No Adults in ISS Room at Middle School
story by AMELIA WEDEMEYER and CHRIS ROGERS
This article won first place for best investigative journalism at the 2015 Minnesota Newspaper Association Convention
For the last year, Winona Middle School (WMS) students who were removed from class have been put in a room together, unsupervised. The adult in the room was eliminated as part of budget cuts last year in a line item labelled "ISS elimination." Principal Mark Anderson told the board behavior had improved, the program was not needed, and teachers did not want it, and that students who were removed from class could sit in his office. In practice, however, ISS continued, without direct supervision. Upon questioning by the board in June of 2013 and in a September interview with the Winona Post, Anderson said a camera would be used in the ISS room to help monitor suspended students' behavior. However, no camera was installed, and several board members questioned by the Winona Post said they were entirely unaware of the situation and thought the program had been eliminated.
At the February 21, 2013 board meeting, the elimination of the ISS program at WMS was listed as a budget reduction recommendation, valued at $21,153 in savings. Anderson told the board that ISS was no longer needed because of student behavior improvements and feedback from teachers supporting the removal of ISS. “I think we’re assured by Mr. Anderson that they’ll take care of the issues in the office over there as best they can,” WAPS superintendent Scott Hannon commented during the discussion. “They feel confident that it’s something that they can eliminate.”
From fall 2012 to spring 2013, while the board was considering cutting ISS, WMS teachers sent 66 students to ISS for behaviors varying from sexual harassment to fighting to "possession of paper airplanes… again." In two instances, while there was still a supervisor, students had to be disciplined for acting out while in the ISS room. At that time the ISS room was next door to the school psychologists' office. However, the arrangement was problematic because commotion in the ISS room distracted special education students who were being assessed by the psychologists, Anderson said.
During a June 20, 2013, board meeting, Anderson noted that because of the budget cut, a camera would be installed for the coming school year to assist monitoring in place of an adult in the room with the students.
In a late September 2013 interview with the Winona Post, Anderson indicated that the camera had been installed to monitor the ISS program. "We still have ISS, we just don't have anybody in the room with them," he said. "We monitor them with a camera."
Last week, Anderson admitted the camera had never been installed. He said a lightning strike incident this spring destroyed other cameras in the building that needed to be replaced first, since they monitored other unsupervised areas in the school. Plans, he said, were in the works to install a camera in the room this summer. “[The lightning strike happened] in spring, late March or early April. The electricity went out in a couple areas of the building,” Anderson explained. “[We were] supposed to get new [cameras] for the building, but the older ones [short circuited due to the lightning], and we had to have new ones put in as replacements.”
In interviews with the Winona Post last week, School Board member Ben Baratto and Jeanne Nelson were still under the impression that ISS at the middle school had been eliminated. Board Chair Mohamed Elhindi was familiar with the status of supervision of the ISS room.
Anderson highlighted that the ISS room is directly next to an outer office, with secretaries' desks, and that the assistant principal and other offices are nearby. All of those staff members, he said, help supervise the students in the ISS room. In some ways, eliminating the supervisor in the room helped, he said.
"We have middle school kids and they like to argue with adults," he explained. "We hoped that if we took [the supervisor] of the room, it would eliminate the opportunity for the kid to talk to that person," he added.
"The kids are supervised based on the plan we received as a board," Elhindi said, explaining that the very close proximity of secretaries and other staff constitutes satisfactory supervision. "When you cut your budget, it's never a good thing," he commented. Still, the School Board has not received any reports of problems with the new arrangement for ISS, he noted.
When asked if whether behavior issues in the ISS room had changed since the elimination of the supervisor, Anderson said, "I don't know that it's any different than it was before." He added that when students who have already been sent to the ISS room continue to act out, he typically sends them home.
During the February 2013 School Board meeting, Baratto argued against the "ISS elimination" budget cut and said Anderson was a high-paid employee who should be observing and managing teachers, not spending his time monitoring unruly students in his office. In an interview last week when he was informed of the current ISS practices, he said he was less comfortable with the idea that misbehaving students may not always be monitored. "If they're there with just [a staff person who can hear what's going on in the room], there might not be a ruckus, but is there any learning going on? My belief would be they should be monitored," he said. "I was under the impression we didn't need [ISS at the middle school]. I think [the board] should visit the situation again."
"Students need supervision," Nelson said. "I would say if a child is sitting in the outer office along with the secretary that is supervision, but children need supervision," she added. Currently, students do not typically sit in the outer office.
Nevertheless, Nelson praised Anderson's handling of discipline issues at WMS. "From talking to Mark, he has the straightforward approach to expectations and what behavior should be," Nelson said. "You know those kids respond to clearly knowing what the expectations are. Kids, more than anything, just want to know the rules and to be treated the same way. They want rules to be clear and consistent. I think he seems to have a good understanding of middle school behavior and how to handle it. It must have improved in the last couple of years at the middle school. I think he's had a different approach and has had a little more success."
The value of ISS
ISS serves a unique role in schools. It is one of the most serious disciplinary actions teachers can take. A single disruptive student can prevent a whole class from learning. When disruptive students just will not listen — disciplinary referrals include numerous cases of such defiance — ISS gives teachers an option for removing them. ISS also provides a more serious consequence for students who repeatedly earn detentions or who engage in more egregious acts of misbehavior, such as violence, cyber bullying, or bomb threats. A bomb threat was reported once in the semester of disciplinary documents obtained by the Winona Post.
The purpose of ISS is not only to remove disruptive students from the classroom, but to educate and counsel them, hopefully correcting their behavior, Elhindi said.
Baratto said ISS serves a valuable purpose. Sometimes a disruptive student in the classroom can hold back the entire class, and ISS can serve as a place for students to "cool down" and get ready to return to the learning environment. "There's also an opportunity for he or she to continue the educational process, somewhat," he said.
Nelson also stressed the value of a listening ear in soothing misbehaving students. To understand why a child acts out, "you need somebody to really listen to them," she said. "And that takes trust and it takes a fair amount of time to create that trust. It doesn't happen in just five minutes."
Of course, keeping kids in class as much as possible is the goal, Anderson said, but when kids must be removed, ISS is preferable to out-of-school suspension (OSS). Nelson agreed. At least there is a chance students will do coursework while in ISS, Anderson said.
"The thing is you don't want the student to be behind" because of what they are missing in the classroom, Elhindi added. Anderson explained that while students are in ISS "our goal is to have them do school work," but when they are very upset that may not be possible.
Today, even without a dedicated supervisor in the room, Anderson said administrators and other staff members take a team approach to handling behavior issues. Often times the first step is to remove the student from the classroom and put them outside of the classroom in a shared space that is called the “house area,” which has tables and chair set up in the middle. “Their teacher can check on them and maybe resolve any issues they had,” Anderson said. “The house area is first and [then we send them] down to the ISS area.”
Depending on the situation, a student may be able to rejoin the class or might be asked to go to the office, where they can sit with an adult or spend time in the ISS room. There, students are given the chance to have a “conversation about what that is [that is bothering them],” Anderson said. For other students, sometimes it best that they are left alone. “We’re always looking to find the best [solutions] for students that have behavioral issues.”
'Trending in the right direction'
Discipline may always be a challenge for middle school educators. Of 764 disciplinary referrals written by WMS teachers in half a school years' time, insubordination — students generally not doing what they are supposed to or not listening to teachers' instructions — was by far the most common problem, with 327 referrals. Misbehavior on the bus was the next most common, with 170 cases. More serious behaviors were not infrequent. There were 180 cases of violence, threats, or bullying, and 109 cases in which students were given ISS or OSS.
Still, in the last year, discipline at WMS is improving, Anderson said. Assistant Principal Dave Chapman has been sitting students down after misbehaviors on the bus, giving the same presentation about behaving on the bus every time. After enough times, the students just get sick of the presentation, Anderson said.
"We've had less kids in ISS. We're trending in the right direction," Anderson added.
This article and supplemental photography originally appeared in the Winona Post