I received a call from a parent of one of my Bakersfield High School freshmen last week. “My daughter needs to go on independent studies,” she said. “She hates coming to school. She’s afraid, because there are fights every day on campus and the students are rude to the teachers and the classes are out of control.” I wasn’t surprised.
This is my 16th year as a counselor at BHS and I’m very concerned about conditions in our high schools. And it’s not just BHS, which is under the microscope right now due to several recent instances of violence by students. The Kern High School District admits that during this school year, 10 teachers have been assaulted by students on its campuses.
There’s been a lot of talk about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, being to blame for the fact students are out of control. PBIS strives to make students better people by teaching them things like respect, empathy and trustworthiness. No one is saying this isn’t good – not even the two BHS teachers who’ve filed lawsuits because they don’t feel safe on campus. But those teachers feel PBIS is also the reason students no longer face suspensions or expulsions for several major offenses. For example, if a student tells their PE teacher to “F--- off!” the most the school dean can do is send them to a campus intervention specialist to ponder the consequences of their actions. Many times, the student is back in the PE the very next day.
School administrators are correct that it’s not PBIS, but actually a state law that was passed this January, which doesn’t allow schools to suspend students for “willful misconduct.” The lawsuit that was won by the Dolores Huerta Foundation and other groups last year, alleging disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of black and Hispanic students, required schools to train all staff in PBIS interventions. It only makes sense that teachers would conclude that PBIS is to blame.
This is a much bigger issue than PBIS. I feel it’s a societal problem that’s being fueled by groups like the Dolores Huerta Foundation, who aren’t taking the time to discover the actual cause of the problem. It’s interesting that teachers are being asked to figure out what is really behind their students’ bad behavior, when folks like the Dolores Huerta Foundation aren’t doing the same. Instead of blaming teachers and administrators, we need to delve deeper into the issue and look at families and community support, or the lack thereof.
Instead of passing new laws and filing lawsuits, I propose that principals, school superintendents, school board members, members of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and lawmakers take the time to get down in the trenches and discover what life on our school campuses is really like. Instead of showing up in a suit and tie to “observe,” they should don “normal” sub attire and spend a few days in the classroom or on the PE field. I would also challenge lawmakers and concerned nonprofit groups to spend their money trying to help families that are struggling to control their teens, via counseling, parenting workshops and through other means, rather than pointing fingers at schools.
I feel districts need to give schools adequate tools in which to squelch the problem. With nearly 3,000 students, BHS has only eight full-time security officers. We need security personnel present in those problem areas during class time if we know that they are areas of frequent fights.
This is obviously a very complicated issue. I’m just one counselor, in one school. However, I’m tired of public education being bashed for not doing a good enough job. I say it’s a work in progress that will take everyone working together to fix. I think it’s sad when students at Highland High School, who are fed up with out of control classroom behavior, feel the need to start #Enough because they “want to learn.”
Katie Price has been a counselor at Bakersfield High School for 16 years. She is a past president of the KHSD Counseling Association, the school district's 2011 Counselor of the Year, her high school's CTA representative and an adjunct professor of public speaking at CSU Bakersfield. The opinions expressed are her own.