School buses file photo

Eight weeks into the school year, Madison teachers say a new, less punitive approach to student discipline has resulted in serious behavior problems that schools are not equipped to handle.

Teachers have been repeatedly hit, bitten and kicked by students, and schools don’t have enough staff to adequately respond to such behavior problems in ways laid out by a new behavior policy that the School Board adopted last spring, and has in some cases created unsafe classrooms, members of Madison Teachers Inc. said at Monday’s School Board meeting.

The teachers said that in theory, they support the new policy, known as the Behavior Education Plan, which is designed teach appropriate behavior to keep students in school rather than suspend them when they break rules.

“It’s not working,” said Sennett Middle School teacher David Wasserman. “The theory does not match the reality.”

Wasserman said students “are smelling and sensing a lack of structure” and classes are consistently disrupted by students exhibiting aggressive behavior who are brought back to the classroom without proper attention.

Katrina Ladopoulos, a second-grade teacher at Crestwood Elementary School, said there also is a lack of understanding of how the new behavior policy is supposed to be implemented across schools, resulting in inconsistency.

The new policy limits the kind of violations of the district’s code of conduct for which students may be suspended from school. Board members adopted it in order to eliminate a zero-tolerance style of discipline that has resulted in a disproportionate rate of suspension and expulsion for black students.

Instead of simply removing students from the classroom and school, the plan outlines interventions that are aimed at keeping students in school in order to improve academic achievement and graduation rates.

The interventions are supposed to address students’ social and emotional needs, identify future behavior problems and teach students appropriate behavior.

“Something needs to be done — the school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing,” said Liz Donnelly, a 4-year-old kindergarten teacher at Elvehjem Elementary. “I think the Behavior Education Plan looks great on paper, but we don’t have the staffing to carry it out effectively.”

She suggested devoting a full-time school psychologist and social worker to each school as a solution.

John Harper, the district’s student services director, told the board that since the school year began, the district has added 23 employees to work in 18 schools to help implement the

plan.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the district will make adjustments to school resources as they are needed to ensure schools remain safe and students’ needs are met and behavior problems are addressed, but said no new employees will be added to this year’s budget, which the board approved Monday.

“Eight weeks in, we’re seeing some really exciting work happening,” Cheatham said in an interview. “And we’re hearing about some initial challenges, which is to be expected.”

She also said the district is working on improving communication to schools about how the new policy should be carried out, and has created a new “stabilization team” to address the most serious behavior problems in schools.

“It’s very important for us to make sure that people aren’t creating rules that don’t exist,” Cheatham said. “There’s a great example that suspensions are no longer allowed or that students cannot be removed from classrooms, and that is simply not true.”

MTI executive director John Matthews said there seems to be an “internal roadblock” between district administrators and school principals.

“The principals are under the impression that they should not be suspending kids, and when I bring it up to the superintendent, she says that’s not true,” he said. “The roadblock seems to be an internal one, that not everybody’s on the same page.”

Cheatham said the district has been shifting toward practices that promote positive behavior for years, but that some schools are now experiencing more of a shift than others depending on their previous work with such practices.

“This isn’t something we just started eight weeks ago cold. We’ve been preparing for this shift for a long time,” she said. “That said, this is a significant shift.”

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.