POWHATAN – The Powhatan County School Board recently discussed the management of student behavior that included a pointed discussion about school safety.

During its meeting on June 11, the school board heard a presentation looking at student behavior management, changes that have been made in the last several years, and the results of a climate survey filled out by students and teachers.

Tracie Omohundro, assistant superintendent for instruction, gave a presentation on student behavior management that talked about the challenges and successes the school district has had as well as the steps forward the division will continue to take.

The division’s goal is to prevent negative student behaviors, incorporate instruction into how schools work with students to manage their behavior, and also making sure they are “focused on equity, fairness and continuing student improvement,” she said.

Faculty and staff are teaching Powhatan students how to behave, which is the focus of the strategies the division is embracing with positive results, she said.

Some of the highlights Omohundro outlined in her presentation included:

* Powhatan High School’s dropout rate went from 3.52 in 2017 to 1.74 in 2018;

* PHS’s graduation completion index increased from 95.2 in 2017 to 96.9 in 2018; and

* The division’s suspension and expulsion rates have gone down across the board.

Of particular interest to the school board members were the results of a divisionwide survey among students and adults. Omohundro showed a chart that featured the highest and lowest responses among the five schools to several of the behavior and discipline questions from the survey. Some of the examples of the questions Omohundro highlighted included responses to these statements:

* I feel safe at school – among students, the school with the highest response was 88 percent and the lowest was 72 percent. Among teachers, 94 percent felt safe at the highest school and 90 percent at the lowest.

This survey question and the response rate drew extra attention from the board members who were concerned about how many students didn’t feel safe in school. Even if the number was smaller, board members described being sad that any student would come to school feeling afraid.

* I am recognized for my positive behavior – among students, 87 percent at the highest and 54 percent at the lowest.

* I know how to decide right from wrong – among students, 95 percent at the highest and 90 percent at the lowest.

* There are supports to help a student who consistently misbehaves – among teachers, 88 percent at the highest and 66 percent at the lowest school.

* Students know there are consequences for breaking school rules – among students 78 percent was the highest and 36 percent the lowest.

During the presentation, Omohundro talked about some of the “real talk” administration has heard from the staff at the schools. They talked about people at all levels and job descriptions in the division having to continue to adjust their understanding and implementation of new behavior management practices and refuting the misconception that students are no longer being disciplined.

The school division has adopted strategies to support teachers and students at all levels.

Some of the tools the division is using include:

* Second Step – Tier 1 school-wide curriculum that teaches students about goal-setting, decision-making, and handling strong emotions, implementing it at Powhatan Middle School (teachers), and the three elementary schools (counselors);

* Reset and Reflect (R&R) – a Tier 1 strategy to address immediate behavior and reteach alternatives.

* Skills Streaming – Tier 3 direct instruction on social emotional competencies and strategies such as accepting re-direction for K-12 students.

* Other supports – structured day, small groups, check-in, check-out, and mentoring.

Part of the plan and some of the school board member responses talked specifically about Powhatan Middle School and challenges there. Omohundo pointed out that in the last four years, middle school students had four principals and three building.

Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, said that these points and others presented in the budget was for the school division’s use.

“We look at it as an opportunity for growth and an opportunity for improvement, so there are no repercussions. It is just us wanting to get better,” he said.

Pride Month

In a separate but related discussion, several members of the public spoke during the public comment period about a few people spoke about reactions to a Pride Month display put up for less than two days at the middle school.

Among the comments were:

* Ben Burkhart, who felt the display should not have been put up at the middle school, talked about isolating groups under the veil of inclusivity; introducing politically charged and divisive topics during year-end testing, and having better school board protocols for dealing with socially-divisive issues.

* Powhatan High Schools student Michael Wirt said the problems at the middle school have bled over to the high school. He spoke about the intention of the display to celebrate Pride Month and showing students it is OK for them to be themselves. He said it was a helpful and inclusionary display but taking it down so soon after putting it up felt like a “stab in the back.” He also talked about the negative reactions of some students when the display went up and the atmosphere of bullying they created.

* PMS seventh-grader Madilynn Lewallen talked about having LGBTQ friends and how they are all bullied at their school and don’t feel safe at school. When the display was put up, her friends were excited and felt like they were being accepted, she said. But when it was taken down, they felt like the school hadn’t accepted them and they had no one with whom they could talk.

She talked about bullying behavior such as other students telling them “gay is not OK, tell us we should kill ourselves – we don’t deserve to live because … they feel like it is not the right way to live.” She said being LGBTQ isn’t something to be ashamed of or something that needs to be hidden; it is loving a person for who they are and being who you are and want to be in the world, not what others want you to be.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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