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Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education Revises School Climate Policy

Parents, Board Members Discuss Numerous School Climate Concerns

The Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education covered a set of important topics at the Monday, Oct. 4 meeting, including building safety, state assessments, and, perhaps most importantly at this time, school climate.

To kick off the meeting, Talia, the student government representative, reported that Back to School Night and the senior car wash were successful. According to Talia, Homecoming will take place on Oct. 16, and twelve POB students have been named National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists, which places them in the top 5 percent of juniors who took the PSAT. 

Board president Gary Bettan thanked all who attended the workshop meeting last week and said that he hoped that the community better understands how the board formulates its goals. Board member Evy Rothman recently attended the Essential Policy Elements of School Safety workshop, during which she examined inspection requirements and reviewed up-to-date sample policies. However, in light of the growing number of bullying incidents within the district, Rothman took particular interest in how board policy relates to bullying and cyber-bullying prevention. Rothman said now that the new anti-bullying law, called the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), has been passed, she is eager to “incorporate its message into the district’s new school climate policy.”

On the same topic, board member Ginger Lieberman, a nationally recognized expert on bullying behavior (including cyber bullying), warned that not only is bullying on the rise across the nation but tragic repercussions of it are also increasing at a steady rate: “Suicide is the #3 killer of kids in the U.S. We have children on suicide watch because of cyber bullying. Talk to your kids. Get to know who they’re talking to online. Let’s use Rutgers as a teachable moment, she said.” She also suggested that educating younger children is of utmost importance because “suicide is starting at 9 years old.” Superintendent Gerard Dempsey responded, “Yes, we plan to respond to the Rutgers incident as a teachable moment to our students.”

Agreeing with Lieberman, fellow board member Emily Schulman added, “Teen suicide rates tend to be higher among gay and transgender individuals,” and then turned to the board, asking, “Will this aspect [of teen bullying] be addressed?” The board agreed to take into account the ramifications of bullying on this population of the student body as well.

In the Superintendent Announcements, Dempsey described last week’s power outage at Mattlin Middle School. “One day we had partial power; one day no power. While on tour of the buildings, I noticed that the students on the second day were fully adjusted after only ten minutes of losing power,” he praised. He also noted the district’s swift and effective response to the power outage. “We had a lot of support from outside vendors. LIPA was here. And everyone responded very positively,” he said. He said that The Parent Link proved to be an “effective way to contact parents” in case of an emergency. As for the flooding, Dempsey said that those traveling on Round Swamp Road were most negatively impacted because of an abandoned MTA bus and car. “Buses had to be redirected to other schools until the water receded and they could go back to their own schools. The staff did a great job,” he said.

In other news, Dempsey reported that POB is not eligible for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top this year.

In business news, Assistant Superintendent for Business Ryan Ruf personally thanked Gerry Ring, a long-time community member, for serving as chairperson on the Audit Committee from 2006 to June of this year. Ruf said, “Because Mr. Ring set the bar so high, Plainview-Old Bethpage is one of only a handful of districts in New York that received favorable praise.”

Chairperson of Science Joyce Barry and chairperson of Social Studies Maria Carnesi presented NY State Assessment results. Barry was proud to announce that overall scores for the fourth-and eighth-grade science assessments increased by four percent in fourth-grade and there was a five percent increase in eighth-graders who achieved the highest score, Level 4. In the accelerated earth science classes, 83.8 percent of students achieved mastery. Barry added that by incorporating more writing into lab work as well as other science assignments, she and other teachers have created new ways to enhance the science curriculum.  

Carnesi said she also collaborated with other teachers over the summer and developed a new “framework” for social studies teachers that will continue “to fold more writing into the social studies curriculum.” She described at length how a “framework that integrates all subjects” is a sign of “a good curriculum that will move children forward.” Although the NY State Assessments in social studies have been eliminated this year due to financial constraints, Carnesi was nevertheless pleased to report that the fifth-and eighth-graders’ passing rates this year are consistent with previous years. Ninety-three percent of eighth-graders passed, with a fourteen percent increase in mastery. Carnesi commented that the teachers’ concerted efforts to integrate writing into the social studies curriculum contributed to this increase.

Following up on last week’s workshop meeting, Dempsey gave an update on the board’s goals regarding academic standards, school climate, and finances. He confirmed that the board plans to “investigate accelerated classes by comparing and assessing accelerated models” and posed the question, “Is there value in accelerating more students into subjects we already have or in broadening the choices of accelerated subjects overall?”

Without hesitation, Dempsey shifted his focus and delved into perhaps the most pressing concern of the evening: school climate. He began by expressing his own concern about bullying and assured the public of the board’s dedication to ensuring safety – physical, emotional, and social – among all students, inside and outside of the classroom setting. He acknowledged that school climate is also determined by the teaching and learning environments, interpersonal relationships and interactions, and whether or not social support is available. He said that, due to the urgency of this matter, the board is making every effort “to move up the circulation of the new school climate policies.” Bettan suggested that a fundamental shift in thinking is needed if school climate is going to improve: “This is going to involve a change in the culture of our district. As adults, we all need to model our behavior for our kids,” said Bettan.

The discussion then opened up to the public, and several deeply concerned parents took the floor. In response to the board’s discussion about bullying at last week’s meeting, one parent, an active member of the POB Families Concerned About Bullying committee, encouraged the board to initiate dialogue between the community and the school district. He recommended that the board set forth an outline of dates so that parents will know when to expect to see an updated and more relevant anti-bullying policy. He urged the board not to “let the Rutgers incident fall by the wayside. In a couple of weeks, people will start to forget and another incident will take place. The boy in Texas is another example. We can’t let that happen again.” Dempsey was receptive to the parent’s requests and agreed to “look for a speaker who will address cyber bullying and to review the sample policies from you and from online sites.”  

Another parent reported that her kindergartener had been bullied on the school bus and within the Kindergarten Center extensively, and that her fourth-grade son had also been bullied by a classmate. She stated, “This should not be allowed at the Kindergarten Center or anywhere else in the district. It cannot happen one more day.” She expressed great dissatisfaction with the way the district has dealt with bullying and ended emphatically, “I’m begging and pleading with you to continue your long-term changes, but some kind of intervention needs to happen now,” she said.

One of the last parents to speak was incredulous that her child was required to read only one book this summer. As a POB graduate herself, she said was disheartened to see how “different” the standards are now. She also expressed frustration regarding the district’s unresolved bullying issues, suggesting that updating a new anti-bullying policy “takes a long time, and each day that goes by another child gets bullied. Children should know and expect consequences.” Dempsey tried to diffuse what was quickly becoming a contentious situation by pointing out, “Consequences are put into place and we’re updating the Code of Conduct.” The parent challenged, “Nobody is listening to the Code of Conduct.” Tensions in the audience began to rise as another member of the board refuted the parent’s claims, and the conversation ended in an argument.

As for financial updates, Dempsey warned, “We’re faced with several concerns as we’ve lost a tremendous amount of state aid in the past year…and we’re expecting to lose $700,000 in state aid from the federal stimulus fund.” He advised putting aside money in a capital reserve fund.

Unfinished business included the approval of the Code of Conduct revisions as well as the approval of the Wellness Regulations. In order to convey the new wellness messages throughout the district as efficiently as possible, Dempsey noted that “teachers will be writing clarifying letters to the parent body about [the new wellness policy] and healthy food choices.”

The board will also be attending the 90th NYSSBA (New York State School Boards Association) Annual Convention on Mon., Oct. 18. The next Board of Education meeting will take place later that day.