of their students, and that’s a shame,” Macri said.

Educators say these behaviors may stem in part from trauma that children are experiencing at home as a result of the opioid crisis sweeping the state. They say we have yet to understand the full impact this crisis is having on children.

So far, there is little data tracking staff injury on the job or assaults in the classroom, according to a new legislative committee to study violence in New Hampshire schools, which released a report in November. Establishing baseline data will be imperative to track solutions, the committee said.

Meanwhile, teachers say change is not happening quickly enough.

The Concord teachers’ letter was signed by 275 educators from across the districts’ schools. An additional 42 staff members scribbled the letters “FOR” on the petition form, meaning “fear of retaliation,” Macri said.

“Students who are unable to manage their behaviors create an unsafe environment for themselves and their peers that significantly interferes with or stops instruction on a daily basis,” the letter reads. “It is our belief that measures can be taken to swiftly correct these conditions and restore our schools to the level of safety and educational quality our students deserve.”

Concord teachers’ letter

In the letter, teachers described an “extremely unsafe learning and working conditions” that have been escalating over the course of a decade.

They said some students use profanity and resort to physical violence in the classroom.

“Students punch, slap, scratch, push, kick, and spit at other students and staff,” the letter reads.

The letter also mentions property damage by students.

“Damage includes Chromebooks and iPads being thrown, smashed, and stomped on; books and folders torn; anchor charts, decorations, labels torn; walls written on in Sharpie or punched and gouged; Eno boards pierced; chairs, desks, tables, bookshelves, dented and broken-just to name a few,” the letter reads. “Concord taxpayers and teachers bear the costs of replacement and repairs.”

Teachers say that calls to administrators for help during a crisis are not always answered and that resources that are meant to be devoted to support special education students are being used on managing these crises in the classroom.

Interim Superintendent Frank Bass said that many of the children with severe behavioral needs described in the letter are not students that district has categorized as special education students. They are more often students who experienced trauma at a young age and need support.

As a result, special education students frequently are not receiving their IEP mandated services because special education teachers and support staff are being pulled to assist when disruptive behavior occurs in other classrooms, teachers said in the letter.

The letter says that when a student acts out, all the other students are evacuated from the classroom. Often, this means kids are hanging out in hallways and missing class time.

“Students who are continually unable to control their behavior due to stress, trauma, or other reasons cannot have their emotional and behavioral needs met given the current interventions available in the district. As a result classmates experience trauma and have increased levels of anxiety as they witness these unsafe behaviors and evacuate,” the letter states.

“The impact of trauma on other students is difficult to measure and quantify, but is real and cannot be ignored. Younger students are typically not developmentally capable of verbalizing how witnessing such traumatic events affects them. Even more alarming is that many of them are becoming desensitized and view these behaviors as the norm and acceptable. Therefore, they are not able to recognize when a situation is dangerous or inappropriate.”

On Saturday, Macri said he wants to emphasize that he believes inclusion in the classroom should be prioritized to the greatest extent possible – the staff just need more support to meet student needs.

A greater trend

Educators across the state said concerns about how untreated trauma is affecting the behavior of students in the classroom have been ongoing for years.

“There is no doubt that the students who are in front of us now are different than they were five years ago,” said Bow Superintendent Dean Cascadden. “There are kids that have seen way too much before they come to school and experienced way too much.”

“We can lament that, but the thing is, you just need to recognize it and say, ‘How do we need to change as educators? How do we need to change our schools to make sure these kids get the education they deserve? We may have to reconfigure the way we deal with students.”

Districts have started offering trauma-informed training and in many cases hiring staff to support the growing need.

In Bow, district officials are hoping to add a special education coordinator at the high school, an additional guidance counselor, a special education teacher at the middle school, and two class size reduction teachers this year.

“That’s a lot of staff to propose, but this is the need that’s there,” Cascadden said.

In Hopkinton, School Superintendent Steve Chamberlin said the district has worked to hire special education teachers with behavioral backgrounds and have embraced a trauma-sensitive school practices, partly through Project Grow, a state grant for working with kids with trauma that Concord also has received.

“For us, the major priority is trying to understand as early as we can and find out what students have been impacted by trauma,” Chamberlin said.

He said the district has instituted a mandatory meeting between parents and a counselor once a student starts school in Hopkinton, where they develop a relationship and talk about a students’ history.

“Years ago, we were more afraid to talk to students about issues they were dealing with at home, like mental health and families that are not intact, because we were worried about that interfering with their time in the classroom,” he said. “But the trauma-sensitive practice has taught us that being more respectful and addressing those experiences helps us cope and them cope.”

“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint, and we are seeing improvements all the time,” he said.

In Concord, every teacher in the district underwent training on how trauma can impact students’ behavior in the classroom at the start of the school year. The district has a group of representatives from each school that serve on an Adverse Childhood Experience Team that works to support students.

Concord is also focusing on early intervention in an attempt to mitigate the effects of trauma before students reach school age through its preschool program and its family centers. Recently, the district implemented a home visiting program where staff members with therapeutic and behavioral backgrounds visit families with toddlers who may be at risk.

Within the last year, it formed a task force to examine social-emotional learning in the district. Positions the district is hoping to add this year include an additional guidance counselor, a director of guidance, an additional social worker and a school resource officer at Rundlett Middle School.

Bass said officials have also discussed restructuring administrative teams and creating daily advisories at the high school level to offer students more support.

“The main goal is to provide as much individual support as we can for every child that walks through that building and find ways you can catch kids before they fall through the cracks,” he said. “The school-family connection is huge and we have to do a better job of connecting with the family.”

However, some districts in the state that need the most support and interventions don’t have the budgets to add resources districts like Concord, Bow and Hopkinton do.

Last year in Franklin, the school district asked for a $1 million increase in its special education budget because of the need – something the city could not provide. Franklin’s special education director Rebecca Butt said that 26% of the students in the district now are identified special education students, compared to 17% in Concord.

Butt said it is undeniable that children who have extra needs in school are being impacted by the opioid crisis. She said she sees students regularly who have lost parents, are being raised by grandparents or were born exposed to drugs.

Little data

Bass said a major part of finding a solution in Concord will be collecting data at the district level about the need schools are seeing.

At the state level, the Committee to Study Violence in New Hampshire Schools found that there is little consistency across districts for reporting instances of student violence in the classroom, despite a Department of Education requirement that districts do so.

“The lack of data reliability and analysis inhibits support or referral of resources for schools experiencing violence and unsafe environments for students and employees,” the November report states. “In order to find solutions to school violence, there is a need for consistent data collection and personnel to examine it.”

Bass said last week he would work with school principals to collect data on how many students in each school are having regular serious behavioral challenges. He said the most serious behavioral challenges with students are being seen in preschool and kindergarten through third grade.

“We are making that a priority,” he said Friday. “We want to be digging into that information by next week, and  coming up with strategies to move forward.”




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