Trouble in Schools: Foster responds to school incidents | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | April 5, 2018 5:00 pm
Last Updated: April 4, 2018 at 9:52 am
I won’t talk about particular cases because I have to protect the rights of our students. But I can share with you that one thing is that when these incidents happen on our campuses, they are thoroughly investigated. When they are investigated, they are investigated at the school-level administrator. Those that have to be, in accordance with state law, are reported to law enforcement with law enforcement making a decision on how they want to handle it because it’s a crime that happened in the jurisdiction of Colleton County, so the county has to make the decision on how they want to handle it. But then if they are consequences that violate our student code of conduct, we do follow through with those in accordance with that policy.
What happens to a student who threatens to shoot up a school?
After an incident is investigated, if a student has been found to have made alleged threats to a school, the school has their protocol that they have to follow in accordance with our student code of conduct. And in most cases, those are referred to law enforcement as well. So the student receives a consequence from us — which typically if it’s that level of a threat, they receive a recommendation of explusion from the principal at the school, and then it’s assigned to our hearing office, Michael Thomas. Mr. Thomas will hear the case and then if he finds validity in that and that it is a threat to our school and a violation of our student code of conduct, then he makes the recommendation for explusion from our schools.
And then there is process, because we do follow the due process for all of our students, so there are processes where they can appeal the decision to me or they can appeal my decision to the board.
But ultimately, if the student does something similar to what you described, we work to make sure that if there are any additional services we need to provide, we make sure they get that as well.
But ultimately, safety is our overall goal. And at the time where we are right now, there are a lot more cases being brought. You’re in the media so you know that it’s not just here. But over the last month, we’ve had students making comments that are not appropriate. And not to say whether they had any validity to them or not, but we have to take every threat seriously. The schools do a really good job of making sure if something happens on their campuses, that they address it.
And we try to follow the premises of what we try to teach our students, here and in society too: if you see something, say something. Because we can’t control everything and if we don’t know about it, we can’t address it. So pretty much everything that has transpired on our campuses has been because one of our students heard something that they didn’t feel comfortable with and they made school administration aware of it and school administration has been able to address it immediately.
And once they address it, it prompts them to have to involve law enforcement too. Consequences at school, consequences with law enforcement as well.
What about the kid with the boxcutter? If you bring something like that to school, do you get expelled?
We have our student code of conduct, but we have to take each case individually. So there are guidelines. There are Level 3 first offenses, and most of those do cause you to have a recommendation from the principal for explusion. And then it depends on how it plays out with the hearing officer.
But if there is an issue with a student, they’re afforded their due process rights, and that starts as soon as we’re made aware. So we make sure the safety of the students of the school is premier, and then start making sure that we address the threat to the school by going through the processes that we have.
Another thing we’ve been getting a lot of complaints about is the principals are recommending kids for explusion and you are over-riding them.
I don’t over-ride. The process works that a principal makes a recommendation for explusion. And it’s just like we’re operating in a court of law. They have to present their case to our hearing officer. And our hearing officer listens to it and makes a decision on what’s the best to do with the student based on our student code of conduct. And if he feels like it’s returning the student to the school on probation, he’ll do that. If he feels that it’s assigning the student to the alternative school, that’s one of his options as well. If he feels that if a child is of age (over 17), he can send them to the adult ed program. So he has a list of things that he’s able to do and he does that in accordance with his investigation of the incident.
Very little of those cases come back to me because I’m the appeal in those cases. That’s the way that process is set up.
I’ve heard there are a number of students who are repeat offenders who instigate these problems repeatedly and are recommended for explusion but are sent back to class.
Again, you have to take each student’s case individually and those decisions are made based on the actual offenses that the students have violated. Without talking about one student, which I can’t do because I can’t violate their rights either, but ultimately our goal is to everything we can to try to keep our students in school, if we able to. But if they continue to repeat and be repeat violators of our code of conduct, then we have to address that as well. If they violate at those levels, then they need to be expelled.
How many times do you get to be a repeat offender?
Our code of conduct is not set up where offense 1, this happens. Offense 2, this happens. Offense 3, this happens. It’s really a look at the actual discipline record of the actual student and their academic record. Multiple things that their hearing officer looks at.
But he works for you?
Yes, he does.
I’ve been told that the alternative school is pretty much a joke and students want to go there because they know they are going to pass and they don’t have to study.
No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say one of the things that has happened here in our district is we have an alternative program on one of our regular campuses. That is not the ideal situation for a program where a student has violated the district code of conduct. You remove them from the general population, but then you put them right back on the campus where you’ve got your students. So if I remove a student from the high school who violated the student code of conduct and was a disruption at the high school, I’m just moving him to the middle school. Or moving someone from the middle school to the alternative program, which is on the same campus.
That’s one of our battles that we’ve had to deal with for the last few years because we don’t have an opportunity [to do differently.] One of the things with our new plans [to move the alternative school to Forest Circle] is that we’re going to be able to remove those students from the campuses.
Our program that we have in place is different from the opportunity the students are afforded at the school. They do a lot more on computer base, but they do have direct contact daily with their teachers. So we have a group of teachers that go over to the school every day to provide instruction for our kids. So they still have conduct with a regular ed teacher and when those teachers are not there — they cycle through every day, every period — so when they’re not there, they are engaged in more computer-based work.
But the overall premise is to allow that student to work more at his or her assigned independent level so that they can accomplish their goals.
What do they teach about returning to school setting?
We have a mental health counselor assigned at the middle school and the high school. So those provide support there for those who have been referred to mental health. Our coordinator is an actual therapeutic guidance counselor, so she is providing a lot of support there. They receive mentoring services, as well as support from guidance as well. They have certain things they are working on on a daily basis for the coping skills to be able to go back to the regular school setting, because our goal is not to keep them there for the entire time. Our goal is to let them stay, usually for a semester, and then we give them the skills that they need to help transition them back to the regular ed program.
Can they graduate from the alternative school?
We don’t have our program set up where a student can stay at the alternative program for his whole time there. (We take 6-12th grades.) It’s more of a yearly program. There may be some students who start off in August, but it usually adds during each year. So it’s not like this is my school where I’m assigned here for the whole entire school year, because our goal is to get you back to the regular school setting. So like now, most of the students who are there now will finish up this year there, and then they will go back to their regular school in August.
It’s not meant that you can graduate from there.
We do have some students who are behind, so we do use a couple of those seats for academic concerns to try to get students caught up on things where they’re behind so they can graduate. But it’s not meant to be a school where somebody stays for an entire year or an entire high school or middle school career.
What is the max capacity?
With that space over there, we usually handle 20 middle schoolers, 20 high schoolers, and then have capacity for students who have special needs. Usually about 50 students total.
When we move to Forest Circle, and those plans have not been totally finalized, we will probably be able to go to up to about 70 students.
Is the new capacity adequate?
When you think about it, probably not. It’s adequate, depending on how you organize it, what you use it for. We would love to be able to have the funding and the space to utilize it a lot differently to really be able to address alternative needs of kids. Because there are some kids who truly would function better in a smaller setting, like that is their school. But unfortunately with funding, we don’t have that opportunity right now. Not to say that we won’t have it in the future, but we don’t that space to be able to say “I can’t function in a large setting. I need a smaller setting so I’m going to go over to the program as an alternative.” We don’t have that right now. It’s used mostly for students who have violated the code of conduct.
In your opinion, the trend has been to go consolidate everything. And you’re getting these huge over-crowded schools. Would we be better off with more, smaller schools?
Our schools are not over-crowded, because we have the space in the schools. But when you look at what’s best for students, is the larger setting — particularly at the middle school — is that the most appropriate environment for kids? Research would say probably not.
High school, yes. High school says you can have 1,500 kids because they can do other things, they have so many opportunities. Middle school, because of just that age group and the time that those kids are in and what they’re experiencing, research would say they probably need a smaller school setting.
But remember, I wasn’t here when those decisions were made. But I know why they were made. They were made because the district just didn’t have, at that time or now, the money or capacity to have multiple middle schools. So we have what we have now.
But the middle school is putting together some reorganization plans and trying to make it into smaller learning communities so that we can have more connections with staff and not just have sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade — but have two pathways or academies at the school.
Then, of course, with the plan moving the alternative school out of there, that will take added pressure off of the school too.
Matthew Brantley doesn’t oversee the alternative school, but it’s on his campus. So if it’s on your campus, if something happens there, you’ll want to have some authority and know what’s going on. And you still have to plan your schedule and organize around those too.
What security measures are in place at the schools?
(Former School Board member William Bowman came to the March school board meeting and reported being able to walk into the high school unchallenged and without having to go through any security measures.)
When Mr. Bowman came and spoke to the board, I can tell you that was not what I wanted to hear about our schools and that matter has been addressed today first thing. That is not the norm.
We do have controlled access to our buildings after all of our students have arrived. They have that one location that’s they’re supposed to get in and when they get in, they have monitored access where we ask visitors to go through our lobby guard visitor management system and secure the proper credentials to be in our building so that everybody knows that a person has been approved to be here on our campus.
We’re making sure that all our staff are aware of their overall surroundings, making sure that they are checking their surroundings and that they are reporting things. And that they are just doing the right thing.
As well as other measures that we put in place that I really — sometimes when you talk about security there are things that you put in place that you can’t give away because they are security measures for those points.
But one thing that we have put in place is making sure that our staff is aware, making sure that we’ve had conversations with our students about potential threats and how they can help us by if you see something, say something. By also conducting our drills in a more frequent manner than we have been doing — we do fire drills often — but making sure that we do the intruder drills, shelter-in-place drills, lockdown drills more consistently and making sure our staff know all about those. As well as we’ve done a lot of fencing around our buildings to make sure we don’t have people coming on our campuses without us knowing about it.
Our camera systems. We’ve updated those recently to make sure that all cameras are working appropriately and that they have good views of multiple areas. We have someone who monitors those cameras daily to make sure they keep a visual to see if there are any threats to our school.
What about the resource officers?
Right now we have five resource officers. The expense for those is shared with the county. We have had some informal conversations with the county, and we’re getting ready to have some more, about wanting to expand those. Because right now, we have two at the high school, two at the middle school and one that is supporting the elementary schools. But that is six schools, so you don’t see that officer every day. You really only see that person when you have an issue or concern you need to address.
What we would like to do is work with the county while we’re in the middle of budget season to see if there’re any opportunities to increase that. If we only increase that by one, that’s one more than we have now.
Right now the state doesn’t give any funding at all for SRO officers; it’s basically at the local level. There’s some legislation that’s going through that says they would like to see one per 500 students per location, so that means we’d need an additional one at both the middle and high school. But right now, without that funding being available, we’re just saying we’d like to work with the county to see what possibilities there are to expand that for the coming year.
Our $43 million budget is 65% contingent upon state funding. So if the state doesn’t give any increase in student-based costs, then we don’t get any additional money, but our needs continue to increase. So we have to be creative in budgeting and staffing and planning to address the abundance of needs but only with a limited amount of money. So you’re like, what do you not do?
I’m in the middle of meeting with all my principals and directors now, and they have a nice list of things that they want see and feel like they need, but the money supply is not there. So what do I fund and what do I say? I put this on a list and if additional funding comes, we will provide it.
What about using independents, such as veterans, as SROs?
Different districts do different things. Some districts don’t use SROs. They use more of a local security-type system. Even at the high school, we have a security monitor at the guard shack who works 7-7. Some use the law enforcement side of things like we do, and some use a model where they hire security monitors and train them or use a company.
My overall thing is that I’d like to see a trained law enforcement provider on the campus. They can also build those relationships with the students. It shouldn’t be seen as I’m here just to enforce the law, but I’m here to show you the personal side of law enforcement and build that relationship with them and mentor with the kids as well. Not just the side where I only handle things when a law is broken, because that’s not what the SRO is. That was not the intent of them.
Their intent is to provide security at the school and safety at the school, but also do other things to support the school in its quest in providing students with other opportunities.
Then there’s training. Even our volunteers who do other things at the schools have to go through training.
But anyone who is interested in volunteering at our schools, within certain parameters, we’d be glad to sit down and talk to them.
What about giving teachers guns?
That’s a hard one for me to say. I guess I’d really have to study it more because all I’ve really had the opportunity to do is just hear legislators talk about it.
My initial response would be that we’d really have to make sure we have solid, very stringent guidelines in place for that if it was to happen. But other than that, I really have not made a decision for or against on it yet.
The number of school shootings is snowballing. What are we doing to keep that from happening here?
One of the things I would say to the parents is that our students are safe at our campuses. We have to make sure we’re doing a combined effort for the safety of everyone. We have measures in place. My staff has to enforce those measures consistently.
But we also need our students, because they’re more in tune to things than we are. They know more than we do. So if they’re seeing something that’s going to be a potential threat, even if they see it out there on Facebook or SnapChat, they need to let us know so we can address it.
And we will address those issues. They are one of our best sources of information because they’re out there where those threats are being said, posted and seen. So we want to make sure that they know that.
One thing that I’ve heard people say is that we ought to put metal detectors at all of our entrances when kids come in. Well, I’m not going to say that that’s not going to be the wave of the future, but that has just not been our immediate first step.
But ultimately, we just want to make sure that we’re continuing to do and stress the things that we’re doing. The incidents that have happened on our campuses, luckily, have been addressed and they haven’t gone to a place to where it has caused us to have any type of major thing. They have been able to diffuse them before they got there, thanks to my administrators and SROs on the campuses.
Do you think that kids who do stuff like this are ever diffused?
When a child does something like that, we do have a strong partnership with mental health. They have been very supportive in working with us. Since I’ve been here, we’ve put two mental health counselors on our campuses. We have one at the middle school and one at the high school. We are looking at expanding that so we can have more school-based counseling so we can have more support at the elementary level.
Those are things our kids need too — the opportunities if they are experiencing coping difficulties or some of those issues, we need to have that person there so they can tap into those services as well.
The mental health center has been very supportive, and I know they have seen an uptake of their caseloads too, because we’re working to refer students who need their services.
How big a problem are cell phones?
Cell phones are a part of our culture now. And one things we have to do is teach them cell phone etitiquette, just like we have to teach them digital literacy, so that they know how to navigate these things. Because they’re not going away. We have to teach them how they need to handle them and use them appropriately. Because that is one of our main issues: not things that happen on our campuses but things that happen off our campuses through people that are not even around each other talking to each other or saying things. And then once they come to our campuses, it’s “Oh, I’m going to show you now.”
So one of the things we’ve got to do is make sure we talk to our kids about when they say things inappropriately in corresponding back and forth. And how that if it brings it back to school and it’s disruptive to the school, even though it may not have happened on school campuses, if it’s disrupting the school setting, we still have an issue that we have to address. A lot of people don’t understand that. Well, it didn’t happen at school. But if it causes a disruption of our normal school operations, we have to address it as a violation of our student code of conduct.
Have you considered a life skills course that teaches things like cell phone etiquette, etc.?
We have had a lot of conversations like that. Even with our deployment of Chromebooks at the middle and elementary schools, and then as far as the devices we have at the high school. We have talked with our staff about the lessons that we need to do. Our elementary students participate in a digital learning experience where they learn how to navigate and be social digital learners — how they can use, and are supposed to use — those devices appropriately.
They’re not going away. You can get a new cell phone every year now that’s more like a computer than it is a cell phone. So they’re going to be with us, and we have to find ways of making sure they know how to do that, and we use every opportunity we can to educate our students as well as our parents on how that can affect our schools.
We don’t have a specific curriculum for that right now. We try to do that in the context of class meetings. When something happens and we do our school-wide meetings with students. It’s about expectations.
We implemented a new cell phone policy at the schools just so students could be able to have their devices with them. Because previously, the policy was you can’t show it. But we also know that’s not real world. Look at how you’re using yours. You’re using it as a recorder now, so there’s multiple things you can do on your device. So we wanted to give the students those opportunities. The students know our parameters. We’ve got to make sure we’re enforcing them consistently. If you see a student that’s breaking the policy, then you’ve got to address it within the outline of what the district considers acceptable.
We have not considered banning them in the classroom.
What about school computers?
We have filters on our computers so there are certain sites that are automatically blocked. Teachers, of course, maintain awareness of the computers — what they are actually visiting and try to direct a lot of that.
The programs and software we use are primarily directed toward research. They also have the opportunity when they’re working on projects to use Word or PowerPoint or things like that.
We’re taking things seriously. We’re not trying to sweep things under the rug and say our campuses are squeaky clean because there are issues that we’re addressing. But we’re working on everything that comes up and we’re trying to be proactive and see how we can eliminate things from happening: heighten our levels of supervision, camera surveillance, trying to have smaller groups of kids.
It’s a very dynamic process, particularly at the middle and high schools. Because they have those large numbers of kids, they have to have those policies and procedures and expectations in place to manage that size school. So what you’re seeing is that when things are happening, they’re being addressed. And that’s what I want for our school. When there’s something happens on our campuses, I want to make sure that our school administration is addressing it, that we’re working with law enforcement to address it if needed.
We can let our students know that this is not acceptable. Our kids are going to make mistakes. We’re trying to show them that when you make these mistakes, there are consequences.
But it’s hard to really know in most cases what our students do or experience before they arrive at school with us each day. We stress to our teachers and we stress to our administrators that you really have to build that knowledge and that awareness and that relationship with those students on our end, so they know them well enough that they can tell when they’re experiencing that frustration or depression or something’s going on with them. And being that person who says, “Hey, what’s going on? Is there something I need to be talking to you about?”
That’s one of those things we’re trying to do with our staff is that at each school, there is that one adult that someone feels comfortable going to talk to if there’s a concern. And the high school has done a good job with that with Cougar Mentors and staff check-in and other things. That’s an important piece, so that you can diffuse situations and get students help when they need it.
Teachers have a very difficult job. All of us in education do, but definitely the ones that are right on the front line have the most difficult job. Our teachers work very hard and I know that they all are excited about the learning opportunities for students and what we’re trying to do for students. And we are continuing to try to be more innovative in what we’re doing because we want to be cutting-edge with our educating of students. But yes, they do have difficult jobs.
And that’s one of my fears. Now you want them to secure the schools, and you want them to teach, and you still want them to be that overall caregiver for the students, not just teaching, but if they need to talk to somebody. They have a lot on them, they really do. It’s more than just having 25 kids in a class that they’re responsible for instructing. You’ve got a lot more responsibility.