School Board asks for ‘climate’ report on King’s Fork Middle after bullying incidents  

Published 6:36 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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King’s Fork Middle School has been a focal point for its school climate this year, and several people, including a student, have expressed concerns over bullying incidents there.

School Board member Tyron Riddick asked at an April 7 meeting that Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III and the school’s administration provide a report that addresses concerns there and what metrics would be used to measure success, or improvement, in the school’s climate. He said he, board member Karen Jenkins and other board members had been receiving multiple reports recently about issues at the school, and it has also been widely shared on Facebook and had been on the news.

“How can we ensure that the efforts that Dr. Gordon and his staff are taking are being made known and communicated to the community,” Riddick said, “because oftentimes we are addressing things, it’s just people don’t know about it.”

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He suggested that, although the school has a tip line that people can anonymously report bullying, some parents may not know that.

“My main thing is, what are we doing to address it, how do we know that what we’re doing is working and what methods are we relaying this to the community,” Riddick said.

Gordon said, however, that he would not single out a particular school due to the negative consequences of doing so. He also wanted clarification on whether the board sought information about school climate or bullying.

No one school to be singled-out

“So this is interesting, because I’m not comfortable singling out one school in a public forum,” Gordon said. “I will never do that. But what we will do is be able to provide an overview, ‘cause the things that Mr. Riddick has mentioned are things that we did divisionwide. But we know that King’s Fork Middle School is the hot topic for obvious reasons, … but the school division’s always going to be hesitant to not only single out a school, but to discuss any safety precautions that have been put into place for any person out on the street to find a hole in it.”

Riddick said he didn’t think the information he was asking for would put King’s Fork Middle in more of a negative light than it has been placed in already. He said he wasn’t asking about disclosure of day-to-day student safety issues.

The board voted 6-1, with board Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck voting no, to ask Gordon to provide a report next month on efforts being put into place at all schools to improve the school climate and how those efforts are deemed successful and presented to stakeholders.

Previous concerns cited, bullying survey

Last October, several people expressed concerns about bullying at the school during a board meeting, and three cited incidents of a relative being bullied there. The school later that month held a series of activities at the school for Bully Prevention Week.

The next month, the school division released a survey of 5,156 third through 12th-grade students in which most did not report any instances of being bullied or cyberbullied, but noted that about half believed cyberbullying to be an issue and 56% saying in-person bullying was a problem at their school.

Supervisor of Social and Emotional Support Cynthia Devers and Supervisor of School Counseling Services Dr. Angela King said at that meeting that the school division has been putting into place strong anti-bullying procedures.

The Student Services Department’s goal, King said, is to develop intentional relationships to make sure every student has at least one adult in a building they feel safe to go to for support. Bullying, she noted, is repeated, unwanted and aggressive behavior toward someone, and is being done on purpose. It can be social, verbal, physical or cyber in nature.

Devers said at the November meeting the first step is to address the school’s culture, and by doing so, it would address the social and emotional needs of a school’s students and staff. The division started a social and emotional learning committee last year to begin researching programs and to develop a purpose for its SEL programming.

“This purpose was to develop and improve student attitudes and beliefs about self, others and school, which will lead to improved academic performance and student behavior,” Devers said.

At that time, Devers said the division was in the process of training staff on SEL competencies, including self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills.

“SEL is not just a 10-minute time in the morning, (but) it’s something that we do throughout our day,” Devers said.

At the elementary level, there are daily morning meetings, integration of SEL into academics, teams for positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS (a three-tiered framework to improve and integrate data, systems and practices that affect daily student outcomes), ongoing restorative practices training, school counselor-led bullying prevention measures and having available resources for teachers, counselors and administrators. The PBIS teams have two different levels depending on the needs of the students and whether an individual student might need more intervention.

Similar measures are in place at the middle and high school level, but with community circles rather than morning meetings. There are also daily check-ins with students.

The division promoted a social media series in October advising students and families to think before they posted anything online. It also posted posters in school commons areas with a QR code that students could then use a Google form — also on each school’s website — to report instances of bullying. The anonymous hotline was also included on it.

Though the official social media campaign ended last fall, Gordon said in November that this was a year-long, and even decade-long project “until we do whatever we can to eliminate bullying in SPS.”

Brooks-Buck cited the presentation and asked how it or the division could more effectively let the public know about school climate issues other than through Gordon’s Facebook Live sessions or through other means already being used. She asked whether a town hall-type of setting would be another way of getting the message out.

Climate and culture survey

In July, the division released its 2021 climate and culture survey results, in which 93% of surveyed staff said schools were safe and orderly, and 83% felt that discipline policies were effective, and 97% of surveyed students felt they knew what the behavior expectations were.

The most recent safety audit from the School Safety Audit Committee — including the sheriff, a pair of community representatives, a retired firefighter and a member of the Suffolk Police Department — noted the different interventions in place for students.

They include support teams, a behavior specialist, therapeutic daytime treatment, an out-of-school suspension alternative in which students attend one of two centers to get counseling on their infraction and still complete daily assignments and a program that works through the court system to help students with tutoring and role models.

It is also inclusive of staff social emotions trainings to help students with social and self-awareness and decision making, the Western Tidewater Community Services Board, a CHINS (Child in Need of Services) petition to help parents get home support through the courts, a threat-to-harm form for parents to help them get counseling for their child and the dean of students, which some schools have to add support for student behavior and overall school climate.

A three-year summary of discipline infractions showed that shoving, pushing, striking or biting another student with no visible injury, along with fighting and assaults, make up about 62% of discipline infractions (3,430) at all school levels.

At the elementary level, the three-year data summary indicated that interference with learning in the classroom made up 22.6% of all discipline infractions, followed by shoving, pushing, striking or biting another student without a visible injury (17.4%), assault (12.2%) and fighting (10.9%). All of those totaled 3,316 discipline infractions.

Recommendations in the report for making contact with a student with no visible injury, and for assaults, included restorative practice training, mentors, collaborative classrooms, conflict resolution videos and trauma training.

In middle schools, the most common discipline infraction over a three-year period was interfering with learning in the classroom (29.4%, or 1,328 infractions), followed by a refusal to comply with staff requests that interfere with school operations (11.9% or 537 infractions), followed by fighting (9.9%, or 537 infractions). Assaults or threats over a three-year period made up 183 discipline infractions, representing 4.1% of all middle school disciplinary infractions.

Among the recommendations for secondary students interfering with classroom learning or fighting included restorative practice training, culturally responsive training, praising students for positive behaviors and reducing the number of overage students in the middle school.

In high schools, leaving school grounds without permission made up 21.5% of all discipline infractions (223), followed by fighting (14.9%, or 155 discipline infractions) and shoving, pushing, striking, biting another student with no visible injury (13.5%, or 140 discipline infractions)

Let’s ‘see where we are going’

Board member Heather Howell said it would be appropriate for a follow-up discussion about bullying.

“Has there been any change? Have we seen any improvements? Because the squeaky wheel gets the oil, gets the grease, depending on where you’re from,” Howell said. “And so, the folks out there that are sharing the text messages and the videos and such, they’re — I don’t want to say it’s proactive, but they’re doing something, and they’re getting that attention. So to counter that, we just check in and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve been doing, here’s what we’re seeing so far.’ It’s a reduction in referrals. It’s a reduction in fights. It’s a reduction in assault charges — whatever. It’s just, a one-and-done reporting doesn’t paint a whole picture. We need to have periodic check-ins, same like what you would do for academics.

Brooks-Buck said that was a good idea “to see where we are going.”

Howell said the public wants everyone to acknowledge the problem and let them know what’s being done to deal with it.

“I think what Mr. Riddick’s concerned with is it’s such a prominent theme, and with academics, you have to have a period of instruction before you can reassess,” Howell said. “But when we have back-to-back fights and bullying reports and things like that, the public doesn’t really understand or want to hear that we need to sit back and collect some data. They just want a conversation. They just want us to acknowledge, ‘Yes, we see what’s going on.’ We’re not ignoring it. Here’s how we’re still addressing it, stay tuned kind of thing.”

Gordon said, in addressing Howell’s point, that there are opportunities throughout the year to address issues of school climate and bullying, and review discipline numbers by school over the summer.

“What I will do is provide the board with a memo with some of the additional measures that we’ve put into place,” Gordon said. “But I will not discuss a single school publicly because it’s going to turn into an attack. It’s going to turn into an attack of the administration, it’s going to turn into an attack of the staff, and then you will have that perception that the school is unsafe, which will then create more problems for the school community itself.”