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WEST ALLIS — Some West Allis school board members were disappointed Monday that certain kinds of bad behavior such as hitting a teacher didn't attract heavier discipline, as they reviewed a draft student code of conduct.

Using force against a teacher would bring out a level three response from the schools, which is intense intervention by the administration.

But board member Gail Radonski said, "I think that's too low." It should be a level four response, which is one step below long-term removal of the student, or it should go right to removal, she said.

A committee of principals and teachers in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District is developing a student code of conduct to guide teachers but more importantly administrators on options for dealing with bad  behavior.

The draft is modeled after codes used by the Milwaukee Public Schools and by the Madison Metropolitan Public Schools, said Deidre Roemer, director of leadership and learning.

The committee hopes to bring a proposed code of conduct before the board for approval later this year. Although the code might might be in place as early as this fall, the committee acknowledges there is still much to do.

To go along with the code of conduct, the committee unveiled a program that it hopes will drastically reduce the number of students needing discipline.

Too soft?

Board member Sue Sujecki agreed with Radonski that the code seems soft in some areas.

"Many should go to level five (removal) and don't," she said.

For example she said, with responses to bad behavior running from level one through removal at level five, things like constantly refusing to obey the teacher is slated for only a level one or two response. She doubted that's strong enough.

"A student could be constantly refusing and making life miserable for a teacher," she said.

However, that kind of repeat behavior would elicit a higher response than specified in the draft code, Roemer said. Indeed, all the bad behavior listed is on a continuum of whether they are repeat offenses and their severity, she said. The schools' response would take those into account, she said.

That should be clear, or there is too much possibility of confusion for teachers, Sujecki said.

That and the other board comments will be taken back to the school principals and the committee creating the code of conduct, Roemer said.

Program unveiled

While the code of conduct reacts to discipline problems, the committee unveiled a program aimed at building relationships that would make students less likely to engage in bad behavior. This restorative approach the committee unveiled is based on helping students realize their connections with others and that they are part of a group. The goal is to help students feel a connection with others, so they don't want to harm them.

Relationship building is huge, committee members said. A student thinking only about himself doesn't care how his behavior hurts others, said school psychologist Laura Sage.

Building connections would be achieved by having students from elementary through high school participate in circles where they share information about their lives.

With sharing such innocuous information as what television show they watched last week, students should start seeing similarities with others, they said.

They may not be friends with them, but over time they realize they are connected with them, said Greg Goelz, former learning center principal on special assignment at the central office and a leader in the committee working on a code of conduct and on the restorative approach.

Cohesion grows

As the group gets more cohesive, the questions would get a little more personal. For example, one question might ask what happened last week that was frustrating.

The third tier could deal with bad behavior in terms of how it affects individuals and the group.However, much of that level of analysis with the offender and even the victim would be done by administrators, not teachers, Roemer said.

The focus of this restorative approach to thinking about bad behavior is on creating relationships that make bad behavior less likely and if that fails, on fixing what has been damaged, especially relationships.

Seeing results

Circles are already in use in a few schools, including Nathan Hale High School where the number of students who repeat the same offense has gone down, Roemer said.

"Something different is happening," she said. The restorative circles have been used since the school year started.

Privately, some school board members are skeptical. They wonder if teachers would rather try to deal with the bad behavior themselves than go through the extra work of the restorative circles approach.

Indeed, Radonski said during the meeting that teachers are already expected to do so much that she didn't see how they could spare time for circles.

Takes time

"It seems time-consuming," Radonski said.

"It is time-consuming," confirmed Paul Bursi, assistant principal at Central High School, and a committee leader. But he said the extra time spent in the first month is far outweighed by time saved from not having to deal with bad behavior later on, Bursi said.

Even so, there was some sense on the board of here we go again. The schools have gone through a number of programs aimed at relationships. Some schools are Tribes schools, some FISH schools and there are still vestiges of the Capturing Kids' Hearts approach, they said. It's expensive to train staff and administrators in these approaches, they noted.

While the other programs have come and gone nationally, the restorative approach that came about in the late 1960s or early 1970s, has staying power, Roemer said. The restorative approach would replace all other programs in the schools except the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, or PBIS, that rewards good behavior.

If approved, restorative circles training would go into the next school year for teachers and administrators.

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