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New report confirms major student unrest in the ACSD

MIDDLEBURY — The COVID-era surge in student unrest has, to date, largely been measured through police reports and sometimes-harrowing accounts from school officials about such conduct as children making threats, throwing furniture and refusing to comply with requests.

But thanks to new software called “Educlimber” and reporting requirements for staff, the Addison Central School District has, for the past seven months, been able to chart both minor and major K-12 student behavior incidents on its campuses in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

And the numbers aren’t pretty.

“This is a really small, though distressing, picture,” school board member James “Chip” Malcolm said.

According to information unveiled on Monday by ACSD Director of Equity & Student Services Nicole Carter, there were 1,172 documented minor or major behavior incidents within the school system between this past August and this month. And officials acknowledged that number could be low, given the likelihood some educators might’ve let one or more reportable incidents slide, or because some school administrators might still be negotiating a learning curve using Educlimber.

Officials stressed the district can’t draw any firm conclusions or trends from just seven months of Educlimber data, but that will come with more numbers during the months and years ahead. The statistics, over time, could help inform the ACSD’s deployment of staff and other resources toward tackling behavioral issues.

“The more we collect this data over a shorter period of time, the more accurate it’s going to be,” Malcolm said. 

Carter, during a 72-minute presentation to the board, classified the “major” behavior incidents into 17 categories, such as fighting/aggression, dangerous acts, threatening, verbal abuse, bullying, harassment, weapons-related offenses and theft.

Of these major offenses, according to Carter, fighting/aggression topped the list with 168 incidents, followed by dangerous acts (64), threatening (18) and making false threats (14). There were also six documented weapons-related cases and three cases of threats made to staff, according to Carter’s report.

The “minor” behavior incidents included 14 categories of offenses, such as disruptive behavior, skipping classes, showing disrespect, refusing a request, using bad language, cell phone use, academic dishonesty, leaving school grounds and dress-code violations.

Of these “minor” offenses, according to Carter, disruptive behavior (273) accounted for the lion’s share of reported cases, followed by skipping classes (140) and showing disrespect (78).

YOUNGER OFFENDERS

Somewhat counterintuitively, most of the “major” offenses were linked to the younger, rather than older, students, according to the report. Mary Hogan Elementary saw 182 of those incidents, while 80 were reported at Middlebury Union Middle School and 48 at Middlebury Union High School.

Seventy-two of the major incidents were ascribed to first-graders, followed by kindergarteners (38), second-graders (35), seventh-graders (31) and sixth-graders (30). 

Not coincidentally, concern about student behavior at Mary Hogan has been building since last fall. Several educators from that elementary school described their classroom challenges (see related story), and recommended corrective actions, at the March 11 ACSD board meeting.

While acknowledging each child is unique, Carter named a common, root cause for the bad behavior students are exhibiting in the classroom.

“Students who struggle with behaviors in school struggle because they are lacking skills,” she told the board, citing, as an example, coping skills. “We help kids by helping them to build skills.

“When the disruption ends, we know the skills are growing,” Carter concluded.

Trouble is, the district doesn’t have enough social workers, clinicians, paraprofessionals and other staff to impart the skills some students need to be successful in the school setting, according to Carter.

She said around 80% of ACSD students are currently learning in the general classroom setting for their entire school day. Other students spend a portion of their day in the classroom, and the balance receiving specialized services tailored to their needs.

Roughly 3% of the student population requires placement in an alternative public or private school system, to receive individualized or therapeutic services, according to Carter. There are no residential programs in Vermont for students with the most profound needs, and few specialized school options (public or private) for those who can’t thrive in a conventional education setting, Carter noted. She placed annual transportation costs for specialized schools at more than $100,000 per student.

The ACSD — and indeed all the county’s public school districts — are in the same boat due to a lack of resources and a dearth of takers for special education jobs, according to Carter.

“This is not just an ACSD thing… (The Mount Abraham and Addison Northwest school districts) are in the same amount of pain we are; they’re feeling it the same way and they want you all to know it’s the whole county. So we’re trying to work with them in a new way.”

SPECIAL PROGRAMS

One of those combined efforts has been the Addison Consortium Program, or ACP, which serves a dozen special needs students in grades 9-12 from the ACSD, ANWSD and MAUSD. The Independent reported last March on a proposed expansion of the ACP to serve 12 middle schoolers (grades 6-8) — four children each from the three districts.

Carter announced the ACP will stop being a shared program on July 1. The ACSD will run it and “it will be for ACSD students, and if there are any additional spots, they’ll be priority tuition from the other two school districts. The idea is to increase capacity.”

Last September, the ACSD established a Wellness & Learning Center (WLC) at Mary Hogan School. The WLC was set up to serve ACSD elementary school students in need of “specialized social-emotional and behavioral supports” during the academic day. The program has been so successful that district officials are looking to set up a second WLC at either Mary Hogan or Ripton Elementary School.

Meanwhile, Carter and her colleagues will continue efforts to ensure students’ needs are being met by a fragile specialized services system. 

“We have lots of problems we need to solve,” she said.

Ongoing challenges include:

• Few to no applicants for special educator, mental health clinicians, intensive-needs paraeducators to fill vacancies.

• What Carter called “a drastic reduction” in Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) service providers to work with local students. Carter explained CSAC is itself facing a major staffing shortage in trying to deal with its own client roster.

While shorthanded, the ACSD is trying to meet its specialized services obligations by:

• Delivering services virtually when possible, if a local provider is unavailable.

• Prioritizing attention to the most intensive needs.

• Shifting staffing patterns, so the most highly trained people are providing the most needed services.

• Increasing staff training and professional development.

• Collaborating with the neighboring Mount Abe and Addison Northwest school districts to find countywide solutions for the special services quandary.

Backsliding on special services would be detrimental to the entire student population, Carter warned.

“Lack of staffing and space for specialized services impacts the general ed classrooms because attention and resources from administrators, general ed teachers, paraprofessionals and school counselors is prioritized to support specialized services needs first,” she said.

ACSD School Board Chair Barb Wilson was grateful for the data and said she looks forward to seeing updated stats during the coming months.

“Hopefully, we can help these kids,” she said.

Read the full report below.

ACSD Board 3.22.24

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

 

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