Student misbehavior up; Wichita brings program in to help

Substitute teacher Rob Tyler says he was working through a problem in a high school geometry class when a male student ordered a female student to come over to his desk, called her an epithet for prostitute, and proceeded to peel $20 bills off a stack of cash in an effort to get her to take off her pants.

Tyler related that story at an April meeting of a south Wichita neighborhood council, along with other incidents he's witnessed in his eight years teaching in Wichita schools. It got him in hot water with the school district and he didn't sub for the rest of the school year.

Misbehavior has increased substantially in Wichita schools over the past three years, according to Wichita school district data that The Eagle obtained.

Battery complaints are up by 19 percent from four years ago and up 34 percent from three years ago. Reports of bullying have increased almost 90 percent since 2007.

Suspensions and expulsions also are up.

School officials say the numbers are up in part because of increased reporting, while a state school board member says the problem exceeds the numbers. And the district is planning to spend up to $480,000 on a new program, Safe & Civil Schools, to reduce bad behavior.

Superintendent John Allison said the problem students are a small minority and that overall the schools are safe.

"You can walk in at almost any time and they're safe and orderly," he said.

State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, who heard Tyler speak, said his follow-up investigation has convinced him there are serious problems in some of the district's lower-achieving schools.

"We've got unsafe schools here in Wichita, particularly in the middle schools," said Chappell, a former teacher who now runs an export business.

School district officials dispute that things are as bad as Chappell says.

"Walt has no idea what's going on in the schools," Allison said. "Do we have incidents in schools? Absolutely. Is it a chronic issue? Absolutely not."

Incident numbers up

The Eagle obtained district records on battery, bullying, sexual harassment, long-term suspensions and expulsions through a request under the Kansas Open Records Act.

The information shows substantial increases in almost all categories since the 2007-08 school year.

Chappell provided The Eagle with copies of expulsion and suspension reports that the district filed with the state school board, which also showed increases.

Some key measures:

* Batteries rose from 687 reported incidents in the 2007-08 school year to 919 in 2009-10, a 33.7 percent increase.

* Bullying rose from 133 incidents in 2007-08 to 252 in 2009-10, an 89.4 percent increase.

* Sexual harassment peaked in 2007-08 at 560 complaints and declined 18.9 percent to 454 incidents in 2009-10.

* Long-term suspensions and expulsions rose from 207 in 2007-08 to 359 in 2009-10, a 73.4 percent increase.

* Suspensions and expulsions for violent behavior rose from 674 in 2007-08 to 1,273 in 2009-10, an 88.8 percent increase.

Statewide, suspensions and expulsions for violent behavior are up, but not nearly as much as in Wichita.

Setting aside Wichita's numbers — which account for nearly a quarter of the state total — violence-related out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are up about 9 percent across the rest of Kansas since 2007.

Wichita is the state's largest district, with more than 50,000 students.

Wichita school officials say the situation is not as bad as the numbers seem to indicate.

Spokeswoman Susan Arensman said the more recent numbers were inflated by the district's efforts to inform students and teachers on issues such as bullying and sexual harassment, which encouraged more reporting of bad behavior.

Some of the district's reports also suffer from imprecise definitions of what constitutes an incident.

Battery, for example, is any touching reported — and can range from a light tap to a beating, school officials said.

"We want administrators using a consistent definition around battery," Allison said. "I'm not sure that's the case."

School board president Connie Dietz agreed, saying that anytime there's a large group in a confined space like a school hallway, there's going to be some jostling and shoving.

"They do that at Intrust Arena," she said.

But record-keeping aside, both officials acknowledged there appears to be some increase in misbehavior in schools.

They attribute much of that to the troubled economic state of the community and the stress it has put on parents and students.

"When parents are unemployed and there's pressure at home, some of that is going to come to school," Allison said. "We've got to provide that safe, positive environment because that may be the only place they're getting it."

Corrective action

While school officials don't think the district's violence problem is severe, they are taking action.

The school board was briefed Wednesday on the Safe & Civil Schools program, which will be implemented starting this school year.

The board has approved spending as much as $480,000 to train 5,200 employees, Arensman said.

The program is part of a four-year, two-prong approach called Multi-Tiered System of Supports, designed to improve both the learning environment and schools' academic performance.

Randy Sprick, the principal author of Safe & Civil Schools, is working as a consultant to the school district.

He said the program will:

* Gather detailed data on disciplinary issues and classroom disruptions, including surveying parents and other stakeholders about the problems they perceive in the schools.

* Send observers to schools to try to identify patterns and trends that might not be seen in traditional data sources.

* Assist educators in using the information to identify and prioritize behavior issues.

* Provide administrators and teachers with a menu of solutions that have worked in other districts that are facing similar concerns.

About half the district — South, Southeast, Northeast, West and Northwest high schools, along with their feeder schools — will have the Safe & Civil Schools program in the next two years.

The remaining district schools — East, North and Heights high schools and their feeders — will focus on academic improvement, primarily in literacy.

In two years, the schools will switch programs so that four years from now, all the schools will have been exposed to both the academic and school-safety programs, Allison said.

A big part of the programs will be to ingrain them in a school's operations so they don't die when their original proponents leave the district, the schools' consultants said at the Wednesday meeting.

'Tip of the iceberg'

Chappell and Tyler say they think the incidences of misbehavior are substantially larger than the official reports indicate.

"I see it as the tip of the iceberg," Chappell said. "I'm listening to teachers and substitutes who say that every day, there are one or two classes where there's a problem.

"I'm having parents call me saying, 'My child has real concerns about going to school.' "

He said one caller told him, "My girl's been telling me for weeks she's afraid someone's going to jump her again, and the principal wouldn't do anything about it, (saying) it's just kids being kids."

He said his analysis of the available data indicates the biggest discipline problems are in the district's poorest-performing schools, problems he thinks go hand-in-hand.

"If these classes are not calm and safe spaces for kids to learn, they're not concentrating on what the teacher is trying to teach," Chappell said.

Tyler said he agrees with Chappell that disciplinary problems are under-reported.

He said a full-time teacher once told him to let things go in the classroom, because some of the students' parents have directed them to try to provoke teachers — especially substitutes — into taking rash actions so the family can sue the school.

"She was absolutely terrified," Tyler said.

Tyler said the day after he spoke at the community meeting, which was attended by several administrators, he was called into the district headquarters and told he was under investigation.

His scheduled teaching shifts were canceled and he was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing in July.

The administrative panel ruled he had violated the privacy of the student involved in the classroom solicitation incident, because he used the student's first name when telling the story in the neighborhood meeting.

"Mr. Tyler is therefore directed not to discuss specific student discipline with individuals other than staff at the site who have a need to know," the ruling said.

Tyler also was directed to attend in-service training in October to learn "additional strategies that will assist him in classroom management."

Allison said he could not comment directly because Tyler's case is a personnel matter, but he said that a neighborhood meeting is "probably not the most effective way to address the situation."

He said it could have been better handled directly through the district.

"There are all sorts of avenues in which concerns can be addressed and brought forth," he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle