DECATUR — A new committee of educators has set a timeline to reconfigure how Decatur schools handle students with discipline problems, with the first steps coming this fall.
Superintendent Paul Fregeau told the Decatur School Board on Tuesday that a proposal would be ready for them by January. The district's approach incorporates special rooms for alternative placements within school buildings at the elementary and secondary levels, with several schools opening those rooms when school starts in August. Fregeau said the goal is to work with students in the rooms to identify the issues causing problems, such as stress from a particular subject or classmate, and then help them to transition back into regular classrooms.
Senate Bill 100 requires school districts to exhaust all other options prior to suspension or expulsion of disruptive students, which was the impetus for changing alternative education in the district.
"We have a lot of work ahead," Fregeau said. "The committee committed ... to get this work done and make sure it's done right and we can bring you something and say, 'This is why we're recommending it, because in these buildings this was the most effective plan and we feel we can replicate that district-wide.'"
Alternative education at present includes the district's Phoenix Academy, and Milligan Academy and Futures Unlimited, which are overseen by the Regional Office of Education. All three are housed in the Alternate Education Center, 300 E. Eldorado St.
While the committee continues its work this fall, Fregeau said the district will institute three “full care rooms” at Franklin, Muffley and Enterprise elementary schools, all of which have extensive experience in trauma-informed and restorative justice practices, which emphasize empathy and exploring causes of behavioral issues.
In other elementary and K-8 buildings, the introduction of care/recovery rooms will depend on how far each building has progressed in their trauma-informed training and what the children in that building require. In secondary schools, pilot recovery and transition rooms will be in place to help students who have been disruptive learn new behaviors after they spend time considering what caused the issues.
As part of the changes, school board members took one concrete step Tuesday by approving new job descriptions for the employees who will supervise the new rooms.
The positions — Care Recovery Room Assistant and Student Transition Room Assistant — require a minimum of 60 hours of college credit, and experience with trauma-informed and restorative justice practices. The job descriptions also included the phrase, “bachelor's degree preferred,” which Fregeau said should be taken out before the board voted. That spurred a lengthy discussion, with board members Beth Nolan, Beth Creighton and Sherri Perkins most vocal in their objection to removing the language.
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Fregeau said the alternative education committee had agreed, with input from the unions representing teachers and teaching assistants, that the specific trauma-informed training that those employees will undergo was more important than a bachelor's degree. Further, he said, the committee agreed that because the employees will be under the teaching assistants' contract, the education requirement should not be greater than for teaching assistants.
Last month, 24 teaching assistants were laid off who had been assigned to oversee alternative placement rooms, after the board approved a job description for “student support facilitators” at the March 27 board meeting.
“That wasn't the premise we started with in spring,” Nolan said. “We went through all that discussion and angst and now I feel like we're back to square one.”
“The expectations (for these employees) are different,” Fregeau said. “It shouldn't have been on there. There's no excuse.”
Perkins said she couldn't see why “bachelor's degree preferred” suggested it was a requirement and that she wanted it to stay, which prompted the board to ask Paula Busboom, president of the teaching assistants' union, to speak.
“The rationale is that if we have teaching assistants with 60 college credit hours and who are highly qualified, they may not apply,” said Busboom, who is a member of the alternative education committee.
Positions need to be filled and employees trained before the school year starts in August, she said, and so the committee had to agree on a preliminary job description that could change later. Because the teaching assistants were laid off earlier in the year, she said the job description carries a lot of emotional weight. Removing the bachelor's degree language protects the district from a possible unfair labor practices charge by the unions, she said.
Nolan said again that she felt the designation should stay or the job would represent “watered down” expectations from what the board previously agreed was needed. “I don't appreciate having a threat of (unfair labor practices),” she said.
Board President Dan Oakes suggested tabling the vote, but in the end the board voted to accept the altered job descriptions. “I will be supportive because of you,” Nolan said to Fregeau.
The Decatur board has tried before to come to an agreement on a new plan for alternative education. In January 2017, director of student services Lawrence Trimble and Assistant Superintendent Michael Dugan presented a proposal for moving the program to Stephen Decatur Middle School, which could accommodate more students. The proposal was never pursued, as the school board elections in April of that year seated four new board members: Kendall Briscoe, Courtney Carson, Creighton and Nolan. Fregeau was hired in March 2017.