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Public Forums May Be The Start To Building Trust

Jamestown Public Schools District officials find themselves walking a very fine line these days.

In a city with high poverty, district officials are often trying to educate students for whom education is a low priority. That’s somewhat understandable. Families struggling to put meals on the table, clothes on a child’s back and a roof over their family’s head probably aren’t going to spend an hour or two a night doing homework. Many children see things on a daily basis that create serious trauma. District officials have to find a way to help those students be ready to learn, and it is thought that a lighter touch with many of these children and their families may keep then in school rather than out roaming the streets.

The other side of that coin is the breakdown of discipline spotlighted by a fight last week at Jamestown High School that resulted in legal charges against at least two students with punishment also coming from the school district. Many have said there have always been fights in school, but they’re missing the point. Last week’s fight made news because there was a police response, but discipline has been an issue inside district schools for the past several years. As district officials try to lend a helping hand, some students and their families see that the district’s helping hand doesn’t carry the stick of punishment for poor behavior. A contentious PTSA meeting on Wednesday wasn’t just about one fight, it was about the stories teachers and students tell about students who swear at teachers with little repercussion, who are disrespectful or bully fellow students with few repercussions and who, when there are punishments, view the punishment as merely time away from a school they don’t want to attend in the first place.

That is the situation that has parents upset and led to a vote of no confidence Thursday by the district’s teachers unions against Dr. Rosemary Bradley, Jamestown High School principal. Rewarding positive behavior is wonderful — but negative behavior must be penalized quickly so that teachers are recognized as the leaders of a classroom whose directions must be followed. Administrators have to back the teachers when there are issues.

It is telling that, in the wake of last week’s fight, Dr. Bret Apthorpe made a point of saying that students involved will be punished to the fullest extent of both criminal and education law. That’s an appropriate message to send to those who would bring their out-of-school beefs inside school walls. What is the message, though, to the students who refuse to follow a teacher’s directions or who swear at teachers? That’s what teachers want to know, and Thursday’s no-confidence vote says they don’t feel the message the district is sending to most students is strong enough.

The district is in the first year with its Success Academy, a new endeavor that seeks to link education with services that can help students. If the Success Academy is the helping hand, then perhaps the intervention Apthorpe discussed this week through the district technology academy can be a stick for students who refuse to recognize and listen to authority. The district plans to use short-term interventions for students who have been chronically absent and who have no class credits at the Raymond Fashano Technology Academy. Long-term intervention plans will be created as well. It is important that these plans are educational, because too many underperforming students in alternative programs the district used in the past slipped through the cracks, biding their time in the programs until they could legally drop out of school into a life of poverty. At the same time, the atmosphere should be one of corrective action for students whose behavior cannot be tolerated.

Students and parents should expect that teachers are going to respect students, but the converse is also true — students must respect teachers and school staff members. The district should absolutely lend a helping hand to students who need positive attention. Those who refuse that helping hand, however, must face quicker punishment if they lash out at teachers and school staff.

As we said, it’s a fine line district officials have to walk. One way to manage such a difficult task are true public forums, something Apthorpe mentioned this week are likely to happen in the coming weeks and months. We hope those forums are the start of some trust-building amongst district administrators, teachers and parents. The good old days may not have been so good for all of the students at JHS, but things aren’t great for teachers now — and parents are rightly concerned about how incidents that don’t often make the news affect their children on a day-to-day basis.

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