Denver teachers union survey puts spotlight on student discipline issues

Photo: School lockers

A third of Denver teachers surveyed about behavior issues in class say they don’t feel safe in their own schools.

That’s according to a new survey on discipline (full survey) by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing Denver teachers. (summary of responses)

The union says it decided ask the questions about discipline after hearing from teachers that there are problems. But the district’s superintendent questions the reliability of the survey and says school safety is the top priority in the district.

“I think that any time an interest group with very strong views purports to do a survey, that the purported results of those surveys should be taken with more than one grain of salt,” says Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “I don’t think that one would look to the Republican National Committee survey results about Hillary Clinton as the most accurate gauge of Ms. Clinton’s image.”

Seven in 10 teachers in the DCTA survey expressed no confidence in the school’s plan to improve behavior and maintain a calm learning environment, the union said.

"When you think about over 30 percent of the teachers that answered the survey say they have thought about leaving the district and DPS already has a teacher turnover issue, that is something I think seriously needs to be addressed,” said the DCTA’s Vicki McRoberts.

Affecting teachers' mental health

Sixty percent of the teachers said behavior and discipline problems have had a negative impact on the teacher's mental health.

"The mental health piece, I think, is huge," McRoberts said.

Almost 60 percent of those surveyed would hesitate to send their own child to their school because of discipline issues. A third reported being instructed to follow questionable discipline reporting practices. And almost 80 percent said they are losing planning time because of discipline problems in the classroom.

The results were presented to DPS’ school board Thursday night during public comment period. Board members had no comments.

Superintendent responds

Boasberg said more reliable data should come from the district’s annual teacher perception survey. It asks teachers and other staff questions related to the effectiveness of their principal. It is conducted by an independent, third party. Eighty-five percent of teachers responded to the latest survey -- about 4,400 teachers.

That survey had a single question on discipline and safety: 67 percent of teachers agreed that their principal ensures that “clear systems and structures are in place to support student discipline.” Thirteen percent neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement, 12 percent disagreed and 6 percent strongly disagreed. The effectiveness of those “systems and structures" was not addressed in the questions.

“Those numbers are improving,” Boasberg said, noting that they are up 4 percentage points from a year ago. “It’s very important when we’re looking at opinion that we look at genuine surveys that are conducted in an independent fashion as opposed to when an interest group purports to do a survey when they already have very clear views.”

Most principals strongly encourage educators to fill out the teacher perception survey. The union survey, says McRoberts, is “definitely optional.”

In the union’s survey, 67 percent “have no confidence in plan to improve behavior and maintain quality learning environment.”

'We are overwhelmed'

At Thursday’s board meeting, a union representative read from a letter written by a resigning teacher, addressing a lack of district support in handling habitually disruptive students.

The letter writer described a four-tiered approach to handling discipline problems, but said students are often sent back to class without a restorative conference or meeting with parents when they reach the final tier.

At the end of the first semester, the teacher's letter said, administrators told teachers that habitually disruptive students couldn’t be sent to the counselor’s office without a call to parents first. But, “With 30 students in class, how is it possible for us to make that kind of a call home in the middle of instruction?"

“All of our teachers here are exhausted as we continue to deal with the same issues and same students over and over due to the lack of support and ineffective consequences. We are overwhelmed, security is overwhelmed, and the overall feeling of our entire staff is that we have to take it," the resigning teacher said in the letter.

By ignoring “the realities and severity of the disciplinary issues teachers are expected to solve without proper support," the district is creating a "dangerous and destructive" environment, the letter writer said.

Concerns about student discipline 'real'

Boasberg acknowledges there are “real and genuine” concerns around student discipline, problems that grow out of social and emotional issues brought about by family or poverty issues.

“The stresses and trauma of kids who grow up in extraordinarily high poverty communities is very real and the supports needed around that are very deep,” he said. “This is not just a school issue. This is also a city and community issue.”

The district has made a concerted effort to address those issues, Boasberg said: focusing on getting more support to students with the most severe behavior problems, increasing the number of spots in alternative schools that are trained to deal with severe behavior problems, and increasing training for teachers.

Last year the district invested an additional $1.5 in mental health supports for students. Boasberg says it plans to do the same thing next year.

The district has also emphasized restorative justice approaches to discipline to help students discuss and make resolutions around conflict.

But the union’s Vicky McRoberts said more could be done.

“We’re not confident right now that DPS is implementing what needs to be done in terms of the training for that," she said. “We are working trying to get more systems in place to provide training in place in particular to newer teachers who may not have had as much experience in the classroom.”

She also said there isn’t enough mental health support. Most elementary schools in the district have a social worker or psychologist one or two days a week. Depending on funding, middle schools may have one psychologist and a social worker.

“There is not sufficient mental health support,” McRoberts said.

Suspension rates down

Another point of contention has been the push for schools to reduce their number of out-of-school suspensions, with the idea being that keeping a student out of school doesn’t benefit the student and puts him or her further behind academically.

Boasberg said that over the past seven or eight years, district suspension numbers have dropped by 68 percent.

“We need to both ensure our schools are safe, absolutely,” he said. “And we need to provide very significant emotional, social and mental health support for our schools, training for our teachers and our school leaders and through all that, have shown we are able to reduce our rate of out of school suspensions and expulsions."

But some schools complain that while there is pressure to reduce suspension numbers, there are not enough resources in schools to effectively help the students with behavioral problems. The result leads to more chaotic classrooms and the inability to teach effectively.