This is a long post. My apologies. (I haven’t actually covered even half of the hot mess that was the March 3rd meeting, however.) If you have watched the last board meeting, much of this should be obvious to you. So if you wish to skip the summary section, please feel free to do so. The most interesting, and I believe least obvious material, starts at the heading “How to Address the Student Discipline Issues” below.
On Thursday, March 3rd, Dr. Wardynski offered an hour long presentation on “Student Conduct.” If you wish to download the presentation, you may certainly do so, but as you see below, Dr. Wardynski did not spend much time developing slides for this presentation. If you prefer watching the meeting, you may do so here. The discussion of the Student Conduct agenda item begins at about the 1:12 minute mark.
This isn’t different from the new procedure that he posted on Saturday, February 27th.
There wasn’t much time spent explaining this new procedure to the board of education (nor seeking their approval of it), but he did offer a significant amount of information concerning his implementation of this procedure. You can read a transcription of their discussion here, but I will offer a summary of it below.
Summary #1: Statistics on Fighting at Huntsville High School
After providing an overview of all that he does to address district safety, Wardynski claimed that fights at Huntsville High School (not district wide) are down 20%. He offered no specific data supporting this claim until later in the presentation when he stated that the number of fights at HHS were at the same percentage level they were at in 2012:
“Fights are at the same level they were in 2012. Now there were more fights . . . But there’s more kids. We saw the kid rate, the number of kids at Huntsville High has gone from about 1,600 to now nearly almost 2,000.”
I’m not certain where the superintendent is drawing his numbers from, but according to the Alabama State Department of Education, the Average Daily Membership (ADM) at Huntsville High has increased from 1,720 in 2011-2012 to 1,940 in 2015-2016 which is a 12% increase in enrollment rather than a 25% increase that he was claiming.
The school-level data from 2011 is not available via the state’s website at the current time. All that is available at the school level is 2014 and 2015. In 2014, Huntsville High had 14 fights. In 2015, there were 25 fights reported to the state. That doesn’t look like a decrease. (Nor does that look like the actual total number of fights at HHS during those years. By the way, by most estimates, Huntsville High has had at least 20 fights this year since returning from Christmas break.)
Since his student enrollment growth estimates were basically twice the reported level, unless and until Dr. Wardynski releases hard data supporting his claim that fights at Huntsville High have decreased by 20%, there’s no reason to believe him when he claims that they have. Wardynski often seems to have issues getting the numbers correct.
Brief Discussion About Punishment for Student Discipline Issues and Fights
People involved in fighting as a means of self-defense, if they stop fighting when ordered to do so, will not be punished. People who “precipitated a fight” will be “out.” Wardynski claimed:
Uh, given guidance to our principals, as we brought in the new technologies that identify who precipitated a fight, they’re out. And if you’re just defending yourself, and you stop fighting when the adults say, “Stop Fighting,” and get in, break it up. Then no consequence. You were defending yourself. If you don’t stop fighting, there will be a consequence.
Did you notice how imprecise and ill-defended the consequences for precipitating a fight are? If not, not to worry. That really wasn’t his point at that moment. Instead he was trying to justify the purchase of $400,000 worth of “high-def cameras for HHS over the summer.
While he claimed that a student starting a fight would be “out,” this is not true according to the 2015 Code of Conduct. As you can see, many of the infractions that involve Fighting have been moved to Class I violations requiring that the teacher deal with the issue in class.
You should keep that in mind when you review the data from the Alabama State Department of Education’s Student Incident Report (SIR). The SIR defines a fight as:
Mutual participation in a fight involving physical violence where there are at least two participants, but no one main offender and no major injury. Fighting does not include verbal confrontations, tussles, or other minor confrontations. This conduct creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person. Administrators need to consider age and developmentally appropriate behavior before using this category. See also Assault, Harassment, and/or other applicable terms.
A Class I “Fight” would not, according to this definition be reported to the state. It would require the fight to be classified as at least a Class II offense before it would be reported. For a first time violation of a Class II offense the discipline would include: “Parental contact and in-class or in-school disciplinary actions. In some exceptional cases, severity or nature of offense may warrant out-of-school discipline.” Subsequent Class II Violations might lead to “out-of-school discipline,” but again, “In-class or in-school discipline should be used.”
The district no longer has a Class III fight where the fight would be considered severe enough to warrant expulsion immediately.
So Dr. Wardynski’s claim that students who fight, “they’re out,” is not supported by the Code of Conduct nor by practice. Students who fight are typically not expelled from school for doing so.
This is not the case with students who record the fights, however.
Students Recording Fights Will Be Expelled (Unless Parents Hire a Lawyer)
By way of justification for expelling student who record a fight as opposed to those who precipitate a fight, Dr. Wardynski had this to say:
But we’ve caught kids distributing (fight videos) using SnapChat, and we have expelled them. And we will continue to expel them. They’re destroying the value of the schools. They’re bringing threats into the schools. They’re disrupting education. And they’re destroying the property value for homeowners who don’t even have kids in the schools.
Based on the amount of time he spend discussing the recording of fights as compared with the amount of time he spent discussing the actual fighting issue, it would seem the superintendent is more concerned about property values than he is about stopping fights in our schools.
Honestly, that should tell you everything you need to know about what motivates Dr. Wardynski. That students are fighting in our schools is of far less concern to him than that someone might record the fight and share it via Social Media or via the news media. (He specifically singled out WAFF 48 for showing a fight.)
In support of this severe disciplinary action, Dr. Wardynski cited a board policy that does not exist:
We will expel children for violating Board Policy, which I think is 6.6, J.R.? Uh, 6.2 or 6.6. And then Code of Conduct 1.19, Code of Conduct 3.25. And we have expelled children. And we will expel children for that. It has nothing to do with covering things up. We report our fights. We record our fights. We report them to the federal government.
The board policy to which Dr. Wardynski is possibly referring is 6.22 which is the only policy that references Video Recording. This policy prohibits the “Use or visible possession of any such device (cell phones) during school hours . . . except by permission of the Principal.” As Wardynski himself later points out, he has been the superintendent that has allowed students to bring cell phones to school and that has allowed them to be used in class at school as well. So his intention here is use a board policy that he has openly ignored for years as justification for punishing students for using their cell phones in ways he does not approve of.
His appeal to the board policy that he’s openly ignored for years is rather hypocritical, no?
Well if that’s not enough, how about the fact that many several students over the past two weeks who have been threatened with expulsion have not been expelled once their parents hired a lawyer?
The primary purpose of the Consent Agreement that has, according to Wardynski, forced the district to reevaluate the Code of Conduct, is to ensure that students will be treated fairly and equitably across the district regardless of where they attend school. However, it seems that one of the side effects here is that students’ with parents wealthy enough to hire legal counsel will indeed still be treated differently in this district.
Wardynski Claims that Police are Present to Protect Kids not Break up Fights
Uh, our police force is really not there for fights. Our police force is there to protect our kids from threats that may come into the school, typically in the form of an adult. Or a child who has a weapon or something. The police will intervene, though, where they deem effective, where they deem it’s their job to intervene.
Perhaps by way of explaining why so few of the incidents reported on the Student Incident Report resulted in a police referral (In 2015, there were 3,175 incidents reported to the state. 23 of those were also referred to the Police. None of those referrals were for fighting.), Wardynski offered an extended defense of why he doesn’t want the police handling fights on campuses.
So, would it look like. Well, if the police were involved with dealing with fights, which they don’t seek to do, and we don’t seek for them to do, but they can become involved in and if they think it’s appropriate, um, you’ve now got disorderly conduct. You’re going to probably be taken to somewhere to be interviewed by the police. You’re probably going to be searched. If you’ve got a reefer on you. Now you’ve got a reefer. If you’ve got a pen knife, now you’ve got a knife. If the police hadn’t been involved, none of that secondary information would’ve come to the fore. Now you’re on your way home, and you run a traffic light. We’ll you’ve already got three things. Now we’ve got a traffic stop. Now you’re probably going to be addressed differently.
Wardynski seems completely at ease with students possessing “reefer” (as did McCaulley judging by her laughing at this) and “a knife” on campus. What he isn’t at ease with is the involvement of the police in addressing such possessions.
It has been an ongoing joke this year that the safest place in the city limits to be in possession of marijuana is on a Huntsville City Schools campus. It would seem that Wardynski agrees with this.
Wardynski Loves Spying on Social Media
In 2014, Dr. Wardynski initiated (again without board approval) the SAFe Program by hiring a former FBI agent named Chris McRae though the T&W Operations company here in Huntsville to supposedly monitor social media for threats that were coming from students. As I wrote back then, I was convinced that the primary motivation for Wardynski’s interest in social media had nothing to do with protecting students from other students and everything to do with Wardynski wishing to know who in the city was speaking ill of him and his policies.
I have yet to understand why any parent would believe that having the school system monitoring their child’s social media pages would be a good idea, but evidently there are some that do. (Yet another reason I cannot support the PTA in this town.) I would prefer that the district spend their time, energy, and money addressing the fighting that is happening in schools rather than the posting of the fights on social media. After all, if you address the fights, then the posting of the fights is moot.
But that’s not the real purpose of the social media spying program. Wardynski is obsessed with the establishment of an enemies list. And he admits as much when he describes how this new social media procedure allowed him to discover what teachers were posting on social media:
Wardynski: Uh, the other thing that we had, we had a teacher at Huntsville high, for reasons I couldn’t figure out, who spread rumors, even on social media, uh that these kids who were in a fight, which were kicking around on the floor a cell phone, were king around a gun. Well if there’s a gun at school, we know.
While I’m fairly certain that Wardynski might know after the fact that there was a gun at school, I’m not certain how he would knowthat in the heat of the moment.
Either way, it’s clear that Wardynski believes that one of the benefits of this social media spying program is so that he can keep track of what teachers are saying and posting on social media.
I have been told that teachers across the district are being warned by their principals that not only will the district use the cameras to watch students, but they are also using them to watch teachers and what they are doing.
Teachers are also being told that the district is watching when teachers “like something controversial” on social media. While there wasn’t a clear definition of what Wardynski would consider “controversial,” I would expect that liking anything that is even remotely critical of the district or the superintendent would be on the list. This is certainly in keeping with his comments at the board meeting when he went on to relay the story of another teacher’s posts to social media:
Wardynski: We’ve got a teacher at Hampton Cove Middle School who’s passing around fight videos on social media. Why she would do that, I have no idea. It undermines the value of the community, the school, it undermines confidence in the school system. If a teacher is going to put their name on something and send it around, people are going to think that it’s true. And that there’s some, and that this person is in possession of all the facts. Teachers do that, I think, frankly are way below the level of professional ethics. And uh, they need to stop it.
As it will help us come to a resolution of this matter, let’s see if we can answer the question that Wardynski asks of why would a teacher record a fight and/or share a fight video that was recorded on their own personal social media site?
Why Teachers Might Share a Fight Video?
The simplest answer is the one that my daughter shouted out at the screen when she heard Dr. Wardynski’s question as she walked through the living room: “To prove they’re happening.”
Out of the mouths of babes . . .
Dr. Wardynski’s constant refrain in the public is that everything is awesome. Students are learning more than ever. Teachers are happier than ever before. The school system is growing faster than ever. And Wardynski is the reason for all of this awesomeness.
When Wardynski and his PR team which includes people like Keith Ward who during the March 3rd meeting acknowledge that while the district had received some “negative press” during the previous month, but it wasn’t that terrible because there are other districts in the country who are having more negative news than Huntsville City Schools. He then proceeded to show video clips from across the nation of negative education stories from other districts. (You may see this for yourself in the video above beginning at about the 13 minute mark.)
It would seem that Mr. Ward and Dr. Wardynski are of the opinion that “everybody else is doing it” is an effective argument to use to get you out of trouble. Pity they’re still operating on such a childish level.
Teachers share videos because, like any human being, they want people to believe them when they say how they are often afraid to go to work. It really is as simple as that.
How to Address the Student Discipline Issues
The primary thing that Wardynski failed to do during his hour long speech was to actually offer any solution to the problems that we’re facing. Stopping the recording of a fight is not going to stop the fights. Huntsville High proved that on Monday, March 7th when before 10am a student who had been punished for fighting the previous week returned to school, announced her intention to receive suspension again, and proceeded to get into another fight.
The screams of teachers and other adults that students must leave their phones in their pockets had no effect whatsoever on the fight.
So, what could have an effect on the fights?
We begin to get a picture of where the discipline issues are coming from in three questions from Ms. McCaulley.
Problem #1: Board Shirks Its Oversight for Procedures
After asking Ms. Wilder to set her up with the question about why the board didn’t vote on the implementation of this new Student Discipline Issues procedure, McCaulley responded with the following statement:
McCaulley: What I was gonna explain to those individuals cause I received a call from news media, would the board be voting on these procedures. The board develop policies, and we may give the superintendent directives something like, “We want safe schools.” How is administrative. The board does, we do not develop procedure, we just set policy. I use the example that we may say we want lights in every room. We don’t tell ‘em what kind of lightbulbs to use, we just say lights must be in every room. So that, they were asking why we did not vote on these procedures, that is not the role of the board. And if you can check statute and the constitution of Alabama, it may help you some to understand the role of the board. We are governance, we are not administrative.
This sounds fairly reasonable until you go and review the state statute that she references but doesn’t cite. It’s possible that she’s citing Alabama Code §16-1-30(b) which reads:
“(b) The local board of education shall, upon the written recommendation of the chief executive officer, determine and establish a written educational policy for the board of education and its employees and shall prescribe rules and regulations for the conduct and management of the schools. Before adopting the written policies, the board shall, directly or indirectly through the chief executive officer, consult with the applicable local employees’ professional organization. Input by the applicable professional organization shall be made in writing to the chief executive officer. Representatives of the professional organization shall be made known to the chief executive officer in writing by the professional organization’s duly elected officers or their representative. The chief executive officer of the board may also consult with professional assistants, principals, employees, and other interested citizens. The written policies, rules, and regulations, so established, adopted, or promulgated shall be made available to all persons affected and employed by the board. Any amendments to the policies, rules, and regulations shall be developed in the same manner and furnished to the affected persons employed by the board within 20 days after adoption.”
It would seem to be a matter of interpretation, therefore, what role the board plays in the establishment of “procedure” or, as the code reads, “the written polices, rules, regulations, so established, adopted, or promulgated . . .”
McCaulley is leading the board to take a completely hands off approach toward their responsibility in guiding the district in the way it should go. Even Wardynski admitted that J. R. Brooks the legal representative for the board stated that “procedure which becomes policy according to J. R.”
At a minimum, one would hope that McCaulley realizes that the board surely holds more responsibility for addressing issues with the Code of Conduct than say they might for the selection of, oh I don’t know, “which lightbulbs the district should buy.”
McCaulley wants to shirk her responsibility here for one simple reason: it’s an election year (as she stated to Michelle Watkins, Johnson High PTSA President and candidate for the District 1 board seat that McCaulley currently holds.)
If McCaulley can claim (no matter how unconvincingly) that the board has no role in maintaining a safe environment for students, then she can hope that she won’t be held responsible for their failure to maintain a safe environment for students.
As I read the state code, and it would seem, as Wardynski and Brooks read the state code, McCaulley is wrong.
But what can the board do to help keep students safe, you ask? Well that’s simple: As the elected representatives of parents and the community, they can require Wardynski to do more than just try and hide the fighting problem that he has created by expelling anyone who records a fight.
They can, in other words, do their damn job.
Problem #2: “What Should a Teacher Do if They Witness a Fight?” (Hint: It’s not in writing.)
After about 40 minutes into the presentation, McCaulley asked the most important question that she’s ever asked as a board member. (Not to worry; I’m sure it was unintentional.) She asked Wardynski, “What should a teacher do if they witness a fight? Should they call security?”
This seems like a straight forward question, no? You would think that a board member, just like a teacher would have long since had a clear understanding of what the teacher’s actions should be in the event of a fight.
Sadly, this is not the case.
After being asked this question, Wardynski first claimed:
Well, teachers are part of the supervision system, and so first they’re supposed to help break it up. They’re certainly supposed to alert campus security, and uh, the other thing they’re supposed to do is supervise the students in the hallways. . . . They need to supervise the kids. If there’s a fight, they need to involve themselves in ending that fight. Uh, alerting campus security. And probably the last thing that they need to do is passing around videos of fights.
You noticed, I hope, that Wardynski didn’t say, “Our teachers know exactly what is expected of them because we have put it in writing for them and conducted extensive professional develop so they’ll know how to address a fight in schools.”
You’ll notice he seemed to be developing this procedure for how a teacher should address fighting in the schools on the fly.
If you don’t, then you can pick up on it from Mr. Brooks’ interjection that teachers are only required to provide “Reasonable Supervision,” which did not enter Wardynski’s answer at all.
You see, as any reasonable person already knows, having a 120 pound 25-year-old teacher “involve themselves in ending that fight” between two 18-year-old male (or female) students is a recipe for disaster.
It’s a pity the superintendent isn’t reasonable.
In short, the reason that Wardynski couldn’t just say, “Our teachers know exactly what we expect of them because it’s written down in a procedure that we developed before school began” is simple:
No such procedure exists.
You read that correctly, it doesn’t exist. Teachers have neither been told what they are expected to do, nor how they are expected to do it when it comes to their observing and ending a fight.
McCaulley later tried to inquire about teachers’ training in “proper restraint” techniques. Wardynski initially reasoned:
The teachers have restraint training, and we continue to provide that.
When Wilder claims that she didn’t know this (because, you know, it isn’t true), Wardynski back peddles his earlier remark by saying:
Now the restrain training is primarily oriented on in situations where you have behavioral problems already; special ed and so forth.
Yes, special education teachers and aide do have some restraint training for protecting a special education student who is in danger of harming himself or others.
The number of people who have received this training is likely less than about 100 people district-wide.
Wouldn’t a reasonable person’s first response to videos showing fights across the district have been to ensure that teachers knew exactly what was expected of them?
Wouldn’t a reasonable person’s second response to videos showing fights across the district have been to ensure that teachers had the training to do exactly what was expected of them?
Wardynski’s first response: outlaw the recording of fights, which is frankly not the act of a reasonable person, but instead the act of a person who is only concerned about a possible decline in property values rather than a concern about students?
So why would he do this? Why not just put the procedures in writing? Wouldn’t an email be a far more efficient use of his and “key members of the cabinet’s” time as opposed to going out and meeting everyone?
The reason he doesn’t want to put the procedures is writing is that he wants to be able to blame teachers for the fights and use their approach to dealing with fighting against them during their review period.
If you don’t tell someone what they are responsible for, it’s much easier to blame them for not doing it after the fact.
His refusal to put his expectations in writing is driven by his motivation to punish teachers for how they handle discipline issues without explaining to them how they should actually handle it.
Problem #3: The Code of Conduct Isn’t Clear
McCaulley asks one final question of Mr. Gregory Hicks, Director of Behavioral Learning and one of the primary developers of the Code of Conduct about a “rumor” she’s heard. (As I’ve mentioned many times before, when something is brought to the board as a “rumor,” you can almost always assume that it’s true.) McCaulley asks:
Mr. Hicks? Since I have you here this evening, would you please clear up this rumor that’s going around that teachers have to be cussed out five times before they can do something?
Mr. Hick responds:
Uh, that’s absolutely false. I talk about that several times because I hear the rumors myself. And every time I go to a school, I tell the teachers that that is not the case. We don’t expect them to be, uh dressed up and down, without uh having some kind of consequences or some kind of response.
Wardynski then adds:
What we’re gonna do is go out to the high schools, principals, administrators in the feeder pattern, so that elementary, middle, and highs, and the lead teachers from elementaries, middles, and highs. I’m going. I’m going with key members of the cabinet. And we’re going to hear these kind of issues. We’re gonna have the superintendent tell them, “Nope, you don’t have to do that. The Code of Conduct says here’s the consequence for students misbehaving in that way. And here’s the things you can do about, so I don’t have to listen to these rumors anymore about what teachers can and cannot do.
Don’t you just love it when bullies start talking tough?
Since Dr. Wardynski suggested that teachers should refer to The Code of Conduct, let’s do that. What does the Code of Conduct tell teachers about handling and responding to the use of profanity in the classroom?
Well for starters, profanity is a Class I offense these days. And it is defined as:
1.06 Profanity: Use of profane or obscene language (verbal, written, or any gesture).”
First time violators for elementary and high school are subject to “in-class corrections and conference with the student. Parents may be contacted.” There is no mention of sending the child to the office. Thus the Code of Conduct requires that a student not be sent to the office for cussing a teacher out once.
Subsequent violations are punished as follows: “Continued attempts at in-class corrections as well as parental contact. In rare circumstances, out-of-class but in-school disciplinary actions may be used, such as referral to the In-House Learning Center (ILC).”
Thus repeated use of profanity results in “out-of-class but in-school disciplinary actions” and this only “in rare circumstances.”
Profanity is also listed as a Class II offense:
2.38: Habitual Disrespect/Profanity: Weekly occurrences over a two month period of incidents of profane or obscene language (verbal, written, or any gesture).
For a Class II offense, the first time offender is still required to receive “in-class or in-school disciplinary actions.”
Thus, after weekly cussing over a two month period, a student may receive in-school disciplinary action if the teacher has clearly and repeatedly documented the actions of the child.
So it would seem that Wardynski is right. It is a “rumor” that teachers don’t have to be cussed out five times before they can do something about it.
The reality is that a teacher must be cussed out at least weekly over a two month period before they can do something about it. And then, only if the teacher’s paperwork is completely in order.
What are the Causes for the Rise in Student Discipline Issues?
The causes, after listening to the board and superintendent, and reading the Code of Conduct seem fairly clear.
- The Code of Conduct clearly reduces the allowed punishments for violations.
- Teachers are putting their jobs in danger if they refer a student to the office.
- Teachers do not have a clear procedure they feel safe to follow to address behavioral issues like fighting.
- When students are referred to the office, since principals do not wish to risk the wrath of Wardynski in a negative data meeting, students are returned to the classroom to disrupt the class further.
- Students absolutely know that teachers do not have the support of their principals nor the respect of their superintendent. As such, they do not respect their teachers.
- Since relatively minor infractions like cussing result in no significant punishment “in-class corrections,” students aren’t concerned about more significant infractions, and finally,
- Dr. Wardynski is clearly more concerned about maintaining his reputation than actually addressing the fights that are occurring. Thus the fights continue.
It is well past time for this superintendent who “doesn’t want to listen to these rumors” of his own creation to leave this district. It’s possible that we might manage to survive if he does so soon.
If he’s still here at the end of the school year, we will see yet another mass exodus of teachers that makes us long for the exodus we saw last summer.
And we’ll see a mass exodus of students as well.