Behavior a hot topic at Bo-Stin

11/30/2017

A surge in student misbehavior, and how to respond to it, are hot topics at Bolinas-Stinson School, where staff, board members and administrators shared at times painfully different perspectives at a recent biannual meeting. A handful of board members who currently have children in the school said this year has been especially difficult socially, and one long-term middle school teacher implored the board for help, saying he was “out of tools” to address a growing crisis. 

District Superintendent John Carroll, who chose the meeting’s themes of “discipline” and “school climate,” insists that the claims are overblown and defends his approach, which shuns punishment. Principal Jason Richardson says staff is working to fine tune the school’s policies in order to address a few “extreme” instances this year.  

“On one level, there’s a small number of kids with really extreme behavior that’s having a large impact,” Mr. Richardson said during the meeting, held at the school on Nov. 6. “But we don’t want to allow that to divide the staff and change our culture. When students are engaged in a way that interests them, they have fewer discipline issues. So the question is, how are we as a school addressing the need for kids to feel engaged and headed in a direction that really makes them want to come and work?” 

Yet Don Jolley, a middle school science teacher who has worked at the school for over 30 years, voiced strong concerns about the behavior and its impact on his ability to teach. “I’ve seen the conduct on our campus erode significantly in recent years,” he said. “In my tenure here, I’ve never seen conduct as poor as it is now. I have to ask myself, what has changed? Because we haven’t always struggled with it on this level. Maybe it’s the body politick out there, or social media, maybe, maybe, maybe. I can’t fix those things. But if the expectation in schools is that teachers are going to be able to mitigate that, that’s going to pull me away from why I am actually hired, and that is to educate.”

Speaking with the Light last week, Mr. Jolly described how he felt the school’s response was failing. The current approach to discipline conflates punishment with consequences, he said. “I think we are shying away from imposing fair consequences in the right situations to control behavior because we think we are punishing kids.” As a result, he said he is making his own phone calls and meeting with parents himself. 

Mr. Carroll recently posted his philosophy of discipline on his blog on the school’s website. He introduced this month’s meeting describing his 27-year background in discipline matters, including positions in which he managed all suspension and expulsion cases for a five-school district.  

He said that over the course of his career, he learned several things. These include that children behave more responsibly if they think you care about them; that punishment in general makes students angry and reduces their desire to behave in ways that will make adults happy; that students who are most likely to violate rules are the least likely to respond positively to punitive consequences; and that the more specific a school’s rules, the more students violate the rules and violations increase exponentially as rules are added.

“Punitive discipline practices and systems actually encourage bad behavior and corrode school culture,” he wrote. “But such methods remain popular because they are easy to understand and create the impression that schools are ‘doing something’ about misconduct. In the end, punitive systems turn out to be public relations strategies that do not last.”

The alternative consists of “relational strategies,” which he said are complex and nuanced. “Such strategies require adults to consider and perhaps change their own attitudes and practices. They are especially difficult to adopt institutionally because they usually face stiff opposition from adults who believe in punitive methods and have a simpler (if misinformed) message to send.”

Interest in “social-emotional learning,” or curriculum aimed at cultivating self-awareness and healthy relationships, is widespread at the school. Mr. Richardson said a school climate survey last spring involving staff, students and parents flagged it, as well as the impact of social media, as priorities for improvement. 

This year, the school launched a social-emotional learning program for pre-K through sixth grade, hoping to provide teachers and students with tools to handle conflicts.

Attendees at this month’s meeting praised the program, but raised ongoing concerns—and offered possible explanations. Longtime board member Jennie Pfeiffer said she wasn’t sure they had paid enough attention to the impact of excluding sixth grade from the middle school this year, a decision in part prompted by small class sizes. “I think we need to do something dramatic for those kids who are still back with the fifth graders, when they thought they would be in middle school. We need to give them a projection of being more mature, of having more things going on,” she said.

Mechelle Cattell, the school’s resource specialist, was uncomfortable singling out any one class. She didn’t think the new grade constellations were necessarily to blame, but agreed that the school needed to do something “dramatic.”

First- and second-grade teacher Lauren Pollack has a student in the school. “I see the effort on the part of staff and I recognize that there’s improvement and growth, though as a parent, my concern is whether we can get there fast enough for the students that are experiencing some real issues,” she said. “It worries me that in the process of moving in the direction we are going, we end up with challenges for crisis measures.”

Mr. Jolley went further. “What I do know is that there are these tipping points whereby some conduct is so egregious and so pervasive and has grown so many roots that at some point I’m out of tools and I need more support,” he said. 

While multiple speakers used the word “crisis,” others called the language
hyperbolic.

Ben Lowrance, a bus driver who also does maintenance work at the school, believed there was a need for more communication between parents and staff. A variety of annual special events that were historically held at the school were no longer on the calendar, he said. Other staff members responded that that was in part because the faculty members who led those events had left the school, and said they were working to resurrect some of them. 

Enrollment in the school has fluctuated in the past two decades, but has generally declined. In 2000, there were 159 students; this year there were 106. Both Mr. Richardson and Mr. Demmerle said the changes may be exacerbating social and behavioral problems. “What we have is a family, because we are small,” Mr. Demmerle said. “When you have a family, it’s like brothers and sisters in some ways. It’s more intimate. They know each other’s parents, each other’s home life. They know so much about each other. In some ways, every family has a dysfunction.”

Reflecting on the meeting last week, Mr. Carroll expressed concern about the joint staff-board meetings themselves, saying they “encourage really unprofessional behavior” and “venting.” He has recently introduced themes to guide the discussions—in the past they were open forums—though he still says he would prefer having standard board meetings with agendas so “we don’t have to be surprised about what people bring up and be blindsided by information that may or may not be true.” 

Similarly, Mr. Richardson questioned the content raised this month. “I think that things were very misunderstood and overdramatized about what’s going on,” he said. “Unfortunately there’s an opportunity for one or two frustrated voices to make a big wave. 

But, he added, “there’s frustration from staff about behavior shifting over the years, and we need to catch up on our response to that. Teachers who are used to asking kids to do things and having them do it find that that’s not working. We are studying that as a staff and making progress. I feel very hopeful.”