School districts explain policies on student fights

CAMDEN — For more than 10 seconds on Oct. 3, a Caesar Rodney High student landed a flurry of punches on a special needs schoolmate who tried to deflect them.

Just as another student’s recorded cell phone video ended, a staff member appeared to arrive.

According to his family, the injured 14-year-old boy was evaluated by a school nurse afterward and advised to see a doctor.

He suffered a bruised face, cuts above and below his eyes, knots on the back of his head and a mark from a punch or shoe in his neck area, according to Diane Eastburn, an advocate for special-needs students.

The alleged aggressor, a 15-year-old boy, was issued a criminal summons for offensive touching by Delaware State Police and released to his parents.
Citing student privacy rights, CR School District officials would not disclose what, if any, discipline was issued after the incident.

Video of the confrontation was posted on social media and news of the incident spread. Three days after the fight and following the video post, the CR School District denounced the violence in a statement, describing it as rare while also assuring that student safety was a high priority.

Attempts to learn more about the district’s approach to handling violent situations were unsuccessful this week. The Delaware State News reached out to CR Superintendent Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald on Monday morning and continued to wait through Friday without a reply.

Unanswered questions included:

Is there any CR School District policy on how staff should handle fights that break out in school?

Are staff trained to respond to this?

Are there any statistics available on how many fights the district has had to issue official discipline on?

What is the discipline policy relative to whatever offense is committed? What punishments do offenses warrant?

Does CR School District believe it has any significant issues with student conduct in its schools?

Do incidents like the one on Oct. 3 cause district officials to evaluate current policies?

Late this week, the Caesar Rodney school board issued a letter on the district’s website, Twitter account and Facebook page criticizing images of hate and violence connected to the high school that circulated on social media and sparked ample public discussion.

The letter focused mainly on a racially-charged image of the CR mascot holding a piece of paper with a slur written on it that brought the suspension and possible expulsion of two students after district and police investigation.

No direct reference to the fight that ended with a criminal charge was made.

Districts explain policies

Other Central Delaware school districts this week did provide information on their approaches to fights, discipline and the consistent effect social media has on rising tensions.

According to officials in the Capital School District, fights in its Dover schools are “not frequent.”

Staff members are responsible for quelling a disturbance as best they can, Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton said.

“There’s an expectation that teachers intervene while not putting themselves or others in harm’s way,” he said.

In the Milford School District, “Staff are expected to conduct themselves in the best interest of student safety and proactively assist in de-escalating student conflicts as they arise,” Superintendent Dr. Kevin Dickerson said.

Various levels of training are administered by Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health at the beginning of each year to Capital staff, including administrators, deans and school resource officers. At the district’s Community School and ILC, nearly all the staff is certified with the highest level of training, Dr. Shelton said, and that includes counselors, teachers, psychologists and para-professionals, among others.

Dr. Dickerson said at his Milford district, through Crisis Prevention Institute training, “many staff members have been trained on proper de-escalation and restraint techniques.”

“We have a certified trainer in the district who routinely provides training for new staff and recertification for veteran staff. Our three School Resource Officers are required to be nationally certified through the National Association of School Resource Officers and complete 40 hours of training that prepares them for their responsibilities in the school setting.”

The Polytech School District has a school climate committee that is in the process of revising the code of conduct to clarify teacher responsibilities, administrator responsibilities, and student consequences for all violations of the code,” Superintendent Dr. Mark Dufendach said.

“Staff are trained to remove any audience to an altercation, isolate the aggressor(s) and de-escalate the situation. Staff also call for assistance from a counselor, school climate personnel or administrator who is familiar with the students involved.”

Polytech’s administration reported that the school climate officer, counselors and administrators have received de-escalation training and also receive crisis prevention intervention training every other year. This year prior to the first student day, all staff were trained on how to appropriately address behavioral issues in the classroom, according to Dr. Dufendach.

Stress builds up

Stress levels may rise at various points of the year, according to the Capital superintendent, including around holidays and as the end of the school year nears.

“Students who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences tend to see that trauma manifest itself more under stress,” Dr. Shelton maintained.
More resources are needed to proactively address the concerns of students in need in order to limit potential acts requiring discipline.

“As we look at keeping kids in school and making alternative options to alternative placement and expulsion, it is important that schools be given additional resources and services to help students cope with the trauma in their life and the additional mental health supports to be successful,” Dr. Shelton said.

Services are needed “to deal with the community issues that come into schools,” Dr. Shelton said.

The incident at Caesar Rodney High last week was not recorded on school cameras.

With a “state of the art” camera system, Milford High School Resource Officer Sgt. Robert Masten said “the property is more than adequately covered” with video surveillance. Only the bathrooms and locker rooms are off-limits, he said, and the administration regularly evaluates the positioning and effectiveness of its system.

“In the few fights we do have, it helps to have staff trained to handle those situations,” Sgt. Masten said. “It makes it easier for people to respond properly.”

Typically, most fights at Milford High have unfolded in common areas such as hallways and the cafeteria, police said.

Describing social media as “gas on fire at times” and “having an effect over everything,” Sgt. Masten said online activity can often lead an investigation to the source of a problem, or avert one if tensions are rising through digital communications. Sgt. Masten said he’s received calls from parents and teachers reporting potential issues that could make their way into school.

Dr. Shelton agreed that social media impacts potential confrontations and student behavior.

“It allows a faceless or nameless interaction and people say things they would not to a person’s face. Then when a live confrontation does exist, those words are brought back up.

“It also complicates the situation itself as students tend to ‘want to see what is going on’ and social media makes quick dissemination of this information so large groups form.”

Children are now growing up with a constant presence of social media in their lives, and school officials vow to discuss expectations and ramifications of its use.

“Social media has provided more opportunity for potential conflict between students and has had an increased role in the confrontations we have had at the secondary level,” Dr. Dickerson said.

“Students are educated throughout their K-12 experience on how to appropriately use social media as well as adhere to our student code of conduct and acceptable use policies.”

According to Dr. Dufendach, “Social media has increased the speed of communications and made it easier for students to interact — both appropriately and inappropriately; however, it is not clear that access to or use of social media has had an impact on physical altercations.

“Social media also allows us to intervene before students become involved in an altercation — students, parents, and staff members who become aware of issues through social media report them to climate officers, counselors, and/or administrators who counsel students/intervene before the situation escalates.”

Sgt. Masten said weapons cases he’s handled in schools in his last four years are “virtually nonexistent” and he can’t remember the last discovery of drugs he made.

“We’ve had a good run the last couple years and that’s because there’s been a great group of kids who are here right now,” he said. “That can go in cycles but we’re in a good place here at the high school right now.”

Dr. Dickerson concurred with that in Milford, explaining, “Generally, our confrontations can be resolved without becoming physical through mediation and conflict resolution assistance from our staff.

“Our school climate has been exceptional to begin the school year and we are very proud of our students for how they conduct themselves and treat others with respect, as well as the supervision and care that our teachers and support staff provide for our students.”

Preventing altercations

Polytech has averaged one or two physical altercations per school year, Dr. Dufendach said.

“Physical altercations are usually prevented through staff supervision in the hallways and common areas,” he said, noting that some school years are fight free.

When it comes to determining the minimum threshold to warrant a review of a student’s behavior, “This is as complex as it is situational,” Dr. Shelton said.

He said he believes the Capital district’s policy guide “clearly articulates each of the situations.”

A first offense fight in Milford is a suspension for up to five days, referral to the School Resource Officer and, for the most serious altercations, a disciplinary review, Dr. Dickerson said. A repeat offense may result in suspension for up to 10 days, referral to the School Resource Officer and a disciplinary review. A disciplinary review could result in a behavior contract or a hearing for an alternative school placement or expulsion.

Dr. Dufendach provided a list of specific incidents and their subsequent disciplinary code responses levied at Polytech.

“The code also includes a matrix of consequences that will be imposed based on the severity of the offense and the number of times the student has engaged in the behavior (consequences increase if students repeat the same offense),” he said.

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