North Tama School Board addresses sharp uptick in behavior referrals

Student behavior and how best to address it dominated much of the discussion during the North Tama School Board meeting last Monday night.

The October 21 regular session of the North Tama School Board was fairly routine up until the Principal Reports.

The day prior to the meeting, Superintendent David Hill released a statement regarding an arrest of a North Tama High School student on school grounds on Wednesday, October 20.

“I’m writing this evening to inform you that North Tama school officials are working with the Tama County Sheriff’s Department to follow up on reported verbal threats made toward the school by students earlier today. These threats were not written or made on social media; rather, they were stated verbally to individuals within the school,” Hill wrote in his statement.

Hill said one high school student was taken into custody by law enforcement during the afternoon portion of the school day on Wednesday. There was also a separate reported verbal threat.

Hill told the North Tama Telegraph the two incidents are unrelated.

Hill also said the arrest of the student on Wednesday took place away from the general school population and no lock down procedures were implemented.

Elementary School Principal Susan Johnson began her report to the board detailing the number of referrals for behavior she has recorded in the last 32 days — 99 — 68 of those considered minor, 31 considered major.

Secondary Principal Jeromiah Bliss reported to the board for the entire 2021-2022 school year through October 8, he has recorded 232 referrals for behavior — with 35 percent of the 7th through 12th grade student population earning a minor or major referral.

Two hundred of the high school referrals have taken place in the classroom, Bliss indicated in his report to the board.

“[A] large portion of my day is spent dealing with behaviors,” Bliss wrote. “If I was to quantify that time on a given day, into a percentage, it would be in the range of 40 [percent] to 50 [percent] of my day on average, and that time includes calls, emails, and/or parent visits. This means I often have to miss meetings or not have them all together.”

“I don’t have exact numbers, I can tell you 1000 percent [referrals are] higher than last year … without a doubt,” Johnson said. “This is the first year I’ve heard teachers say ‘we’re thinking about getting out of education — it is bad — it is not fun.'”

“The alarming rate at which education in general is losing staff … it’s everywhere,” Bliss said. “The scrutiny and the weight and the burden of proof is on you as an educator. And [regardless] of what you do, it’s wrong. And you get bashed. You get belittled. You get questioned. You’re supposed to be a professional. [Education] doesn’t get treated like a profession anymore,” Bliss said.

“What in the world is going on? We can’t put our finger on it … veteran teachers are frustrated,” Johnson said.

Both Johnson and Bliss said the uptick this year in behavior referrals is negatively impacting the entire district staff including office secretaries, classroom teachers, paraeducators, and even the custodial staff.

It is greatly affecting morale in the district in general.

Hill communicated to the board he has been made aware of the issues as well by way of the local teachers association with whom he meets once a month.

“It’s not that [the teachers] feel the principals aren’t doing their jobs,” Hill said. “They see everything … and feel that [the principals] need some help. They understand that this is just so unique, so different from [the way] any other school year has been.”

Hill told the board the increase in referrals for behavior is not only affecting the district staff negatively but the entire student body.

“I do want to point out, a lot of our kids are doing the right thing everyday … those kids deserve an environment where they don’t have all those disruptions,” Hill said.

Following discussion among the principals, the board, and Superintendent Hill, the decision was made to look into hiring a behavior specialist or interventionist — possibly using what Hill referred to as “rainy day funds” — as well as determining if school-based services from Tanager Place for students struggling with mental and behavioral challenges can be increased.

“The training that this person needs, it’s a lot,” Athletic Director Secretary Patty Calderwood told the board from the audience.

“We need to save the day here. We need to do something,” board member Doug Dvorak said. “Make it a priority.”

“Over these last several years, we have really built up what some might call a rainy day fund,” Hill told the board. “Maybe this is the rainy day.”

In other business…

The board approved a motion to compensate teachers at the per diem rate when they substitute for other teachers during their scheduled prep time — a practice Superintendent Hill said is common in other districts.

During the Superintendent’s Report, it was reported to the board that there are currently zero known cases of COVID-19 in the elementary and secondary buildings among both the students and staff.

Hill also reported the North Tama district now has its first ever enrolled English Language Learner (ELL) student and he would be looking into hiring a certified ELL teacher for a period of the day, or determining if a current certified staff member might like to obtain a conditional license and work towards ELL certification — training that could possibly be reimbursed by the district.

Hill further reported that North Tama’s certified enrollment is up for the current school year from last year by 20.9 kids (not including preschool). The actual number of students in the buildings sits at 456 as of October 1, 2021 for the 2021-2022 school year.