VERONA, Wis. – Last spring, dozens of parents and at least one prominent student in the Verona school district complained about lax student discipline, particularly for minority kids.
They said the lack of consequences for misbehavior resulted in even more violence and other types of unruly and disruptive student behavior.
They believe the problems are the result of radical district policies designed to curb the number of out-of-school suspensions for minority students.
Those new policies – the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA) and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – are described as an attempt to “emphasize positive behaviors and focus on rewarding positives rather than punishing negatives,” according to The Verona Press.
But as the local news service put it, “Some parents and teachers have complained that the emphasis on the positive has led to some students acting without consequence and led to safety issues.”
Many observers suspect that the controversial behavioral strategies were influenced by the Pacific Educational Group (PEG), a radical San Francisco-based organization that packages and sells the concept of racial victimization to public schools around the nation.
PEG claims that the American education system is built around white culture, tradition and social norms – aka “white privilege” – to the unfair detriment of black students.
PEG believes that black students will only achieve if school curricula are customized to meet their cultural specifications. It also rejects the concept of using suspensions or expulsions to discipline black or other minority students.
The Verona school district, like many others around the nation, contracts with PEG for consulting services. Many districts associated with PEG have had disciplinary problems similar to Verona’s.
But the complaints from parents last spring have apparently not been taken seriously by school district officials.
That recently became obvious when a fight between several black students that started at the high school turned into a community disturbance involving hundreds of people, including many adults, when the children got off the school bus at the end of the day, according to news reports.
The fighting apparently spilled over to a second day, with a girl who tried to break up the original fight was suddenly targeted for violence, The Verona Press reported.
While student fights occasionally occur, and the school district can’t be responsible for the behavior of adults, the school’s response to the situation has caught the attention of many critics.
Instead of responding to the incident with appropriate disciplinary measures, the district has reportedly decided to have a “restorative circle” with the three girls originally involved in the violence, according to a parent who has contacts in the district but declined to be identified.
The restorative circle was allegedly be led by Everett Mitchell, the director of public relations at the nearby University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, according to the Press. Mitchell gained recent notoriety for suggesting that police should not arrest youngsters for shoplifting, particularly from “big box” stores like Wal-Mart.
“I just don’t think that they should be prosecuting cases or [unintelligible] up cases for people who steal from Wal-Mart,” Mitchell was quoted as saying at a local forum.
“I just don’t think that, right? I don’t think Target or all them other places, them big box stores that have insurance. They should not be using justification, the fact that people steal from there as justification to start engaging in aggressive police practices, right?”
For some in the community, the “restorative circle” response to the latest violence – and the plan to have such a controversial figure lead it – is just further evidence that the school district is determined to avoid any sort of punitive action toward black students, regardless of their behavior.
“It’s ridiculous,” the parent who requested anonymity told EAGnews. “I don’t know what a restorative circle is – maybe getting in touch with feelings and helping people understand how it’s not their fault. It goes back to the fact that the school administration doesn’t take discipline seriously.”
The parent said leniency is clearly reserved for black students in the district, which is about 75 percent white.
“If you talk to students, they would say there are a set of rules that apply to white students and a set that apply to black students,” she said. “The teachers will say if a black kid doesn’t want to be in the classroom, they’re allowed to just go wander the halls.
“Our superintendent has told people that they don’t want to discipline African-American students because they have the whole world set against them because of white privilege, and it’s the school’s responsibility to help level the playing field.
“He’s more concerned with social justice than he is with educating kids.”
Many parents, and one well known student, stepped forward last spring to tell the Verona school board that the new approach to student discipline was doing nothing but convincing some kids that they don’t have to behave because there will be no consequences.
And that, they say, has resulted in constant disruption in the schools.
Michelle Marten, the parent of two students who has been an educational assistant in the school district, made the following statement to the school board, according to The Verona Press.
“There’s no discipline policy, and there is none for a certain group of children,” she said. We think all children should be treated equally and disciplined equally.”
Similar comments came from Lynn Vilker, the mother of elementary students in the district:
“My child is afraid to go to school,” she was quoted as saying in the Press story. “I worry about other schools and other children. I feel like we’ve stuck our head in the sand on this issue for too long, and I feel like we’re getting behind the 8 ball on it.”
One well-known high school student-athlete in the district, Noah Roberts, also approached the school board to share his concerns.
“I am the one who will live with the result of your system,” Roberts told the board. “If you are trying to help students become successful in life, make them accountable. The administrators have been undermining the teachers and empowering the students to believe they are entitled.”
Parents at one school in the district, Stoner Prairie Elementary, met with school officials to complain about troubling situations they’ve learned about through their children, including “inadequate responses to such incidents as swearing at staff or a student recently throwing a chair,” one news report said.
“Some of the recent incidents have led to lockdowns, and some parents said those lockdowns or other loud incidents end up affecting more than the classroom where the problems occurred.
A lockdown involves a school-wide announcement and classroom doors being closed,” the news service wrote.
“Multiple parents at the meeting said those lockdowns prompt increased stress and make their children uncomfortable at school.”
The principal, Mike Pisani, admitted those incidents occurred but denied that there were no consequences, according to the Press. But the principal still seemed to downplay the importance of punishment.
“Our approach is to try to figure out what’s happening,” the principal was quoted as saying. “What’s causing the behavior to happen? Consequences alone are not the answer.”
Pisani also admitted that some students have not been responsive to the softer approach: “There’s been a couple of kids that we weren’t having the success we want (with),” he said.
Dennis Beres, the president of the school board, promised to investigate the concerns expressed by parents and other residents at a June meeting, according to media reports.
Beres did not respond to detailed messages from EAGnews, seeking comment on the situation.
That’s not surprising, according the parent who requested anonymity. School officials are determined to pursue their radical disciplinary policies, and have been hesitant to respond to public inquiries regarding their strategies, she said.
“One thing they do in the Verona district is keep the castle walls up and make sure nobody scales them,” she said.