Bakersfield High School PE teacher Terry Chapman was on the basketball court more than a year ago when he was punched in the face and tackled to the ground.
His assaulter? A student who got angry after Chapman asked him not to leave class early, he said. That same student was on his first day back from a three-day suspension for threatening an administrator.
“This kid had a history of acting out,” said Chapman, whose injuries sent him to the hospital.
The fight, however, wasn’t an isolated incident, Chapman said.
Some students — emboldened by administrators who have reined back zero-tolerance discipline policies — routinely curse in hallways, get into fights and on several occasions, have assaulted teachers, faculty members say. At least 10 teachers at Kern High School District campuses have been assaulted by students this school year, district officials confirmed.
More than a dozen staff members and teachers from Bakersfield High criticized district leadership during a public board meeting Monday for what they describe as inaction in the face of what’s increasingly become a hostile work environment. They described BHS as a high school run amok.
DEFENDING THE SYSTEM
BHS Principal David Reese said the issues teachers raised Monday have been discussed at BHS before, and that not all of the scenarios they described were accurate.
"I understand the frustration teachers and staff have, but it's not like it was portrayed," Reese said, acknowledging, however, that with 26 feeder schools and 3,000 kids, "there is friction sometimes." He insisted that the school is safe, highlighting that more than 40 BHS staff members who live outside of the school's boundaries have their own children attending the campus.
"I don't know very many schools that could say staff members bring their own kids to a school that was perceived as not safe," Reese said. "Is your kid unsafe going to BHS? Hell no."
District officials said they are meeting with faculty leaders this month “regarding discussions to ensure student and staff safety.”
“We take concerns seriously and appreciate teachers for sharing their concerns with us,” KHSD spokeswoman Lisa Krch said in an emailed statement.
Teachers place partial blame on the Sanders v. KHSD suit, waged by the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Faith in the Valley, the National Brotherhood Foundation and several other parties. They sued KHSD in 2014, alleging the district disproportionately suspended and expelled minorities at higher rates than their white peers. The case was settled last year. Huerta Foundation officials deny that the suit they were a party to has anything to do with the problems now on campus.
Before the lawsuit was filed, the district began shifting to a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports model that stresses “restorative justice.” That system's approach involves pulling misbehaving students from classrooms, placing them in a “restorative circle” and having them talk out their issues and behaviors with whomever they wronged to resolve the conflict while under the supervision of a trained staff member. Only after that are they supposed to return to class.
Practitioners say the process helps schools get to the root of behavioral problems and helps dismantle a so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” Some teachers say it lets students skate with bad behaviors, giving them license to continue acting out with little consequence while helping breed a culture of misbehavior.
BHS has been twice awarded the California PBIS Coalition gold medal for implementing its practices on campus, something that Chapman said has become regarded as “a running joke” among teachers.
“The school with the worst behavioral problems is the gold-star PBIS school,” Chapman said.
Some good can come out of PBIS, Chapman said, but he’s not optimistic because he questions whether the approach has been implemented properly. Some schools across the state have had great success, while others haven’t. It’s unclear how many schools in KHSD have behavior problems that rise to the level of those that teachers describe at BHS.
Reese, however, said that the issues teachers have been contending with have more to do with the right of willful defiance suspensions being taken away than PBIS.
"The line gets crossed when they blame PBIS for a lack of student discipline. They're totally different. It really has little to do with PBIS, and that's where it's most hurtful. It's convoluting those two models. The change in the law for willful defiance has nothing to do with implementation of the Driller Way," Reese said, referring to the schoolwide motto and expectations BHS established as part of its PBIS program.
DISPARITY IN SUSPENSIONS
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has made it clear that he wants fewer suspensions and expulsions, which drive down average daily attendance and costs districts millions of dollars in funding. Under his leadership, the California Department of Education began tying school performance to the number of suspensions and expulsions issued, and set a benchmark number schools must fall within in order to be considered in good standing with the state.
"Disparities in suspension rates among student groups are disturbing and needed to be addressed,” Torlakson said in a 2017 news release announcing a dramatic drop in suspensions and expulsions statewide. “We have much work to do. We need to do more, and we need to do better.”
Legislation also has been passed in recent years requiring students to be informed of other means of correction made to attempt to correct behavior before they are suspended. Another bill made it illegal to suspend students for willful defiance, a sweeping category that some suggest led to disproportionate discipline against minorities by teachers with unconscious bias.
Upon the state Department of Education’s recommendation, many districts across California have shifted to PBIS, an evidence-based practice that reduces suspensions and expulsions, and restorative justice programs to help students understand the consequences of their actions.
But high school teachers are saying it’s having an unintended effect and takes away tools they once had to remove students from classrooms for poor behavior.
Reese was adamant that PBIS was not to blame, and instead teachers' frustrations stem from willful defiance.
"It's out of frustration of changes to the law about willful defiance, and it's not a BHS problem or a KHSD problem. This is a frustration that crosses California and the nation as research has come in that shows suspending kids 'willy-nilly' for disruption of school activities or defiance needs to be clarified," Reese said.
Krch insisted that a “zero discipline policy” doesn’t exist within KHSD or any of its school sites, and that “every single student” who physically assaulted a teacher has been “appropriately disciplined.”
“The district and school sites do not tolerate violence against staff,” Krch said.
UNKNOWN NUMBERS OF ASSAULTS
KHSD trustee Mike Williams, however, said if the district has records of 10 teachers being assaulted by students, there likely are many more that have gone unreported.
“My guess is there’s probably more assaults on teachers than 10,” said Williams, adding that not all of them are expelled.
One such example? A hulking BHS football player who — upset about failing a course — burst into Johnny Maran’s sophomore English class last year, threatened him, challenged him to a fight, and then “hovered over me,” Maran said.
Maran, a part-time BHS football coach, said he felt “totally unsafe,” and that administrators wanted to deliver a three-day suspension until he protested.
“This is a kid who threatened a teacher,” Maran said.
Administrators convinced the student to voluntarily transfer to another school in the district, Maran said.
“There are coaches who are quasi-administrators and will sweep things under the carpet when athletes do this or that,” Maran said. “They intercede and put out fires.”
On Monday — ahead of voicing his complaints about the disciplinary issues at BHS — Maran was dismissed from his coaching position, he said.
“It was absolutely retaliatory,” Maran asserted. He filed a formal complaint against the district for that.
Reese would not comment specifically on the accusation that Maran was retaliated against, but said that discipline against the student "resulted in what was above and beyond what would normally happen in that circumstance."
Williams said he has reservations about PBIS and questioned whether the district has gone too far in revising its disciplinary strategies.
“Before, we were probably expelling kids too quick and removing them too quick and maybe for too long,” Williams said. “Now we’ve swung the pendulum back so far that we’ve got kids who shouldn’t be here.”
He questioned whether a settlement agreement the district entered into last year in the Sanders suit went too far. It required, among other things, that the district train every staff member in PBIS and also barred students from being expelled or involuntarily transferred for defiance.
“How far did we tie our hands, and if necessary, how do we untie our hands? We may have signed something unanticipated,” Williams said.
Gerald Cantu, educational policy director for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, said that teachers blaming the Sanders suit and PBIS are scapegoating the Huerta Foundation, and that there's a learning curve for implementing the new approach — especially in high schools where students are less impressionable and many had been used to a zero-tolerance discipline policy for years.
FEWER STUDENTS EXPELLED
Before the Sanders suit, KHSD expelled more students some years than any other district statewide, including those with much higher enrollment. In 2009, the district expelled 2,200 students, an expulsion rate of about 55 per 1,000 kids. Black students were expelled at rates 600 percent higher than white students, according to the suit.
Those rates have dropped dramatically. Just 26 were expelled in the 2016-17 school year.
“We have so few expulsions. I just don’t believe our children are better behaved by far. It would be nice to see an improvement, but when you see such radical change, you can’t help but make a reasonable guess that a lot of problems are being left in the classroom,” Williams said.
The problems for teachers are compounded, Maran said, by a lack of communication and transparency. Teachers once were able to look at a computer screen and see a history of referrals for students. Now they are not able to see when students go through interventions.
There’s a lack of consistency among campuses.
Administrators at Golden Valley High School, for example, responded to those frustrations among teachers by emailing teachers when students enrolled in their classes undergo an intervention, said Terri Richmond, a social sciences department chair. Reese said BHS has been going through a transition of computer systems, and that every suspension is still emailed to all staff members every day, but the system that shows referrals and interventions isn't as transparent.
"I'll admit, there's some room for improvement in that area," Reese said.
At Golden Valley and BHS, there are committees of administrators, teachers and even students who meet to discuss how PBIS should be implemented, and determine what behaviors rise to the occasion of an intervention, Richmond and Reese said.
“We’re working on making sure everyone is on the same page and consistent,” Richmond said.
Richmond admits, however, that it’s a steep learning curve for both students and teachers. Faculty members have to change their mindsets about what are suspendible behaviors, and when to dig a little deeper to understand what issues a student might be facing.
One of Richmond’s students last year, for example, began sleeping in class on a regular basis. She found out later that his father was undocumented, and that for fear of being deported after Donald Trump was elected president, wouldn’t leave the house. His son went to work in the fields early each morning from 3 a.m. until school began to provide for his family.
“Sometimes kids are irresponsible, but other times we need to take a closer look at our students’ lives,” Richmond said. “If the PBIS discussions are genuine, valid and well-guided by good leadership, and teachers have the best interest in their hearts, it can be a very powerful and effective program once we fully implement it.”