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Two Oak Grove Middle School teachers dismayed by lack of discipline on campus

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, June 15th, 2012 at 5:17 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Substitute teacher Rebecca Richter collects her belongings from Oak Grove MS classroom, after principal terminated her long-term assignment.
After I wrote a story about an Oak Grove Middle School student being choked by a classmate last month, English teacher Bethany Monk and substitute teacher Rebecca Richter contacted me to blow the whistle on what they considered an unsafe environment at the school, where learning is often disrupted and discipline is scarce. Here is a link to my story about what they said: http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_20852103/two-oak-grove-middle-school-teachers-blow-whistle

“The main reason I came forward with this story was to shine light on the school’s bullying and harassment issues, which are not taken very seriously at this school, in many cases,” Monk wrote in an e-mail following publication of the Times story about her concerns. “A few weeks ago, a child was choked at our school. Next time, it could be a stabbing or a bullet. Someone had to say something. It’s my hope that a new and better discipline policy is implemented, and that teachers and students can always feel safe, valued and empowered at school. That was my goal with sharing my experience.”

Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support in the Mt. Diablo district, said sometimes teachers with poor classroom management skills have more difficulties with student behavior than others. But both Monk and Richter insist they have not had problems managing students at other schools, where they say the “support call” system was implemented effectively by removing disruptive students and getting them the help they needed.

In fact, Monk said she was certified in crisis intervention in the San Ramon Valley school district, when she took a class aimed at helping teachers deal with troubled special education students. Monk also said she went through Navy boot camp, but even that didn’t prepare her for what she encountered at Oak Grove.

She said she thinks teachers at all Title 1 (low-income) schools should receive this type of training.

“It covered how to use body language, word choice, etc., to help to diffuse a potential crisis situation with a student,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We did group work, including presenting scenarios to the class. We also learned how to do restraints, etc. There was a written test at the end.

I also worked as a counselor for Families First in a group home for severely emotionally disturbed youth ages 6 to 18 back in (around 2000/01), where I also confronted dangerous situations. This training and the San Ramon training really helped prepare me for Oak Grove. Also, my military training helped as well. But none of these things was enough. It’s a different story when you are the only adult in the room full of children, and a crisis is happening or about to happen. That’s a different ball game. We need training on how to deal with crisis in the classroom setting.”

She is concerned about students whose needs may not be met on campus.

“Based on what I have seen at this school, there are some students whose behavior leads me to believe that they need immediate, and possibly intensive and ongoing counseling, beyond what the school is able to provide,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I have seen instances where administrators do help parents find counseling resources, which is great. But is it working? I know students who are struggling so much that it affects their education, and sometimes the education of those around them. In addition, there are students who I firmly believe belong in an entirely different learning environment.”

In a recent school teacher survey, many people described the campus as “chaotic,” she said. After reading an article about the difference between being burned out and demoralized, Monk said she realized she is demoralized.

“It’s like you’re so broken down and so exhausted,” she said. “I have a lot of great students, but it only takes a handful. It just gets to the point where I just feel like I’m so broken down that I can’t even teach.”

Monk said she has taught classes at Ygnacio Valley High in Concord and as a substitute at Riverview Middle School in Bay Point with no problems.

“The kids are so different because they have consequences,” she said of Riverview students. “It is like they’re scared to get in trouble and that’s what we need.”

Monk asked to resign in April, after feeling overwhelmed by unruly students and unsupported by the administration. But she was told that if she left before a replacement could be found, the district would report her to California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which might revoke her credential for breaking her contract. Out of fear of losing her credential, she decided to stay.

Mike Langley, president of the teachers’ union, said he has suggested that Oak Grove teachers form a staff senate to communicate their concerns to the school administration. He said the “support call” system implemented at Riverview required an administrator to pull a student aside and find out what was going on.

“Then, they would go back in the classroom and observe that the child was behaving,” he said. “Well, that takes time.”

If there are a lot of misbehaving students and few administrators, sometimes students can get returned to class without any true investigation into what is causing them to act out, he said.

“So,” he said, “the kids say, ‘Hey, this is pretty good, I can do whatever I want.”

Langley said sometimes a good “model” system can become diluted if it is not replicated properly.

“If they haven’t had any experience in doing it properly,” he said, “then each replication becomes a paler copy of the original.”

He also warned that this problem may exist on other campuses.

“If you focus on one school, you may be missing the big picture,” he said. “This is something that (Trustee) Lynne Dennler taught us: ‘If you see it one place, is it happening somewhere else, but just not bubbling up?’ There are other places that may be just below the surface. And there are some places that are doing fine.”

Langley said support calls and Coordinated Care Teams are a way to try to fill the gap created by the district’s decision 20 years ago to eliminate counselors. But Student Services Coordinators, who replaced counselors, often act as vice principals instead, he said.

The board expects to approve a new vice principal position for Oak Grove effective July 1, funded through the new School Improvement Grant: http://esb.mdusd.k12.ca.us/attachments/93d484f5-4ee0-4656-be24-db8ec3616912.pdf

Lock told me that she was informed by Oak Grove Principal Lisa Murphy Oates that the school had launched an anti-bullying campaign in February through a “wildcat” school culture or school climate committee. But Monk said she had never heard of this.

“It seems that at most meetings, a teacher will ask the principal if and when Oak Grove will implement an anti-bullying program,” Monk wrote in an e-mail. “And yet, there is nothing in place. Teachers want our kids to be safe at school, and yet their requests for such things go overlooked. (And I would like to add: There are several AMAZING teachers at this school who endure harsh conditions every day and keep coming back full force. They are inspiring).”

Lock also said Murphy Oates has tried to instill pride on campus through clean-up and beautification. In addition, she said the school is revising its “parent compact,” to try to encourage more parent involvement. It also plans to begin “parent patrols” at lunchtime next year.

District administrators Lisa Boje, Jonathan Roselin and Carolyn Patton have been meeting with Murpy Oates monthly as the school’s behavior support team, Lock said. They did a campus walk-through at lunchtime to find out where the “hot spots” are and have hired extra staff for supervision, she added.

The school is trying to communicate more with parents via school messenger calls, such as one for a recent lock-down, Lock said. Murphy Oates, she said, is also working with police to keep the school safe.

Lock said Oak Grove has contracted with an organization that plans to present anti-bullying and cyber-bullying assemblies and parent workshops in the fall. The school will also distribute folders to students with information about anti-bullying and cyberbullying.

“Another thing they are doing is working with the school leadership team and the school culture committee around a progressive discipline chart to bring some consistency in responding to misbehaviors,” Lock said. “Probably, I would admit, there is some inconsistency. That’s why they see a need to formalize this.”

But Monk and Richter said they were not aware of any discipline chart.

Lock also said the school faces many challenges because it has so many new teachers. The district is trying to train teachers in cultural competence so they can communicate well with students from diverse backgrounds, she said.

The district, Lock said, is trying to answer the question: “How do we gain the confidence of staff, parents and the community so that students feel the support?”

How do you think the school and district can accomplish this goal?

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  • g

    Rose Lock said; “Sometimes teachers with poor classroom management skills have more difficulties with student behavior than others.”

    You don’t say!

    Sometimes the people in the big expensive swivel rockers say the dumbest things–and their bosses give them a raise, and instead of holding their toes to the fire to fix the problem–NOW–, the bosses, at best, just hope they’ll come up with a more clever way of saying the same old stupid crap “next year.”

    Why isn’t there a District Wide NO Tolerance Policy, with the SAME program in place at each and every school for dealing with bullying other students or harassing a teacher?

    Sure, times and laws change, but this district has had 75 years to figure out how to say “We are obligated to provide you with a desk and a teacher with knowledge to share. We can do it on school grounds or some form of prison grounds–you choose!”

  • Anon

    I know this post isn’t related to this type of bullying but, I just heard a rumor that 2 5th grade severely handicapped students were not allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony they had at Mt. Diablo Elm. Theresa, can you find out if this is true? I hear it was the PTA that didn’t want this to happen. I so hope that this is not true. This would be the worse case of bullying and discrinination.

  • Just curious

    In regards tto bullying being reported: Everyone seems to want to blame the teacher, the administrators or the district office for the behavior of these students. IF PARENTS WOULD PARENT THEIR KIDS AND GIVE THEM THE NURTURING AND GUIDANCE THEY NEED, TEACHERS WOULD BE ABLE TO DO WHAT THEY WERE ORIGINALLY HIRED TO DO WHICH IS TEACH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anon

    Ummmm jc the teachers should send the kids to the office and admins should punish. Great parents sometimes have bad kids.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Anon: I had not heard that, but I will try to find out.
    I also heard of an incident at Shore Acres where a student took apart a pencil sharpener and placed the razor between his fingers then goaded another student into “high fiving” him, slicing his finger. I have not yet confirmed this with the district or school, however.

  • g

    @3: Your comment shows a bit of naivety. No one here is blaming the schools for the children being brats or bullies.

    No child is a “born bully”. Like prejudices, it is a learned trait, and unfortunately, all too often, it is learned in the home!

    The blame that goes to the adults in the schools is for having 5,6,7 years of advanced education, but still not know how to handle a bratty twelve year old while the kid is in their care!

    And those teachers that DO know what needs to be done aren’t being supported by management.

  • Just curious

    Anon: I do agree that great parents sometimes have students who don’t follow rules.

    G: I also agree with you that sometimes management does not seem to do enough to support the teacher.

    G: It’s not that the adults with “advanced education” don’t know how to handle the “bratty twelve year old” or any other students – but teachers are VERY LIMITED in what they can or can’t do and many students, especially as they get older, know there is nothing the teacher can do.

    Students and parents have a lot of power and can be as verbally abusive to staff as they want; make threats; etc. and teachers are unable to do much about it and the kids know that. It is a sad situation.

  • anon

    Anon #2,
    Mt. Diablo does not have a PTA, it is a PFC. May sound like splitting hairs, but just a side note.

  • District Teacher

    Oak Grove is not the only unsafe school in the district. On or around May 24th a student brought a gun onto the Olympic H.S. campus. The school went into shelter-in-place mode instead of lockdown, one media outlet learned of the situation and contacted the school right after the incident – the school denied it, and the faculty was ordered by the principal not to speak to the media about the incident. A similar situation occurred last year.

    MDUSD administrators are willfully allowing district schools to become unsafe for students and employees alike. It’s only a matter of time before something extremely bad exposes just how unsafe district schools have become.

  • Fly on the Wall

    Feel proud, Theresa, principal of MDHS, referred to you in her remarks to the staff during an extremely boring and self-serving meeting yesterday.

  • Theresa Harrington

    DT: A principal cannot “order” teachers not to speak to the media. Teachers have freedom of speech rights that a principal cannot take away. I’m sure Lisa Murphy Oates would have preferred that Bethany Monk and Rebecca Richter had not chosen to speak to the press, but she could not prevent it. Please feel free to contact me at 945-4764 anytime there is an incident you would like to report, even if it’s “off the record” in terms of attribution.
    I am very surprised the principal would choose to deny it, since I assume there was a police report. The district should enforce a policy of honesty, instead of encouraging cover-ups and misinformation.

    FOTW: I need to find out what’s going on with the IHTA kitchen. I had been planning to write a story about the new sustainable science program that IHTA had in the works. I saw Tim Cody and crew meeting with IHTA staff with big blueprints and everyone was very excited about the new kitchen and expanded course offerings. I am hopeful that Ms. McClatchy will be able to explain how the priorities changed.

    I am proud about the fact that Monk and Richter thanked me profusely for my story and said other teachers who were afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation also appreciated it. Also, a CVHS parent told me yesterday that she appreciates my reporting because I hold the district accountable. No principal or district administrator should shy away from accountability.

  • Anon

    PTA vs PFC. Is splitting hairs. The point is if it was the PFC that made this decision then the problem runs way deep. The outright discrimination is wrong. If it is the case then I am truly ashamed to live here. It was just a rumor so the question needed to be asked. I do know that the zero tolerance policy for dress code is not being enforced at the elementary level. I was disgusted at what some of the girls were wearing. The zero tolerance policy for bullying is not being enforced at Diablo View either.

  • brenda aaron

    This dialog is great, as you see the information given by one or two is different when asked at the top, middle and bottom. The lack of consistent responses differs from one administrator, teacher, parent etc. How then are issues or concerns addressed?

    What is wrong with districtwide! Bullying, harrassment,discipline, behavioral issues in the classroom all should have guidlines, policies and procedures that are clear and meet the needs in a fair and impartial manner for all.

    There are no “bad kids”, misguided, neglected, misdirected, but kids do what kids do best and that is to test boudaries and limits.
    Our job as parents and teachers is to nurture, guide and support.

    We need to praise and encourage good behavior when they are doing it. Not just show up when they do inappropriate behavior, which only shows up as FASILURE! If I knew then what I know now. I would not have needed guidance or direction, or correction in how to deal with the consequence for my actions. RESPONSIBILTY! and critical thinking are necessary.

    The kids are at school 6 or more hours a day, it takes a village to raise a child. Not just at home, but every adult that our children comes into contact with will either encourage and build on their successes on a daily basis, or tear down the very fiber that makes them GREAT!

    Implement, and enforce, but it must be consistent. We do teach by example. Inner Wealth is built on core values of RESPECT! not just head knowledge.

    What is CHARACTER? Does leadership set the example for building a strong community. that’s what is needed.
    are we moving in the same direction “NO KID LEFT BEHIND”

    What is the price you are willing to pay? injury,loss of self,even death before we come together districtwide to provide services and support to all children in our community. If you don’t, your child may become victim to being bullied, assaulted or pressured to do things that “GOOD PARENTS” never thought would happen to them.

    I don’t do drugs, use profanity or live a life of domestic violence, but my kids tell me that the teacher is called names that I dare not mention. My kids say that every day kids are calling them and other student 4 letter words, so don’t say that enviroment is not a critical part of our childs learning experience. School is one place that has a great impact on them for LIFE! it’s not just what we teach at home, but teachers and PEERS play a strong role in modeling great behavior. Look at the news!
    Let’s keep it REAL!

  • Giorgio C.

    Theresa,
    I am a public employee with the state of California. I am not permitted to speak to the media. Anything I say about my employer or anything related to my duties must be vetted by my department of I can be immediately terminated from employment. I am stunned that this policy exists, but it is clearly stated in our policies and procedures. There is no such “free speech” where I work, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the same policy applies in other government agencies. Employees must take the time to learn all policies and procedures.

    By the way, as a state employee, I was able to use our Whistle Blower program (Bureau of State Audits) for reporting my complaints. Such programs are used for reporting gross inefficiency, willful neglect of duty, fraud, etc. I believe the public school system MUST have a whistle blower program. If one currently exists, I am unaware of it, and I was a teacher for a few years.

  • anon

    At Anon #12. PTA’s are part of a nationwide network, with constant training and accountability. PFC’s and other site specific parent clubs have no larger accountability. There are two sides to every coin.
    I have a hard time believing any group of this type would have the notion to ban a student, let alone the power to do so. If that happened, that is a huge problem.

  • Anon

    That’s what I am saying. It is just a rumor at this point. I would like to know if it is true.
    Perhaps there is more to the story rumors are just rumors but I think it’s important to get the answers. If it is not true then the people talking about it should be set straight and not soil the reputations of hard working people and if it is true then we need to fix the problem.
    It is as simple as that. We need to stick together and demand accountability and protect the ones that are falsely accused.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Giorgio: I have been told by Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support, that the district does not prohibit employees from speaking to the media. She said some principals, who are new, are often surprised by this. However, she said she has told them they can answer questions from the press. Based on this, it is my understanding that principals cannot prohibit teachers from speaking to the press either.

    Lock also pointed out that the district has an anonymous hotline for whistle-blowing tips, which can be found in the lower left-hand, bottom corner of the district’s website homepage: http://www.mdusd.org

    It says:
    “District Hotline
    We encourage the use of our district tip line to confidentially report rumors, potentially dangerous situations or vandalism that may impact our schools – (925) 709-4847″

    It also offers the option to “Report an incident using our online form” at http://www.mdusd.org/Documents/Ssv01127%20Safe%20School%20Form.pdf.

    However, it appears that these would be investigated by the district. If you want to blow the whistle on the district, you could contact the County Office of Education, state Department of Education, DA, attorney general or the press.

  • Giorgio C.

    Theresa,
    Free speech is a double edged sword. In Hercules, parents and teachers made their grievance with a principal very public. It was a very ugly spectacle, something akin to a riot. A lot of negative attention was focused on one of our elementary schools. The message was that no one is in control of our schools, or maybe even of our district. I believe the negative publicity possibly compromised the support for Measure K as Hercules was one of the cities with the lowest supporting votes. I support free speech, but again, some things really should not be publicized. This was a personnel issue that should have been addressed via proper internal protocol. In my opinion, everyone lost when Measure K failed.

  • Shelley Murdock

    I have never had a child attend Oak Grove nor do I know anyone who works there. But last March I contacted Mt Diablo School District transportation dept to complain about a bus that was picking up students in a red zone at the corner of Minert and Grenola. The bus obstructed views for turning left and parents dropping off kids blocked the street. The woman with whom I talked said that they had to have the Oak Grove kids in the No Child Left Behind Program picked up off site because when they waited for the bus in front of the school they were beaten up and harassed. Adm had to know how bad it was if they moved the bus stop! I was appalled at their solution.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Giorgiou: It has been my experience that school staff and parents don’t go to the press until they feel they have exhausted their other options and they believe that the school or district is not being responsive.
    If school districts expect support from voters, they should be able to show that they are using the money they have wisely and are running the district in a transparent and responsible way that inspires trust and confidence from the community.

    Shelly: Thanks for sharing this information. Certainly, the school and district administration are aware of problems on the campus. Your anecdote helps to explain why so many children are transferring out of the school. It also shows that students may not even feel safe in the parking lot. There definitely seems to be a disconnect between the principal’s message that the campus is safe and the message being disseminated by some teachers, students and even transportation dept. staff.

  • Hell Freezing Over

    Capacity at OGMS was stated as 805 in 2010 when school closures were being discussed. At that time, 50% of students in the attendance area for the school transferred OUT, and enrollment was 572 (434 of those attending as their school of residence, and 121 of those attending came from GBMS).

    What was the enrollment for 2011/12 at this school?

    If “… so many children are transferring out of the school.” why is it still open? Clearly the district has room at all other middle schools to accommodate the transfers out from OGMS – which is centrally located in the district boundaries and “surrounded” by five (5) other middle schools.

  • Theresa Harrington

    HFO: Yes, as previously pointed out, the enrollment was so low that the Superintendent’s Council recommended moving Oak Grove MS onto the YVHS campus, which also has very low enrollment (and lots of transfers out).
    As has also been previously pointed out, the principal of Oak Grove MS was on the school closure committee, which may have influenced the decision not to close the school.
    When I attended School Closure Committee meetings, Rose Lock told me some committee members were uncomfortable discussing their opinions because the press was there. If they were so unwilling to be held accountable for their decisions, it’s conceivable they also wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking in favor of closing Oak Grove with the principal in the room.

  • Giorgio C.

    Theresa,
    If the teachers are going to the media because the district is not being responsive, then I want to see the paper trail documenting such non-responsiveness. I want to know the who’s, what’s, where’s, etc. Attach job descriptions and org charts to such documentation. If you are in the WCCUSD, you possibly have been told by the office staff that the job descriptions of district employees are outdated, so are not accurate.

    My frustration with the WCCUSD district staff leads me to ask, can districts (not just schools), be accredited? I want my district held accountable for following best management practices, etc. via a regular auditing process.

    Currently, I do not see this. I see audits, but they are not performed by an entity with authority. It is an accountability shell game because the district punts the responsibility to the school who then says it is the unions or district who have tied their hands. With no clear documentation of delegation of authority and responsibility, I can see why people are forced to run to the media with respect to school issues.

    We might as well formally include the media in the quality assessment and improvement process.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I don’t think districts receive accreditation, but they are responsible for making sure their schools meet accreditation requirements.

    Here’s a story about a teachers’ union in Conn. taking over a turnaround school: http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/union-run_turnaround/id_48227

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here’s the board’s proposed new anti-bullying policy: http://esb.mdusd.k12.ca.us/attachments/5684e54d-1cc3-472a-8ec6-fdb45282bdfd.pdf

  • School Teacher

    Based on your article, listening to teachers, and watching the recent viral video with the bullied bus monitor, the district should include student-on-teacher bullying in this policy as well.

  • Theresa Harrington

    The proposed policy prohibits harassment of students and school personnel.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here is a blog post about CVHS teacher Kipp Penovich’s comments to the MDUSD board regarding the need to improve the district’s discipline policy: http://bit.ly/Nj9InY

  • MoMx3

    Ok, first of all, why would a PFC prohibit any student from taking part in a promotion ceremony? Secondly, how would the PFC even have such power? That is bizarre, and you know what they say about believing everything (anything) you hear. Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see is my motto in this district.

    Then, also, why did Lisa Allphin resign? Why does a teacher/admin/whoever resign after 8+ years in the district? Wasn’t she on the admin track? What’s up with that? Oak Grove seems to be in pretty serious crisis.

  • Giorgio C.

    Thanks, Theresa. I think it is time school districts be accredited. I say this after the WCCUSD has demonstrated questionable management practices. Two successive performance audits revealed lack of accurate job descriptions for district staff, so how do I know who is to be held responsible for what? How are the job positions being advertised?

    The WCCUSD recently published their SARC reports, but they were missing critical data required by law, including the numbers of non-credentialed teachers. They simply left these parts of the report blank. This is unacceptable because I am entitled to this information BY LAW. But who do I report this to? This is a district, not school site issue. With district accreditation, district staff (superintendent) would be forced to comply or else. Currently, there is no “else”.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I believe you could report them to the CA Dept. of Education, although I’m not sure who oversees the SARCs.

    On another note: the MDUSD board approved a new program specialist for categorical programs at Oak Grove MS to be funded with the SIG: http://esbpublic.mdusd.k12.ca.us/public_itemview.aspx?ItemId=5509&mtgId=345