DALLAS — Teachers and staff at Lyle and Oakdale Heights elementary schools asked the Dallas School Board for more help dealing with student behavior problems.
Teachers and specialists from both schools made an emotional plea at the board’s June 11 meeting, saying there’s an increasing amount of “extreme behavior” occurring, resulting in classes being interrupted and even cleared, as well as injuries to staff members.
Lyle second-grade teacher Stephanie Hofferber said that last year, employees filed a grievance to get more help for extreme behavior. The district and staff came to an agreement to hire someone to work full time in the school’s Education Resource Center; a special education program, have a full-time mental health therapist in the building; and access to the district psychologist.
“By September of this year, it was very obvious that that wasn’t enough,” Hofferber said. “That wasn’t going to work. We had more extreme behaviors come in in kindergarten, and those three people couldn’t handle it all. We asked for help all year long and feel that we did not receive sufficient support.”
Of the major incident referrals issued at Lyle, 40 percent of them were in kindergarten classrooms.
Jessica Dehm, the district’s special education program specialist, said “extreme behavior” includes “hitting, kicking, cursing, biting, throwing items, running in the parking lot, running and hiding in the school or outside, flipping chairs, flipping tables, screaming, yelling, destroying their work and self-harm.”
Through tears at times, Dehm described situations in which children as young as 7 were in such distress they tried to hurt themselves, and how helping those students has become nearly a daily struggle.
Dehm spent the last few months at Oakdale after the school’s special education Structured Learning Program classroom teacher resigned. She said more mental health or Department of Human Services assistance is needed. She said calls to DHS now go to Marion County instead of Polk County, where the case workers knew the community better.
“We can deal with the yelling, screaming and biting, throwing the table over, but when the mental health piece comes in, we can’t do anything,” she said. “The resources that we always thought were there are not there, and we don’t know how to get to them. We literally get the run-around.”
Superintendent Michelle Johnstone said budget limitations prevent hiring more help, but each school is reconfiguring its current staff to help with behavior issues.
“We are locked in by budget,” Johnstone said. “That’s why we are trying to get creative.”
Oakdale Principal Todd Baughman said instead of replacing a teacher who resigned, the school will hire two behavior specialists to work with kids. That will leave the school with 15 teachers and less-than-ideal class sizes, he said.
“The payoff is that we get schoolwide behavior support,” Baughman said.
He said in the past six years, he has seen the situation get worse.
“The current point, my view on that, looking at our current budget situation and staffing at Oakdale, is that we have to do something differently for behavior,” he said. “It’s really at a level where it’s not even a choice.”
At Lyle, Principal Amber Eaton said the school will keep its current 17 teachers, increase physical education time and move all the teaching responsibilities of the school counselors to classroom teachers, so they can spend more time with students and parents.
Oakdale will also increase PE time and eliminate teaching responsibilities for counselors.
Autymn Galbraith, the district’s special education director, said part of the rise in challenging behavior is due to the success of services provided at Polk County’s Academy Building, which includes behavioral health and the Dallas Resource Center. She said people in Marion County might have to wait five months to get an appointment.
“We work much quicker than that, so we are getting an influx of folks moving in for the support, but it’s also putting a huge strain on the schools,” she said.
Another difficulty is the increase of parents who aren’t seeking early intervention assistance through the Willamette Education Service District. Those students start in the district as kindergarteners needing extra attention, and their parents need help finding counselors and doctors.
“When we have kinders who are coming in that need a lot of support who are through early intervention, we can rely on the ESD and we have meetings,” she said. “We’ve never been responsible for the parent education like we are now.”
Board Chairman Mike Bollman said he wants to find ways to help.
“We have to come up with a solution,” he said. “Obviously with our budget scenario right now, it’s extreme. Still, there has to be some sort of solution to meet part way or beyond.”
Board member Matt Posey asked Dehm and others if they would be willing to testify before state legislators.
Johnstone added that Dallas schools aren’t alone in feeling the pressure.
“Legislators are hearing the same consistent stories across our entire state, and they are just like ours,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s finally starting to sink in a little bit.”
Johnstone and Dehm said the district would like to set up meetings with school staff, law enforcement, and a DHS caseworker to help those students needing the most support. Johnstone said it would be modeled after Polk County’s service integration teams, which includes social services and community groups that pool resources to help families in need.
“The thing that we would really like to bring in something similar to (service integration) where a DHS case worker could be there, and they could listen,” Dehm said. “We have data, every 10 to 15 minutes we have data on our kids. We just need someone to listen and take us seriously and tell what resources are available.”