School safety issues got renewed attention at the St. Paul School District on Tuesday, but tight budgets pose new challenges as officials seek to make schools safer and stem the flow of students to other districts and charter schools.
School board members who on Tuesday heard task force recommendations about how to improve school climate had a fundamental question for administrators: Is this all there is?
Increased support for students in crisis was recommended. The board was urged to consider having more regular classroom teachers join their special-education counterparts in learning techniques to de-escalate disruptive behavior.
But the 2016-17 budget already has been set, and another big deficit looms for 2017-18.
St. Paul is eyeing up to a 5 percent tax-levy increase for schools in 2017, with much of the new proceeds going to building improvements under its new long-range facilities plan.
This summer, a school climate task force that included principals, administrators and others developed recommendations presented Tuesday by Jon Peterson, executive director of the Office of College and Career Readiness, and Kathy Lombardi, the district’s mental health coordinator.
In addition to suggesting increased training for general-education teachers, Lombardi said that the task force urged an ongoing look into the restorative-practices approaches to discipline being made possible under a new contract with teachers, as well as creation of a districtwide school climate team that could review ideas that the board could consider funding in future years.
Board Member Zuki Ellis said that the big question for many people is whether students are safe in the schools. She said she believed the task force recommendations came up short in providing answers.
“What else is there?” she said. “There has to be more than this.”
Peterson replied that teachers could learn de-escalation techniques, but the district did not have enough people to train teachers, and would have to figure how to build capacity and resources — conversations that now would have to occur in the future.
Much of the concern over school climate stems from a rise in physical aggression toward staff. In 2015-16, teachers at Central and Como Park senior high schools were the victims of highly publicized attacks at the hands of students.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Lombardi said in an interview that the district made available to all staff members earlier this year an online course, “Handling Crisis Situations,” emphasizing a quick but calm response to students who act out. Controlling one’s body and voice is advised. Facial muscles should be relaxed and the appearance one of confidence, even if stressed. Stand slightly more than a leg’s length from a student to avoid being hit or kicked, the lesson states.
Not part of that course, but an element of the nonviolent crisis-intervention training required of special-education teachers, is what to do when efforts to talk it out fails, and a staff member must put his or her hands on a student and do a safe hold.
Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, was enthusiastic about such training when she attended the task force meetings, but expressed reservations recently about having general-education teachers learning how to put holds on kids.
Looking ahead, Peterson and Lombardi are expected to appear again before the board to discuss climate concerns and, hopefully, at least in Board Member Steve Marchese’s view, they’ll be helping the board decide how to allocate tight resources.
“Do we have the right staffing? Do we have the right people doing the right functions?” were among the questions Marchese said on Tuesday that he’d like to have answered.