Visalia schools face ‘crisis’ as students ‘rage’ without discipline

VISALIA, Calif. – Valley Oak Middle School teachers were asked to answer two questions about the school’s climate and culture.

Overwhelmingly, the teachers said the school’s discipline model is broken.  

At a special meeting Thursday night, Visalia Unified School District teachers resoundingly agreed, saying there is a “crisis” in classrooms across the city. 

Parents backed them up on almost every concern. 

Just one teacher spoke in favor of the current discipline model. 

Like many campuses in California, Visalia Unified School District follows the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports system when students misbehave or act out.

With PBIS, students are placed in intervention programs, counseling, and alternative programs before a suspension or expulsion is recommended. Teachers say it’s rare that a student ever receives support to address their issues. 

In most cases, they’re sent back to class after a brief trip to the office. In some instances, teachers say they are held to answer for why they sent the student, rather than dealing with it themselves. 

Visalia Unified began adopting the model in 2013. Teachers had high hopes. They’ve been met with disappointment. 

As incidents on campuses have worsened, teachers and parents are pushing back.

Don’t pee on my lunch

Parents voiced concern with incidents on campus, like a student who told a classmate to “kill yourself” and “getting away with it,” one parent said. That student was awarded two weeks later with a Respect award. 

One Golden Oak Elementary mother said her daughter’s lunch was urinated on and the student responsible was “back at school the next day.” Her daughter didn’t realize her lunch had been spoiled until she took a bite. 

“There are zero consequences at our schools and I think the district needs to put something in place (so) there are consequences,” Malika Anaya said. “The district needs to step up.” 

Teachers told stories about being cussed at, ignored by administrators and evacuating entire classrooms because of one student’s tantrum. 

A first-grade teacher said one “little guy” kicked things off desks and another student pretended to decapitate another classmate.

Students have gotten so good at evacuating, they never forget to take their computers with them, she said.

“My first-grade girls write in response to these kids, who say terrible things to me at times, ‘We love Miss Jarrett, she is the best teacher … she protects us,” said Leisa Jared, a Riverway Elementary teacher who spoke during the meeting. “Why do first-graders (have to think like that), it’s not like it’s an active shooter. It’s another first-grader” 

‘Directly to prison’

The system is modeled around three levels of student support, known as tiers. Students are placed in a tier depending on the level of support or intervention needed. 

Tier 1 is a “universal” approach. Tier 2 is more targeted for an individual student. Both rely on positive feedback and rewards. Tier 3, which educators say is currently not even an option for their students, offers an “intensive” level of support for students who continue to act out.

The U.S. Department of Education urges districts to implement a “multitiered approach to social, emotional and behavior support. The broad purpose of PBIS is to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of schools.”

“PBIS improves social, emotional and academic outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities and students from underrepresented groups,” according to PBIS.org.

One of the problems? There are no consequences, teachers said. Conversely, students are often rewarded or even thanked after acting out.  

Crestwood Elementary kindergarten teacher Raul Gonzalez said students aren’t being prepared for real life.

“At the end of the day, if we don’t have kids understanding that there’s going to be consequences for their actions when they grow up and they leave our schools, they’re going to be going directly to prison,” he said. “They’re going to expect somebody to give them a candy and say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be OK.'”

When there are finally consequences, teachers say students are confused. 

“Unfortunately, our current system is not helping the 10 percent of students who desperately need support,” said Divisadero Middle School teacher Katherine Wilson. “My students are in shock when they finally cross a line that results in a suspension or expulsion because small rules were not enforced.” 

Horseplay, cussing, bigotry and defiant behavior have been treated as no big deal, Wilson said.

“Behaviors escalated until they finally find themselves crossing a big line,” she added. 

Gonzalez asked for more emphasis on building strategies to deal with students who are “escalating in anger.”

Leaderless

Some board members looked to principals for answers and action. 

“I see lack of leadership, lack of trust, lack of communication, kids being put back into the classroom without intervention, many places (with) no collaboration with the whole school community, the rest of the kids are losing out on their educations,” said board member Walta Gamoian.

Some teachers said the lack of leadership on campuses is a driving force behind PBIS’s downfall. 

Board Member William Fulmer has shared his dissatisfaction with the system for several years. 

“There’s this assumption that those average kids will be OK. They won’t,” Fulmer said. “If we don’t support the teachers, and I grant you a major issue is we have principals not doing their jobs, I don’t care what the issue is – it’s not working.”

Gamoian said, “something needs to be done now.” 

“I feel like we’re in a 911 situation,” she added. 

‘Out of the fire’

Greg Price, VUTA president, said teachers’ frustration with PBIS is widespread. 

“There are a lot of tears on the phone to me,” he said. “I have a lot of people call me and tell me ‘I can’t go to work tomorrow. I just can’t get back in, it’s too insane in my classroom.'”

Price said the problem with the system is not just visible across Visalia but can be seen nationwide. 

“Part of our problem is schools are falling apart now. Teachers are falling apart now. Classrooms are in crisis,” Price said. “We need to deal with those and we can’t wait five years for that to be done.” 

“Crisis” was the keyword, not only because thousands of students are missing out on their educations, but because no one can point to a clear plan to fix it, teachers said. 

“We’re in a crisis and what I would like to see is a plan in place to get us out of the fire and then we can go back and build those systems and structures that need to be built,” Gamoian said. 

Follow Calley Cederlof on Twitter: @calleyc_vtd. 

 

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