Are Wichita teachers being pressured to keep unruly students in the classroom?

The Wichita teachers contract allows teachers to remove a student from class when he or she is disrupting others.
The Wichita teachers contract allows teachers to remove a student from class when he or she is disrupting others. Getty Images

Disruptive behavior in Wichita classrooms is frustrating teachers and driving some families away from district schools, a teachers union official said Thursday.

“We are losing students of parents who want to send their kids to public schools,” said Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita.

“There are . . . kids who struggle so much with self-regulating that they are ruining the educational opportunity of the other kids,” he said. “I can’t imagine anybody in the public believes that’s OK.”

Negotiations over a new contract for Wichita teachers heated up this week around the topic of student behavior.

Union representatives said teachers are being pressured not to report disruptive students to the principal, and that students removed from class too often return within minutes and without consequence.

Small number of students

Terrell Davis, assistant superintendent of support services, said disruptive students make up “a very small number of our kids,” and he urged teachers to work with school administrators to come up with solutions.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re all coming to the table with the purpose of problem-solving and doing what’s in the best interest of that kid,” Davis said.

“It can’t just always be, ‘This kid can’t be in my room.’ Because the kid may not be in my room today, but he’s going to go to somebody else’s room. So is it fair to the teacher down the hallway that I kicked the kid out, and now he’s in your room and you put up with him for two or three weeks?”

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According to the Wichita teachers contract, classroom teachers can remove a student from class “when, in the judgment of (the) teacher, a pupil is substantially disrupting the instructional program to the detriment of other pupils.”

The contract further directs that the student not be returned to that teacher’s class for a half-day “unless there is mutual agreement between the teacher and the principal.” Principals are required to keep written records of the removals, which are known in most schools as “pupil behavior reports,” or PBRs.

During Thursday’s discussion, teachers said some administrators, driven to lower their number of behavior reports, are pressuring or even directing teachers not to send students to the principal’s office.

“Teachers have been brow-beaten into not writing kids up for anything,” said LaShay Powell, a history and law teacher at Northeast Magnet High School.

“It gets turned around as we’re not trying to be a team player, we’re not trying to find solutions, we are not using the proper strategies to mitigate these negative behaviors,” she said.

“When we talk about . . . working together to find solutions, I’m all for that. But the solution can’t be that I just don’t write the kid up, and I’ll figure it out on my own. And I think that’s what we have been seeing these last couple years. . . . Everybody’s numbers look great, but the behavior hasn’t really changed at all.”

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A plan to improve behavior

Several times over the past few years, Wichita teachers union leaders have cited increasing concerns about student behavior and urged district leaders to address the problem.

Data shows that discipline problems increased substantially in Wichita schools between 2013 and 2017, particularly among elementary school students.

In one of her first actions as district chief, Superintendent Alicia Thompson directed her staff to craft a multi-year plan to improve student behavior. The strategies so far include monitoring data more carefully, placing more veteran teachers in high-poverty schools, increasing mental health services, supporting trauma-informed practices and helping teachers better understand students’ diverse backgrounds.

The district also established Bryant Opportunity Academy, a new K-6 school designed specifically for students struggling with behavior problems.

Wentz said he supports those efforts and others, including restorative justice strategies, which focus on empowering students to solve conflicts on their own.

But he urged administrators to follow the contract when it comes to allowing teachers to remove disruptive students from class.

“My biggest single concern is that we acquiesce to a child who has been through some really traumatic events and is showing the effects of that in a classroom — and the other children in the classroom suffer for that,” he said.

Dealing with ‘problem’ students

Chris Wendt, executive director of elementary schools, pledged to remind principals of the contract terms, including that teachers must agree to have a student returned to class.

“As a former principal I’m going to say: If a kid needs to be out of the classroom, I’m going to take him out of the classroom. It’s my job as a principal to support the teacher and that kid that I’m pulling out,” Wendt said.

“But we need to back up farther to, ‘Why is the kid doing what he’s doing?’”

Wentz said he and other teachers don’t want to be characterized as giving up on so-called “problem” students.

“We want to support them, and we all know we’re going to take them,” he said. “The (Catholic) Diocese isn’t going to take them, Independent isn’t going to take them, Collegiate isn’t going to take them. We’re going to take them, and in fact we’re taking them from all over the state.

“Realizing that, I want to make sure that the classroom teacher is equipped to deal with that and not forced to have to give less educational opportunities to the other kids.”

Teachers said students shouldn’t be removed for minor offenses, such as pencil-tapping. But extreme outbursts that distract or endanger other students should be addressed quickly.

Sharlet Martinez, a special education teacher at Harry Street Elementary School, said she worries about “kiddos who are in the classroom who are witnessing this or who are the victim of severe abuse.

“There are some severe things happening, and in kindergarten it’s even rougher, because the kids have never been to school before and they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do,” she said.

‘Let’s be real’

At times during Thursday’s contract talks, union leaders sparred with district representatives over more abstract concepts. Wentz argued that 100 percent proficiency goals — for student achievement or behavior — are unrealistic.

“Let’s be real: We’re not going to save them all,” Wentz said. “And this notion that we can save them all is just — it’s noble, it’s idealistic, but it isn’t happening.”

Davis, the assistant superintendent, shot back:

“I hope we believe we can save them all, so that we take the approach that we can save them all. . . . I know sometimes it’s hard. It’s above and beyond. But this is why we got into the biz.”

“I agree, but . . . we’re doing Lake Woebegone: ‘Everybody is above average,’” Wentz said. “I want us to be real about the conversation. That’s all I’m asking.”