Dolores school board tackles student discipline

Monday, April 9, 2018 6:13 PM
Participants at a workshop on school discipline were asked to post feedback on the walls on the commons at Dolores Secondary School.
Dolores School Board President Dee Prock speaks to the crowd Wednesday at the school district’s special meeting to address discipline.
Participants at a workshop to present a plan for school discipline were encouraged to provide feedback.

In a crowded public workshop on Wednesday, members of the Dolores School Board asked parents, students and interested citizens to weigh in on a new plan for student discipline.

The board planned the event, which came just after a scheduled policy meeting, in response to a turbulent board meeting on March 8 in which parents and students voiced their frustration with the way the district administration handled an alleged student-on-student assault in February, as well as other ongoing problems with the schools.

On Wednesday, Secondary Principal Jen Hufman presented a new “behavior response framework” designed to give teachers and staff guidelines on how to discipline students, and asked the audience for feedback.

Many of those who attended the meeting called the plan a step in the right direction, but some said they believed the district’s leaders need more discipline than students.

The meeting was held in the Dolores Secondary Schools cafeteria rather than the administration headquarters, to provide space for the more than 100 who attended. Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin attended along with several deputies, and School Board President Dee Prock announced at the beginning that she intended to keep the meeting under better control than the March 8 meeting.

“We are here to listen, we are here to learn from each other, and we are here to collaborate,” she said, asking attendees to remain respectful.

No microphones were available, so Hufman spoke loudly as she presented a draft of her discipline plan.

The plan creates three primary goals for Dolores Secondary Schools: “increased consistency,” “increased parent communication” and “increased teacher/student support.” To achieve the goals, it separates student misbehaviors into minor, moderate and major offenses and gives teachers and staff guidelines on how to deal with each category. According to the plan, a student who committed a minor offense, such as mild inappropriate language or talking out of turn, would return to class within the same period after talking with staff. Repeated minor offenses would be treated as moderate behavior problems and could result in detention.

Major behavioral problems such as several forms of bullying, destruction of school property and criminal offenses would result in at least a one-day suspension. The principal would be required to notify law enforcement if a student was suspected of an illegal act, and all levels of inappropriate behavior require teachers to inform parents.

“The way that we have been administering discipline since I have been here ... has felt very inconsistent,” Hufman said. “I need to own that, as the principal of the high school, and I need to work with my team to make changes to what that looks like.”

Each table in the cafeteria held a large sheet of paper and a set of markers. Audience members were asked to write their answers to three questions: ”What do you see within this plan that you think will work well?”; “What do you see in this plan that you are concerned about?”; and “What else do you think could be included in this plan to make it work for all students, staff and parents?”

Answers varied widely. Many people said they approved of emphasis on consistency and communication. Several pointed out it failed to list drugs as a criminal student behavior, which Hufman said was an oversight on her part. Some said the plan was too complicated, or asked for details about the consequences for each behavior.

Former district parent Deanna Sullivan said she was concerned about the school’s approach to students who are on individualized education programs due to behavioral disabilities. Sullivan said withdrew her son, who has a disability, out of the district about a month ago after becoming frustrated with how he was treated. She was pleased that the new plan requires misbehaving students to be removed from the classroom, saying she hadn’t seen that kind of discipline enforced before.

“This should have happened a long time ago,” she said.

Several high school students attended the meeting, including members of the new student group I Was Now I Am. One member, senior Tel Hamilton, said he saw the meeting’s workshop atmosphere as a sign the school board is starting to listen to concerned students.

“As I view the school, it’s just a mini-government,” he said. “This is democracy at play, allowing us to have our own input.”

Still, the specter of a recall election and accusations about district personnel loomed over the proceedings, especially during a public comment period at the end. Many parents said they didn’t think the discipline plan would go far enough to address the district’s problems, which they blamed primarily on the school board and Athletic Director Chris Trusler, who did not attend the meeting. Amy Lewis, a substitute teacher who recently helped start a petition to recall Prock and board member Vangi McCoy, said she believes the district won’t improve until the board changes.

“We are no longer a strong school or a strong community,” she said in a prepared statement. “Strong leadership is where we need to start. ... We just want to get it out there that it’s not personal, but we need a change.”

During the public comment period, no one brought specific accusations of wrongdoing against Prock or McCoy, but several parents, coaches and students accused Trusler of bullying, failing to follow Colorado High School Activities Association rules and threatening to punish athletes for reporting problems in the athletic department. Many of their claims had been brought up in previous meetings as far back as the beginning of the school year.

During the policy meeting before the public workshop, District Secretary Laurie Arnett brought up a concern that the Dolores athletic department has inconsistently conducted background checks. Some employees apparently were hired before results came in, she said, and some results were not recorded properly. She asked for direction on how to handle a positive return on a background check.

Both at the policy meeting and the public workshop, board members said they couldn’t talk publicly about personnel issues related to Trusler or any other employee.

During the public comment period, new board member Kay Phelps said the student discipline plan was intended as a first step, not an instant fix for all district problems.

“I think we needed to start here, with tonight, but it’s a continued conversation, and we are listening,” she said.

Prock said the board would address parents’ concerns at the next regular meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 12. In the meantime, Hufman said she would work on revising the student discipline plan based on the audience’s feedback, and would seek further input from staff and student groups. The location for the next board meeting is still to be determined.