Our Views: Deans at schools could help curb safety concerns

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Adding separate deans of students at Craig and Parker high schools to handle discipline is a reasonable idea given student safety concerns.

The Janesville School Board should approve the $38,000 expense when it meets Tuesday, Jan. 14.

As reporter Frank Schultz detailed in Sunday's Gazette, too many students fear for their safety. A survey given mainly to students in grades 9 and 11 last spring showed only 66 percent of students feel safe at school. That's not good enough, as Director of Student Services Yolanda Cargile suggests. When students are fearful, they will find it difficult to focus on learning.

The school district has been surveying students and shoring up security the past four years with a $90,000 grant that is expiring. More than a dozen districts around the state got the grants. Janesville has used the money to help buy security cameras, which seem essential after surveys showed 7 percent of students admit carrying weapons to school. That's an alarming number.

It's reasonable to assume some students don't feel safe because of mass shootings in several other schools in the U.S. in recent years. Other students might fear bullies. Eleven percent reported harassment because of sexual orientation in the latest survey, down from 13 percent four years ago. Sixteen percent reported being bullied, down from 20 percent.

The district has enacted programs designed to reduce such problems. These include Link Crew, which pair upperclassmen with incoming freshmen for support; Youth Frontiers retreats that discuss diversity issues; and “restorative circles,” which bring bullies and victims together to curb future incidents.

All are valuable, but they can only go so far. Only half of students believe their schools are friendly and welcoming, and just 58 percent think their teachers care and offer encouragement.

Those are disappointing numbers. Many or most adults can look back on their school days and think of teachers who served as support systems or mentors. The district wants every student to have at least one staff member he or she can confide in. That's a good goal. If a student can confide in a staffer, it will help ward off harassment, bullying and perhaps violence.

Staffers, in turn, must respond to concerns because, as Cargile says, “what you permit, you promote.”

Superintendent Karen Schulte recommends the new deans at Craig and Parker. Current teachers would be sought to fill these roles. They would be paid from $265,000 in this year's budget for new positions. They would take over some of the duties lost when an assistant principal was cut from each school in 2011. Each school now has a principal and two assistant principals.

The deans would focus largely on disciplinary matters, which Schulte believes drain too much time from principals to the detriment of academic achievement. She notes that rising poverty creates more situations that require intervention. The dean would provide one more supervisor to oversee halls, lunch periods, school events and arrivals and departures.

The goals, Schulte says, are to reduce truancy and disciplinary referrals. If those are met and help make more students feel safe and secure, it will be money well spent.

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