Three local parents — Cathy Berzins, Rebecca Mais and Patrice Pikulsky — recently formed up as the Safety in Our Schools (SOS) committee, with the goal of supporting the Indian River School District’s (IRSD’s) threatened behavior modification positions.
A recent budget crunch set 21 of those district employees’ seasonal contracts on the chopping block, and SOS isn’t happy about that.
The IRSD should look for somewhere else to make budget cuts, according to committee members — the behavior mod program, and the vastly-improved teaching and learning environment it has fostered, are indispensable.
According to Pikulsky, it’s not a matter of cutting reading, writing or math budgets and keeping behavior mod instead — rather, behavior mod precedes those essentials, she said.
The best math teachers in the world aren’t going to be able to explain algebra to their students if there’s a fight going on in the hall outside the classroom, Pikulsky said.
She noted recent hiccups in capital improvements, and said her husband was a builder himself — she wasn’t aware of a building project anywhere that came in at exactly the anticipated price.
“Obviously, the district needs to deal with reality,” she admitted. “But not at the expense of the behavior modification programs.”
As these committee members, and others, have noted at IRSD School Board meetings, and as Pikulsky and Mais (Berzins was absent) repeated on June 7, behavior mod involves far more than sending a student to the principal’s office.
And far less. With the programs in place, disruptive students are asked to leave the classroom — and that’s it. The hall monitor picks it up from there, makes sure they get to the principal’s office.
Other team members supervise in-school suspensions — which SOS members argued was a much more effective form of punishment than out-of-school. If there was someone waiting at home to pick up the chain of discipline, that would be one thing, Pikulsky said — but more often than not, there’s not.
And so, out-of-school suspensions have become little more than vacation days, for students from single-parent and both-parents-working families.
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an intact home, so it falls upon the schools to do something,” Pikulsky said.
Mais gave Indian River High School Principal Mark Steele a lot of credit for reining in disruptive activity during his tenure, calling him “preventive instead of reactive.”
Similarly, with behavior mod, as Mais pointed out, students feeling like they’re at the end of their rope, about to get into a verbal or physical confrontation, have an intervention specialist they can go to — first.
Behavior mod programs offer the kind of conflict resolution training that might just help students down the line, when there’s no intervention specialist around.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, behavior mod team members advance Steele’s efforts to nip problems in the bud, acting as eyes and ears in the hallways and parking lots.
“We need to look at what’s making our schools safe, happy, good places to be,” Mais said.
“Kids want discipline, but it seems like a lot of parents today are doing a really poor job of providing that,” she continued. “They want to be friends instead — but children want those guidelines. A lot of that parenting has been lost, and again, it’s been laid on the schools.”
Until society experiences another fundamental change, the IRSD will need behavior mod, they said. And not just any behavior mod, according to Pikulsky — it took years to build the existing team, and she wants to keep them around.
She said she knew a handful of the threatened 21 personally, and they were highly trained — over-qualified, really — and dedicated. Pikulsky said these positions shouldn’t be seasonal, anyway — they should be full-time.
“If the district lets these people go, I don’t think we’d be able to hire anybody new over the summer, and expect to get the same program back,” she said. “I just don’t believe there isn’t something else in the budget that could be looked at, that there’s no way to free up money for this program.”
“I really believe the school board doesn’t want to get rid of people, which may be one reason why they’re having the problems that they are,” Mais added. “They want to accommodate everybody, and they really don’t want to make cuts.”
However, with so much growth, especially in the affluent coastal area, and a relatively stable student population, and budget surpluses at the state level — “Where’s the money,” Mais asked. “How can Indian River be suffering.”
IRSD officials have said they might hire back some, or even all, of the behavior mod employees next year, but possibly at lower wages.
Those cuts were just one facet in a package including the elimination of a pair of administrative positions (that had been unfilled), the “reduction in force” of several other positions around the district, as certain employees retired or moved on to other jobs and litigation to recover costs incurred when a contractor on the new Sussex Central High project folded. The district was forced to adopt the austerity measures when available funds dipped below the state-required cushion of one month’s operating costs.