HURLOCK – Teachers and citizen spoke emphatically and emotionally about violent conditions in schools at the Dorchester County Board of Education meeting at North Dorchester High School (NDHS) in Hurlock on Thursday night, Dec. 12.
“We are standing to say enough is enough,” said Katie Holbrook, President of Dorchester Educators (DE) and a teacher at Vienna Elementary School. Holbrook and other teachers began the public comment portion of the meeting by carrying up and attaching to the walls more than a dozen posters, each filled with lists of problems and possible solutions that DE members compiled at a meeting on Nov. 22. DE represents all benefited employees of Dorchester County Public Schools (DCPS).
“It’s never acceptable for physical violence to occur against staff and other students in our care. It’s never acceptable for safety to be compromised in a classroom,” said Holbrook, who also said that teachers do have the training and capability to recognize mental health issues, but are not equipped to address many instances of it.
Linda Barnes, Vice President of DE, told the Board that she spoke before them last school year, and that nothing had changed for the better. Now a year later, Barnes said she could have repeated verbatim the large majority of the remarks she read to the Board last. She said that it’s clear that no progress is being made, and she pointed to the number of administrative, support, and mental health positions that are not filled.
Barnes said that students have told her they do not drink any water so they will not have to use the restroom, as they are afraid of physical violence if they do. “This is real and it’s wrong, and they [students] are entitled to feel safe in their schools, and as staff members we don’t as well,” said Barnes, who concluded her remarks with a powerful question: “I ask you as a parent, if your child was in an abusive relationship, what would you tell them? I’d tell them, ‘Get out.’”
Amanda Robinson, another DCPS teacher, also talked about her students not drinking because they are afraid of fights or students vaping in the bathroom. “Every week I hear of something new happening,” she said, and she also related the impact she sees on fellow teachers. “I’ve heard of several teachers—my friends—getting put on anxiety medicine because of things happening in their classrooms,” said Robinson.
She told the Board the story of a recent conversation she had with a Salisbury University student who had switched her major from education after she saw a student throw a desk at Maple Elementary School. Robinson said she brought this information to the Board so that they can understand how serious the problem is, quoting a principal she taught under who often said, “If I don’t know something is wrong, I can’t fix it.”
DCPS teacher Tracy Mills said, “There are certain children that need more help than a classroom teacher can provide,” and added, “We are asking for help in order to be better teachers, to be more effective, and to promote the longevity of our teachers in this county.” Mills said the is the first year that she has felt she is working in a school where she does not feel safe.
Karen Ruark, who has taught in Dorchester public schools for 20 years and has children in the DCPS system, said that although the problems are not limited to just Dorchester County only, students still deserve better. She said she understands that administrators’ “hands are tied because of state regulations,” and there is finite funding, that teachers are not qualified to address the needs of students with mental health issues, who do not receive interventions they need or get instruction on social skills. Ruark said there is is no school psychologist at her school at South Dorchester K-8, but instead the school has “one guidance counselor dealing with 200 students who need to be heard.”
Maple Elementary School teacher Kayla Rider spoke to the Board about the serious impact the conditions have had on her, saying that she has had to seek professional help for her mental health. She said it has hurt her to see the impact on her students. “I have a student who is beating a child to a pulp on the ground,” related Rider, who said the student will be back in class the next day, causing the other students in class to be upset and fearful. “Something needs to happen, something needs to change,” said Rider.
Bonnie Vogel also pointed to the impact of the current conditions on other students. “Consider the impact of the school day on the well-adjusted, non-traumatized, classroom ready, eager to learn child, who is exposed to foul language and...aggressive and violent behavior every day,” said Vogel, who continued, “What does that that do to their learning environment? How do they learn to love learning or nurture curiosity?”
Vogel also asked the Board to consider what is causing children to act in and aggressive manner. “How much and what kind of pain drives a child to such extreme behaviors. Do you really think a 6 year old likes pounding the wall and throwing chairs? It’s not what makes a child happy. While we are really not equipped to diagnose and treat their pain, how can we let their suffering continue day in and day out while they are in our care. Please don’t turn your eyes away from their pain,” she concluded.
Maple Elementary School teacher Megan Day said that she fears the long term impact witnessing aggressive and dangerous behavior might have on these children. “My fear is that the trauma that these students experience in their classroom daily will continue to affect them later in life. Something needs to be done to protect these children and their teachers,” Day said.
The commentary from teachers and citizens went on for 50 minutes, as the Board and Interim Superintendent Dave Bromwell listened intently.
After the public comment session, Holbrook said that Bromwell has been “very responsive” to the concerns she takes him on behalf of Dorchester Educators, that they meet frequently and are working together to address the current conditions in county schools.
In an interview following the meeting, Bromell said he was “very proud that my teachers were brave enough to stand and share some personal moments.”
He is committed to putting 300 teachers through restorative practices [professional development] by Feb. to help deal with these some of these issues. “I am devastated every time I get a report that a student or teacher has been hurt,” he said.
Bromwell said he and the board members support the teachers, and steps have been taken every day since this meeting. One of the challenges is trying to do this with fidelity, he noted, saying often it comes down to money. Said Bromwell, he would like to see school resource officers in each school and establishing those relationships, as well.
Bromwell personally reached out individually to each teacher that spoke during the board meeting and said they are going to each school speaking with staff, teachers and stakeholders — something new the administration has started this year.