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Dayton School District Community Forum addresses concerns


June 10, 2021

-Chronicle photo

Some sixty concerned parents, guardians and citizens of Dayton and Columbia County filled the High School Library for the Elementary School portion of two forums conducted by Dayton School District administration and moderated by Supt. Guy Strot, right. Here, Jessie Howard details her concerns.

DAYTON-The Dayton School District Board met a day ahead of the scheduled community forum on June 2 for their regularly scheduled work session. During this session, two candidates for the vacant at-large board position left by Katie Leid were interviewed.

One candidate was lifetime resident and alum Jeff McCowen who has two children in Dayton schools and is active in the Touchet Valley Little League serving on their board and as a coach. He presented his understanding of the board as being in the business of educating kids with focus on investing in them to give all kids a chance. He expressed the desire to understand why some students leave the district. He said he wanted to maintain the strengths of what Dayton and the schools offer but also move into the future. "I want this to be a place that they can go off and see the world and come back to."

The other candidate was new resident Anna Berg who moved here with her family last August. She previously was in power management with a Public Utility District. She has two children enrolled in Dayton High School. She said the role of the board is "to provide vision, direction, policy and other administrative guidance." She says she hopes to make the board meetings more welcoming and to better reach out to the community. She specified the importance of mentoring kids and in particular guiding high school kids to make community connections for professional training in trades and skilled professions.

Though the Board discussed the candidates in executive session, no action was taken but a decision in expected at the next regular board meeting on June 16 for the interim period until the November election. Both candidates have filed to run for open board positions and will be on the ballot.

The Board was also presented with ideas addressing concerns within the district that were then passed on to the community ahead of the forums the next evening. These concerns have to do with the lack of consistency in disciplinary action for infractions and not ensuring a safe environment for staff and students. The past school year has brought increased serious infractions. Middle and high school principal Kristina Brown said the sheriff's department has been to the school more since March, when students began attending extended in-person classes, than they have since she was hired for her position three years ago.

The forums were hosted by superintendent Guy Strot who has been the interim elementary principal this past year. Also contributing was high school principal Kristina Brown. In attendance were two members of the Board, David Bailey and Justin Jaech as well as newly hired elementary principal Amy Cox. Attendees filled the high school library and spilled out into the entrance. Parent, Clay Hutchens spoke first and summed up the problem in the schools. "The administration – that's the principal, superintendent and the Board–I don't think that you have the trust of the people within your inner circle–of your staff or the people here at the school. Teachers decided there is a lack of support, lack of backing, lack of willingness to act when staff members report a student discipline issue, lack of curriculum organization, lack of consistent discipline, lack of providing a safe environment for learning. You need to build that trust with the people that make up your team."

Fourth grade teacher Jessie Howard spoke of what she is experiencing working in the school district. "A lack of communication and discipline coupled with a propensity for violence is an anchor and it's pulling down the quality of our entire educational system," said Howard.

"I recently wrote a letter to our school board asking for a response to the fact that I was assaulted by a student and it resulted in a black eye. I asked the school board to provide me with a plan for students and staff to be safe. I also asked for a plan to address the needs for behavior challenged students. It's been two weeks," she confessed.

"I haven't heard from the school board. On a daily basis I teach in a classroom that is unsafe. Students with behavior issues are being forced into the general education classroom. Our handbook and policies state that our district will provide behavior modifications and interventions, but this is not what I have experienced."

Howard said the child who struck her had displayed repeated threatening behavior. She claims to be have had difficulty with several students in her class this past school year. She presented pages and pages of documentation of 81 major infractions for another child in her class that should have faced disciplinary action.

"In our welcome letter to this forum, Mr. Strot stated 'If a student is on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), they have many more rights," Howard continued. "Federal law states that students must be with their peers to the maximum extent possible'...That statement mischaracterizes the law. It makes it sound like you can't do anything about our out-of-control students."

She suggested to Strot that the law really means that the students who have special needs should be in the "least restrictive environment that is appropriate. All students have the right to a free and appropriate education. The rights of one cannot trample the rights of all the others."

She stated when trying to meet about these students with the local Educational Service District (ESD) 112 that provides the district with special education services, her meetings were cancelled eight times.

The contract is up before next school year and Strot offered that the district could look at providing their own special education services possibly in conjunction with Waitsburg and/or Prescott. He said there is concern with the high cost of the district providing these services.

Strot responded by saying there has been action taken in response to poor behavior by the administration and teachers but reeducation or different approach could ease certain situations caused by our new normal. "We have had dozens of in school suspensions and out of school suspensions, said Strot. "But overall, the teachers and myself are enforcing the discipline. It's on me to create a situation where Jessie is going to feel safe. But I'm not there yet. I'm not going to lie. I am not going to sugar coat it. We have to get there. Also, we've had 20 students leave. I think we're doing well in a lot of areas and we aren't in some other areas. And safety right now is a big concern."

Howard acknowledged, "I think we have unfairly asked you to do a job that's impossible. I don't think it was fair of us to ask you to be superintendent and principal. And so, I'm happy that we're bringing in a principal."

The preferred disciplinary method in the schools is based on state law that requires to try other interventions first before suspension. One approach Strot is planning to take in changing the discipline policy is what he terms "progressive discipline" where consequences for students are added with each infraction. He admitted that there were instances that up until now, where first consequences were not given.

The district also proposes to hire a behavior specialist. This would allow a child having issues a place to go. According to State law, children in kindergarten through fourth grade cannot be suspended past 10 days. The specialist would provide students and staff with tools to successfully work together.

Other changes include hiring a counselor for students in all grades. Additionally, an intervention and substance abuse counselor will be hired. Blue Mountain Counseling currently provides one counselor. The plan is to have three different counselors for students. Strot stated the state is expected to cover 75% of the cost after next year.

The Assistant Superintendent of ESD 123 is coming to talk with every district employee this week to assess the situation and make recommendations.

Following the elementary forum, the middle and high school forum had to move to the high school auditorium because the group was too large for the library. Brown was questioned about the scale of the problems of vaping and she confirmed it is a big problem. She regularly checks backpacks when it's warranted. Parent Chrisann Christensen who is also a counselor at Blue Mountain Counseling suggested more students be referred for drug screening to which Brown agreed. One approach the district is taking is installing environmental sensors that pick up on the chemicals in substances including vape.

Christensen questioned about the disciplinary code. Brown responded, "It's usually automatic suspension, in school or out of school suspension for possession of tobacco, vaping, drugs." When questioned for how long, Brown replied that it depends if it's a repeat infraction. "It depends on if they are on an IEP or not. If they are on an IEP you can suspend them up to 10 days and then you have to have what's called a manifestation determination meeting in which you to determine if the behavior is connected to the disability. And then if it is a regular suspension, I believe it's up to 45 days in a semester. Emergency expulsion is only used for a child if you think there is an imminent threat that will create a safety problem for the school...The law has changed in 2019...Pretty much a kid has to bring a weapon to school in order to have I suggest you write your law makers and legislators."

With the recent closing of school due to the investigation of a threat in the high school boy's bathroom, tensions are running especially high. Parent Tamira Culley said her kids who are in middle and high school have said the problems continue because "nothing is done."

High school English teacher, Sarah Ortuno said of the discipline, "I can address the middle school, high school...there has not been a time that I haven't texted or emailed my principal, Mrs. Brown when she hasn't responded immediately. I've sent a kid to the office first time in my career and I didn't see him again that day because it was taken care of-parents were called. There is a system in place that has worked in some instances for sure."

Christensen commented again to say that the schools need to encourage and reward the kids who are doing the right thing. Another parent spoke up against the method of a whole group or class being punished because of the bad behavior of a few. Parent Dave Finney said, "One word I haven't heard is inspiration. It seems to me that we as a school are in a spiral of a feedback loop where the kids are acting out to assert some of their personhood and then they get ground into the ground with inconsistent discipline and so more kids act out. My question is, are we as a school going to be a correctional facility or an inspirational learning environment? I'm at the point where I don't care...who's vaping in the bathroom because that's a symptom of the problem...What my hope would be is that we can find some way to not only punish our children when they do bad, but also maybe inspire them when they do well...Inspiration has been sorely lacking and the kids are falling apart because of it."

-Submitted photo

Jessie Howard displayed this photo of the injuries she received while working with a student.

Sheriff Joe Helm contributed to say, "I have two daughters in the school...but when they come home and they talk about the things they're exposed to and are seeing, that bothers me with the frequency...Out of the 15 years that I've been here, this principal, Kristina has been the most proactive in being involved with the sheriff's office...At the same time, I might get on my soap box a little bit about parents who enable and allow their children to keep doing this who are not proactive in their kid's life and other parents who see what's going on with other kids and are not trying to be proactive...If you have discipline, there needs to be corrective action with the proper resources to inspire change and provide opportunities for somebody to get better."

The district is working in partnership with Public Health and the Sheriff's department to provide a resource officer for the school. Also, security cameras are being installed around the campus.

Additionally, the Coalition for Youth and Families through Public Health offers many great resources for parents and children in the community.

The next forums are scheduled for June 17, July 8, July 29 and August 12.


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