Schools confront issues of vaping, and blatant disrespect

Talk about school discipline at last week’s school board meeting ranged from disrespecting teachers to smoking e-cigarettes, with one common theme emerging:

School district personnel are trying everything they can to maintain order in the classroom, but they must have parental support if they are to succeed.

“We can’t change a parent, we can only change the behavior of a student. We can’t change the adult, we can only change the children,” said Superintendent Traci Moses, at the culmination of a wide-ranging discussion that began when School Board Member George Thompson took the opportunity at the outset of the meeting to bring up the subject.

“We really need to crack down on this discipline,” he said. “Those kids don’t want to be there. All they want to do is disrupt class, cuss teachers. I want them out of there.

“I know you can’t just tell a kid to get out,” Thompson said. “They can get paddled, but you can’t beat ‘em to death. I just think we need to do something quickly. Something has got to be done or we're going to have a teacher problem next year.

“We need to look at making the learning center Franklin Academy,” he said. “I blame the kids and their parents. Maybe it’s something they see every night.

“We better get a hold of this thing or it’s going to get worse,” Thompson said.

The longtime board member, who represents a district that spans both Eastpoint and St. George Island, also introduced the subject of vaping, which is the practice by students, some as young as in elementary school, of inhaling a vaporized, flavored, nicotine substance through a handheld electronic dispenser.

Often called Juuling, after the name of one of the most popular brands, the use of these electronic cigarettes are as unlawful for minors to possess as are the tobacco variety, and have drawn the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which has become alarmed by their growing use among high school students.

He said some Franklin County students recently were ejected from a game in Port St. Joe for vaping. “They got put out, they were told to leave,” said Thompson. “We have got to get control of this.”

School principal Jill Rudd said that unlike tobacco cigarettes, vaping at times can go undetected, because the dispensing devices can be easily concealed.

“They tape it to their arm and it looks like they’re just resting but they’re vaping,” she said. “It looks like a battery. We had an 11-year-old with two vapes last week.

“Vaping is serious, it’s serious in all schools,” said Rudd, noting some studies have suggested as many as three-quarters of American high school student either are using, or have used, vaping on their school’s campus.

She said students who vape on campus can be issued a civil citation, that enables them to avoid prosecution for what is a misdemeanor in the criminal justice system.

School board member Pam Marshall echoed Thompson’s concerns, stressing that classroom discipline could have an effect on teacher retention.

“I also talked to several teachers and some are already looking at other jobs. We have to be tougher,” she said. “When they are blatantly disrespectful, they should never be sent back to that class.

“Alternative school is the last step. The students who want to learn have rights and we’re not letting their rights come through,” Marshall said, asking that a survey be done of teachers to find out their thoughts.

In her report, Rudd said the administration and several veterans teachers have been working on classroom management, with an eye towards retaining young, promising teachers during this statewide critical teacher shortage.

“We don’t want turnover every single year, then we don’t establish consistency,” Rudd said.

“We’re cracking down on all of that,” she said. “If those kids don’t have that parent support at home, they’re going to end up with DJJ (the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.”

Rudd said the school has been successful in cutting down on the incidents of fighting, and on bus disruptions due to the presence of monitors, as it seeks to reach its goal of cutting referrals in half.

“This year we’re not seeing the fights, but a lack of respect for teachers,” she said. “”You name it, we're doing it at this point. It’s more the middle school ranks right now. It’s a handful that cause the major disruptions.”

Rudd said bad attitudes on the part of students, and resistance from parents, contributes to the problem. “Parents will block (the school’s telephone) numbers,” she said. “The importance of this has to be communicated to parents.”

The principal said the disruptive students frequently won’t mind receiving in-school, or even out-of-school suspensions.

“They want OSS, they don’t care if they go to ISS,” she said, noting the school clean-up is also sometimes assigned as punishment. “We’ve taken away every single enjoyment we can take away at this point.”

She said Nathan West has been assigned as dean over the elementary and middle schools, while Charles Syverson is now strictly over the high school. She said together with Rob Wheetley, the school’s director of security, the men serve on a discipline team, which has requested to do town hall meetings in two different locations this school year.

One positive sign has been the implementation of a mentoring program, in which veteran teachers have a chance to work with the new ones on the best ways to address classroom discipline. “We’re grateful that they’re going into that classroom,” said Rudd.

Leigh Smith, a veteran elementary school teacher for 25 years, told the board mentoring is essential because students often try to take advantage of new, often young, teachers, of which there are several.

“When there’s fresh meat, you go after them,” said Smith. “They have a new administration, a new teacher and they are trying to see ‘What can we get away with?’

“They are right out of college, they need our support,” she said. “Somebody less than five years is ‘brand new.'”

She said the administration has been consistent in its policies. “They’re very secure and that’s a very positive thing,” Smith said.

She said the veteran teachers questioned students who they had taught in the past, asking “Would you do these things if you were in my class?

“We’ve all been trying. When you’re in a classroom with kids, there’s a special relationship and there’s a level of expectation,” she said. “I think that’s our job, that’s part of our responsibility. Even our substitutes really feel it’s our responsibility to step in and do that.

“We don’t want them to get a referral but we’ve got to hold them accountable,” Smith said.

Chairman Stacy Kirvin said he’d like to see a proactive approach as part of the policy, asking Wheetley whether mental health counseling is part of the mix.

“We meet once a month and we go over kids who are in need and we get them to the right counseling area, (but it’s mainly for those) seen as more of a threat,” Wheetley said.

“Is there any way to corral some of these kids who are perennial behavior problems?” Kirvin asked.

“I feel like our staff is doing all they can do,” responded Moses. “It’s more of a home issue. It’s going to need a cultural shift and a cultural change.

“If people aren’t going to be part of the solution, I don’t want to hear it. We need to get some support from the community,” she said. “It’s a different society. Home lives are different than when we were all growing up.

“Sending kids to alternative school and throwing them out of school is not going to be the answer,” said Moses. “Our churches need to be involved, our stakeholders and businesses need to be involved. It frustrates me as superintendent when people are so critical of what’s going on at the school and they haven’t stepped foot in that school.”

Kirvin said students need to realize that their future depends on the what they do today.

“They’re so young, they’re making decisions that will impact their life forever,” he said. “They don't understand the consequences of their actions.

“There are apathy issues and we need to identify these kids early on,” Kirvin said. “They’re doing this for some reason and we need to try to figure this out, and try to get parents on your side.”