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?