The Palo Alto Unified School District is expediting plans to address student violence and other harmful behaviors, Superintendent Don Austin said in a Superintendent’s Update released on Friday, May 26.
The actions, which were previously planned to roll out in stages, are meant to address teachers’, parents’ and students’ concerns regarding behavior issues, communication and student support.
The rapid rollout comes after two teachers were injured during a May 5 incident involving a special needs student at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. One teacher was struck on the head with a folding chair and kicked in the stomach, and another teacher was punched several times in the face. The student’s parents said he sustained injuries to his arm, according to Palo Alto police.
Numerous teachers spoke emotionally about students’ behavioral problems at the May 23 Board of Education meeting. They said they can no longer handle situations and pleaded with the board to institute remedies quickly.
“Behavior has been tough for us as teachers. It has kind of gotten away from us, and we need help,” one teacher tearfully told the board. “We’re being asked to be therapists, teachers, administrators, behavior analysts — everything on our own, isolated in our classrooms, and we can’t do it.”
In his update, Austin acknowledged what teachers have said.
“We have listened attentively to the valuable feedback provided by our staff members, families, advocates and other stakeholders, which has guided us in formulating the most effective steps forward,” Austin wrote. “The unfortunate incidents involving injuries to staff, along with other impactful events throughout this school year, have compelled us to take swift action for the coming year.”
The district has started a third-party external investigation into the incident at JLS. A system-wide review will produce beneficial insights to help all schools improve, Austin said.
Hiring ‘behavioral intervention’ staff
The district is also committing to hiring 12 new behavioral intervention coaches for the school sites, a significant staffing increase. The new staff would ensure each school has consistent support. The move is in response to feedback the district received from its behavioral support team, classroom professionals and additional stakeholders, Austin said.
“We recognize that this increase will have budget impacts; however, doing so is a top priority based on the feedback from our professional team of district educators and the concerned community,” Austin said.
The district’s professional unions, Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA) and California School Employees Association (CSEA), have also expressed concerns regarding staff members’ training in de-escalation techniques and handling physical altercations.
Austin said the district will be providing a modified safety-care-training program for all employees next year. The training will equip staff members with skills to navigate challenging situations, he said.
The district will also fully staff a second therapeutic services (TS) program at Fletcher Middle School, alongside the existing program at Greene Middle School, to enhance school support services. The elementary and high school TS program will continue operating at Duveneck Elementary and Palo Alto High School respectively, so that students across all grade levels receive needed therapeutic support.
On June 6, the Board of Education will consider adopting a districtwide social emotional learning program called Second Step, which will provide consistent support and guidance to elementary programs. Second Step aims to foster healthy emotional development and build strong interpersonal skills among students, Austin said.
Taking on social media
The district will also address social media behaviors and online bullying.
“Recognizing the impact of social media on our school community, we have formed a new partnership with Josh Ochs and SmartSocial. Together, we will address the challenges associated with appropriate conduct on social media platforms. This collaboration will provide learning opportunities for both our families and students, empowering them to navigate the digital world responsibly,” Austin said.
The district is also starting the PAUSD Speaker Series, six districtwide events that will cover a range of relevant topics and offer insights to the community, fostering a sense of togetherness and shared learning, he said. The district will work with the PTA and local partners to create the programs. A calendar will come out prior to the start of the 2023-2024 school year.
A new ad hoc committee consisting of parents and staff members will discuss district communication strategies and clear expectations for staff and students, promoting better understanding, and reducing potential confusion, he said.
Austin acknowledged that the planned initiatives will take funding but said that the cost of not implementing them will far outweigh the investment.
“We understand that the ending of this year has been challenging for some members of our community, and we empathize with the difficulties you have experienced. As we move forward, we are optimistic about the positive changes that lie ahead,” he said. “By working together and implementing these measures, we can create a safer, more inclusive, and supportive learning environment for all members of our school community.”