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Documents detail concerns at OKH Middle School

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Staff transitions, turnover part of the problem, Orr says

By Kacie Goode

Superintendent Anthony Orr has been spending a lot of time recently at Old Kentucky Home Middle School, and one reason is to help figure out how to address concerns of behavior and disciplinary issues taking place.

At the Nelson County Board of Education’s April meeting, several OKH parents approached district officials about what they considered an unhealthy learning environment for their children. Complaints included some bullying and harassment issues, but concerns largely focused on outbursts and disruptions in the classroom — including attacks against staff — that tended to put learning on hold.

Since the start of the school year, a behavior report listed 39 acts of physical aggression involving students at OKH. Some of those events involved aggression toward staff members. But that report only included events up to late March, and several more disruptive events have occurred during the last few weeks.

Documents obtained by The Kentucky Standard through an open records request detailed some of the concerns parents mentioned at the board meeting, such as a student who had an outburst in the school’s cafeteria the morning of April 19.

Principal Jaime Smith sent an email to parents that night regarding the incident, assuring families that no one was hurt and the issue was dealt with swiftly. A behavior report documenting the incident indicates the student was supposed to report to the office that morning and failed to do so. When administrators asked him to go to the office, the outburst commenced. An email sent from a staff member to a district official later that day claimed the incident could have been avoided, and expressed concern over the school’s “unsafe” and “hostile” work environment, noting that three substitutes had allegedly been assaulted by students within a matter of weeks. The email was forwarded to Orr, who worked with Smith to send an announcement to parents that indicated administrators and staff would have to work out a way to ensure an incident like that did not happen again. But the cafeteria outburst was just one that staff and students dealt with that week.

The day before, the school’s assistant principal was threatened by a student. According to the report, the assistant principal had been called to a classroom after a student began cursing when confronted about copying a classmate’s work and splattering perfume. When the student refused to leave, he began running around the room cursing the administrator and trying to “swing at her,” according to the report. It goes on to state the student then shoved the assistant principal into the wall and slid a table at her in an effort to pin her. He then slammed the door in her face and ran down the hall cursing. According to the report, it took three staff members to find the student and escort him to the office. That same student had allegedly picked up a coat rack and brandished it at staff the day prior while in class.

On April 20, a behavior report detailed a “major disruption” in a classroom, which involved a student ripping up a disciplinary form. The teacher called for someone from the office to escort the student out of the room, but before assistance arrived, the student allegedly called the teacher a b****, kicked a trash can, threw a chair and slammed the door on the teacher’s arm.

Nine notices of suspension were also issued to students between April 21 and April 25. One notice was for a student who was on school property while suspended. The report indicates the student was there for a fight. On April 25, there was a fight in the bathroom that had to be broken up by a teacher. According to that incident report, the students involved had been met with 20 minutes prior to the fight and said there wasn’t a problem, but later showed text messages threatening to fight one another.

Additional forms, which students involved in events were asked to complete, as well as some emails from concerned parents, also indicated some ongoing conflicts between students, students using profanity and students allegedly using violent and sexually disturbing phrases.

‘A gap in classroom management’

Since the board meeting, many parents have mentioned that behavior and disciplinary issues have been a problem at OKH for years, and have referred to a 2013 forum, when parents approached the district with concerns. Part of the issue four years ago was largely focused on students with individualized education plans and the Positive Approach to Student Success program, which is designed to keep students with emotional or behavioral issues in mainstream classrooms in an effort to promote positive behaviors.

But Orr said current issues are not the same.

“The fact of the matter is, when I question a parent or school staff or look at documentation, the issues we are seeing are not PASS-related issues,” Orr said.

He said he’s not making excuses for concerns, but when it comes to what OKH has experienced this year, there are a number of factors that come into play. One of those factors is staff transition and experience.

“When we began to see, later in the first semester, that things were not settling in the way they ought to,” it coincided with a couple of teachers leaving the school late in the semester, he said. “Those teachers didn’t leave because they couldn’t control their classes or because there was this growing problem in the building. We really did not see evidence of that at the time.”

Orr said the school has had to “restart” a couple of times in some positions, with even the replacements — who were not always meant to be permanent — leaving or being moved.

“In a couple of these classrooms, we’ve got at least a second or maybe third teacher this school year coming into that classroom,” he said. “That’s going to allow there to be this gap in classroom management. That’s where I think a lot of our concern has really been initiated.”

Orr said the school is working to find qualified, permanent replacements for certain positions.

According to minutes from the Nelson County Board of Education’s meetings, between August 2015 and March 2017, the board approved eight resignations and three transfers of staff from Old Kentucky Home Middle School. Smith is the fourth principal to lead OKH in the last seven years.

Smith, Orr said, also came in with little experience as an administrator. As he does with each of the district’s principals, Orr said he has met with Smith on a monthly basis.

“With brand-new principals who haven’t had a lot of exposure with practices, it’s more about coaching than ‘how are things going,’ ” he said. “Mr. Smith is new to the district and new to administration and we’ve been working through how discipline works as well as how instructional practices work.”

Addressing behavior

Several parents have questioned why the school hasn’t done more to remove disruptive students — especially repeat offenders — by expelling them.

“A student does not lose his right to an education,” as easily as some might think, Orr said. “As a public school, it is our obligation to figure out how to have consequences for the student that are significant, but also communicates to the rest of the school” that the behavior is not appropriate.

Orr admitted that suspension is not always an effective deterrent and won’t necessarily change behavior.

Instead, he said, the school must have a higher expectation for behavior and for instruction that occurs in the classroom.

“If students see they have an inexperienced teacher, or see they have a teacher who is not challenging them academically, they are going to see that as an opportunity to exploit the situation or disrupt, and that’s some of what they’ve been dealing with.”

When asked about supervision, Orr said staff must be proactive, and it’s not always easy to manage.

“Teachers are trying to supervise what’s going on in the classroom and in the hallway simultaneously,” he said of class-to-class transitions.

He also said staff must go beyond watching by engaging kids, watching expressions, listening to them and watching for clues about whether something is “going down.”

“That’s something else we are working to do a better job of,” he said. “When we hear something, we have to step into it before it escalates into something physical.”

Supervision concerned some parents who first started discussion on recent issues. It’s also been a concern since a video of students removing ceiling tiles and climbing through the school’s ceilings, reportedly in a locker room, circulated on Snapchat last week. But Orr, who was not aware of the details of that incident, said a new physical education staff member has been brought in and he hopes to see issues better addressed or prevented in the future.

When it comes to students who are not respecting authority figures — as evidenced by some of the incident and behavior reports — Orr said addressing those issues can be particularly tricky. But he also said since he’s had a larger presence in the building, he’s not encountered many of those more serious disruptions.

Orr said concerns are not going to be resolved immediately but that the school has a responsibility to address issues and “we are going to help them address that. We are going to make things better.”

 

Call logs from the Nelson County E-911 Dispatch Center show that, during the current school year, Bardstown Police were called to 301 Wildcat Lane approximately 33 times.


The calls between Aug. 1 and May 15 were labeled as:

 

Assault - 3

Juvenile Problem - 6

Harassment - 1

Request for an Officer - 2

Extra Patrol - 1

Follow Up - 2

Suspicious vehicle - 2


The remaining calls were labeled as burglary alarms, seizures or general illness and one call made by the assistant principal, which was not labeled.