For the second time in a month, active and retired teachers and parents showed up in large numbers to voice their concerns at the board of education meeting on Thursday.
A large contingent of educators — most of them dressed in red and many sporting Rock the Red for Ed T-shirts — gathered outside before the meeting, electing to head inside together as a show of solidarity.
“The sea of red you see is a sea of concern,” one teacher said to the board.
The educators also clutched papers with “I agree” on one side and “I disagree” on the other to show their support during the almost 5-hour meeting.
A total of 57 speakers — each was allotted a maximum of three minutes — took to the podium to voice their thoughts on the Learning Focus achievement gap program, classroom sizes, and student dress code and the option to possess mobile phones in class.
But the main talking point continues to be behavioral problems and injuries toward teachers and students.
“Thirty-one years ago, when there were behaviors in the classroom like a student lying, you were calling home about that,” Calvert Education Association president Dona Ostenso said following the meeting. “But now it’s different, and society is different, but behavior has been getting out of control gradually over the last probably six years or so, and I really think what’s happened is when things have been allowed to go on, and they become kind of common then there’s only one thing they can do.”
And on Thursday, that meant speaking up.
“What if you can’t hug your mom because she keeps flinching?” asked one teacher, who was reading a letter composed by her son, a high school sophomore. “I just want my mom safe.”
“We are here asking for your help,” another teacher said. “This is a crisis.”
Ostenso said the assaults toward teachers and students are happening “daily” and estimated that 70% of incidents are happening in the elementary schools, while the middle and high schools combine for the other 30%.
In the case of an incident, teachers fill in a Level 1 to 5 referral. An assault on a teacher or staff member could warrant anywhere from a Level 3 to a Level 5 depending upon what occurred, while an assault on another student could be anywhere from a Level 1 to a Level 5, again depending upon the severity.
“I heard tonight how referrals can sometimes disappear,” Ostenso said. “What happens to them?”
Ostenso said changes are needed.
“One of the things I think we need to look at is the student code of conduct that is in place,” she said. “We at this level don’t feel like administrators support us, and administrators have to get their support from central office. But administrators, it appears for some of them, are afraid to make a call home. Because if they make a call home and the parent is upset, then the parent is going to call here [at the board of education].”
There were no school principals or assistant principals during the main meeting, though some were on hand earlier to present employee of the month awards.
“Disappointed would mean I’m surprised there weren’t [any here], so I’m not surprised,” Ostenso said. “They are [the go-betweens]. At the board of education meeting [Nov. 7] the board asked why they never hear from any administrators. That’s a good question.”
The teachers took to the podium one after another, each one recounting personal stories involving such acts as biting, kicking, hitting, choking and the throwing of furniture.
“It was hard to listen to that,” board president Dawn Balinski said, “because we love the school system also.”
“We do have issues, and I acknowledge them,” board member Inez Claggett said. “And I’ll continue working with my colleagues to fix them.”
Board member Pamela Cousins said, “collaboratively we need to continue to support our educators.”
The teachers spoke for 3 hours and 21 minutes.
“It does have to be fixed, and it can’t be fixed overnight because the problem didn’t happen overnight,” Ostenso said. “They are [fed up] because the assaults and the severe behavior disruptions are not just taking place in schools with a behavioral development program [such as Barstow Elementary and Mutual Elementary], so maybe sometimes there’s a misperception that that’s the only places where the problems are, but you heard from teachers all across the county. And even if it’s one occurrence, it’s one too many.”
Following the teachers’ speeches, the board responded. Superintendent of Schools Daniel J. Curry said the county’s “challenges are not unique. The whole country is running into things we’ve never seen before.”
He also added there are seven people in training as temporary behavioral workers, and he has posted job openings for additional workers.
“All staff needs to feel supported, the code of conduct needs to be followed, and everyone, staff and students, should be able to come to school to work and learn in a safe environment,” Ostenso said. “I have spent 31 years of my life working for CCPS and I believe we have a great school system that is struggling right now. We need more resources in the form of a real curriculum, mental health providers, and teachers to reduce class size and caseloads.”
“We have issues here,” said board member Bill Phelan, who added he recently spoke to other school boards who “have the same issues we heard here tonight. I think the only way we’ll fix things is to work together. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet that will automatically solve everything.”