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Lunchroom discipline riles Evanston parent

Posted: Friday, Nov 23rd, 2012

Education news

EVANSTON — A disciplinary action taken at Davis Middle School has raised the ire of a local parent, and prompted an impassioned response from the school’s principal, who believes that, not only was the action appropriate, but the parent’s initial complaint — posted to the Facebook fan page maintained by the Uinta County Herald — was in poor taste and bordering on slander.

DMS parent Tiffany Pieger, whose son is among 35 students she said are victims of “militant punishment” at the school, according to the Facebook post, told the Herald in a letter that the incident stemmed from complaints made by school staff members that the seventh grade class had exhibited continued bad behavior during its lunch break.

“Without contacting any of the parents, the principal took matters into his own hands and decided to punish our children using militant-type methods,” Pieger wrote. “I met with a client and friend at my business and learned of all the seventh graders being put on a list (100-plus) in order to be punished for being rowdy during lunch. Originally, the punishment of choice, a prison-type punishment during lunch, was to have these children be displayed and made an example of for their behavior. No talking during lunch, no privileges, etc.”

Pieger claimed that the list of students, after they had spent a week under the punishment, was reduced to 35 after teachers felt the other 65 students had mended their ways. But those 35 students were required to spend another week under the imposed sanctions. Pieger said her son asked why he was among the 35, but did not receive a satisfactory response.

“As a mother, I also raised the same question, as I just had a parent-teacher conference days before all this happened, and the panel of teachers who put this list of naughty and nice kids together told me my son was very respectful and didn’t have any issues,” she wrote. “I am curious how he even got on this list? How does a child go from such a good child that has been there over a semester in school, to such a deviant overnight? And does it warrant such punishment?”

Pieger further asserted the school did not have the right to punish her child without first discussing it with her.

While Pieger’s Facebook post makes reference to an incident where a student was “trampled” by others, and the singled-out students being humiliated, Davis principal Jim Harrell told the Herald the events surrounding the disciplinary action — as well as his approach to working with students — are quite different from the picture painted in the post.

“Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not ‘militant,’” Harrell said. “If I was militant…I would have all my sixth, seventh and eight grade [students] come in…get their trays, sit down where we tell them to sit down — not choose where they want to sit — [and] place them strategically away from people that we know as a staff they get into trouble with. And then we would have them eat their food — no talking — go dump their tray — no talking — [and] come sit back down — no talking. And that’s how lunch would be, if I were militant.”

“Part of my job is to keep this place safe, [so] people are not getting hurt,” Harrell said.

He said he didn’t know where the story of the student being trampled came from.

“That was such a false accusation. …I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I asked [Pieger], ‘Where did that come from?’ …That isn’t why this happened.”

Harrell said the origin of the disciplinary action that involved the seventh grade students lay in their difficulty, as a group, to behave in a mature manner during the lunch hour.

“I really want them to be able to have that skill,” Harrell said. “I really want to provide opportunities for them to have that skill; that’s why I’m not militant, why I don’t do what I just said to you [as an example]. That would make my life and the teachers’ lives a whole lot easier. And, by the way, it wouldn’t be against school rules or regulations, and I wouldn’t be violating any policies.”

He said the trouble began a few weeks ago, when three substitute teachers reported that the seventh graders were “going crazy at lunch,” were out of control, not listening to direction and being disrespectful toward each other. Two regular staffers then echoed the same concerns about the students, he said.

Even the kitchen staff and custodians, Harrell said, filed complaints. They said the students were moving and hiding cafeteria garbage cans and causing additional mayhem.

Harrell said the students were required to return to their seats following their meals to wait until the lunch period was over, rather than moving to the gymnasium or engaging in other activities.

He said after a week of the restrictions, the staff members who had filed the original complaints approached him seeking a change in the situation.

“My teachers approached me and asked, ‘How long are we going to keep doing this?’” Harrell recounted. “’There are some kids who have gotten the message and, quite honestly…some of them had the message all along [the teachers said]. They haven’t done anything wrong, and so they’re being punished for some other kids.’”

Harrell said the teachers suggested that some of the students in the original group — 35 of them — had had other disciplinary problems in other areas of the school, and they believed it would be beneficial to extend the “lunch detention” for those students for another week.

“If they behaved themselves, and did what we asked them to do, they’d be off,” Harrell said. “It sounded very reasonable to me, and it still does.”

He noted there was no restriction on the students talking or socializing with the other students at their table in the lunchroom; they were simply prohibited from leaving their tables until the end of the period.

“This is actually less severe than detention,” Harrell said, “because we’re not making [the students] go into an isolated room, sit there and not talk to anybody.”

Uinta County School District No. 1 Superintendent of Operations Ryan Thomas weighed in on the matter, standing behind Harrell’s disciplinary action.

“Typically, we don’t comment on the discipline of students,” Thomas said, “but, in this case, it’s a little different. We have a great responsibility to provide a safe and orderly environment at school. So, at lunch time, we have some procedures and expectations for students with their behavior.”

He said the seventh graders at Davis were not meeting those expectations, so it resulted in the disciplinary action.

“So they had the consequence of losing some free time,” Thomas said. “We see that as…more of a teaching opportunity than we do as discipline. In that, we had a number of students who were encouraged for another week — they lost some privileges for another week.”

Thomas emphasized he does believe discipline within the school is most effective when parents are involved.

“I think discipline works best when the school communicates openly with parents, and there’s a good dialogue,” he said. “In terms of lunchtime, we do our best to maintain that orderly environment, and part of that is cooperation from the students. Davis has high expectations for the students’ behavior, and when they didn’t meet those expectations, there were some consequences. They’ll learn from this, and go back to having free time at lunch.”

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