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Part Two: Are Tuolumne County Schools Safe?

Sonora, CA – How “safe” are younger students in our local schools these days?

A cyber-bullying-turned-battery incident at a Tuolumne County high school that occurred just before the end of this past school year, still under criminal investigation, begs the question: with our children now firmly embedded in an internet connected world, how are elementary educators adapting so that Johnny not only thrives school-wise, but is able to survive the potentially devastating elements that are difficult for adults to monitor?

Clarke Broadcasting, in this second of a three-part series on school safety, is taking a deeper look into existing protocols and improvements being made this school year in Tuolumne County as administrators address security issues such as cyber-bullying, along with other concerns.

Valley Vs. Mother Lode: Night And Day

Hired just after the last school year, Superintendent-Principal at Columbia Elementary Craig Bowden hails from a small school district in Fresno, where he says negative social influences relating to gang and other issues permeated the student body and support system dynamics daily. “Night and day,” is how he compares that environment to the one at Columbia. While there are always social influences that affect behavior in schools, he states, a good support structure as well as systems and processes in place are primary considerations for insuring that students are making good choices and behaving appropriately. Local teachers and the staff at Columbia, he says, have impressed him with their abilities to deliver in this area.

This school year, Bowden points out, “[State educators] have some new inclusion in [the] Ed Code, and in the discipline [section] 48900s that does give us some additional leverage and leeway to address some of the bullying, not just online but in-person, on-campus — and we’re working to implement those policies.” Under the new amendments, he explains, if there is a nexus between bullying actions happening online, such as on Facebook, administrators now have the ability to address it and discipline offending students. Among other educators interviewed, Bowden shared similar laments about modern-day bullying — and its move from the schoolyard to the cyber world. “It used to be that if a student or adult wanted to get at somebody in one way or another, you kind of had to do it, face to face,” he states.

These days, he says, “Folks can hide behind a computer screen and do it very impersonally and not recognize the consequences or the connection to a consequence that it might lead to.” Bowden continues, “It’s an interesting new shift, to have to teach to kids that once you put it out there, if it’s on Snapchat, or whatever other social media outlet, it lives forever. Even if you may think you delete it, it’s still sitting on somebody else’s computer — or stored somewhere in a data base — and the effects of that in the business…and personal world are long-reaching.” If anything, he states, the stakes have increased for doing the right thing. “We’re really trying to get the kids to understand their responsibility — not just when they’re interacting face-to-face with somebody, but virtually as well,” he says.

Subsequently, even as his district updates its three-to-five-year technology plan, it and other school districts have partnered with the Tuolumne County Office of Education to bring in additional instruction materials that teach internet safety and proper use of technology at school and home. “The third piece is regular monitoring with district staff of student IP addresses — like with anything else, it’s time on task and being vigilant about ensuring that we’re aware of issues and addressing them, as they come up — and getting parents on board and included,” Bowden states. Plans at Columbia, as with most of the schools interviewed for this article, are to involve interested parents so that they can become more aware of related, evolving issues so they may provide supportive efforts from home. Like many of the county schools, while in class, Columbia students use many devices; 3rd through 8th grades primarily work with Chromebooks, and lower grades use iPads.

21st Century Common Sense

Superintendent Jeff Winfield, who now in his 24th year as a Mother Lode educator, oversees Soulsbyville Elementary and Twain Harte Elementary. He states, ruefully enough, “Some things don’t change over time, like meanness and bullying…cyber things that happen electronically…we have to address those, even with the younger kids.” Upfront, Winfield emphasizes, “Every school has what’s called an Internet agreement use or computer use and those things really talk about all the devices…vandalism to inappropriate searching…cyber-bullying…all of that is covered, not only in board policy, but in Internet use — and there are consequences.” He points to current curricula on using computers that also teach cyber safety, which are geared to a student’s level; character education, also in place, targets bullying, harassment and teaching students how to positively relate with each other before incidents ever get out of hand and become serious. “Kids just don’t come to you with all the skills they need,” he says wryly. He particularly credits and outlines the schools’ implementation of the Second Step program: “It really deals with helping kids with all kinds of anger management; being left out; how to include others; and all sorts of other things.” As most of the educators interviewed also point out, Winfield concurs that parent involvement is always welcome and becoming increasingly important.

“I remember the days back in the early ’90s…back when a lot of the schools…talked about school uniforms, and how that could help address some of the social behaviors we were trying to change or shape…helping to try leveling the field with families who had lots of means and families that didn’t,” Winfield recalls. Of that era, he remarks, “Kids would push and shove or name call, and you had a lot of support…because a parent understood those types of behaviors.” By way of comparison, he states, “Jump forward 20 years, and now you’re dealing with things you don’t even see…you don’t have a lot of control over them in the electronic world, where mean things can happen and intimidation and harassment can be done, without even needing to use real words or physical actions, but they still are very devastating to some people.”

Not often but sometimes Winfield concedes he has witnessed situations, over the years, where the impacts have been sufficient enough for some students to transfer or go into home schooling. Too, he adds, “We’ve had a few incidences where, when it was reported to us, we were actually able to help.” What it boils down to, he says, “Sometimes, the parents are at a loss, too, because the kids are doing it and it’s hard to control…It’s not always, just taking [away] a device or saying, ‘well, you two don’t talk to each other’ it’s really about, some training…manners…good skills that often times we think kids just know – and maybe they don’t. Maybe they need to be taught how to work through problems or disagreements — or how to be courteous to people who are different…and all of that still needs to be not only modeled by adults…it has to be taught.”

In making campuses feel safe, Winfield describes the sense of ownership by staff and the adults on campus. “Most of the campuses are loved by their families and students…in Tuolumne County, specifically,” he states. With the new curriculum and IT advances, students have access to learning that allows them to go farther and faster. Subsequently, he says, “They’re way ahead, and good for them…I don’t want to be behind in any regard, and I don’t think any school in Tuolumne County is — and I think we all have all stepped out in front and are leading in a lot of areas, each one of us.”

Positive Reinforcement Rules

Six years ago, as Jamestown Elementary Superintendent-Principal Brenda Chapman first came on board, she says the school implemented positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS) into the curriculum, which has resulted in significant measurable improvements, which include fewer suspensions, detentions and referrals to the office. By incorporating character education and incentivizing positive behavior with “Panther Pride” cards that students can redeem for prizes, and through integrating events like Unity Days and Kindness Days, she says the kids are able to experience the positives of appropriate behavior and have opportunities to develop as well as practice empathy and personal responsibility.

“Last year, we developed a progressive system based on infractions and support for kids whose behavior is not acceptable to us,” Chapman remarks. This year, she says the focus will be on improving behavior in the cafeteria. “It’s this whole culture that we’re trying to create,” she shares. “[It is] a climate of respect and…kindness…kids and staff being empathetic towards one another.” She recalls perhaps two cyber-bullying incidences at the school over the past two years. For both the district used restorative justice, working with the students to help repair the violated relationships. More often than not, especially in middle school, such episodes are usually related to something that someone said; or it might be gender-related, often relating to “boyfriend-girlfriend” issues, according to Chapman. Although repairing relationships between students it is not always possible, she admits, “Building empathy — when we get to that part — when we can help kids understand how that felt, and how they would feel if this would have happened to them, we can build that understanding – that’s the long term effect.”

Regarding the WeTip network service to anonymously report cyber-bullying, which all the schools have available through their JPA (Joint Powers Authority), Chapman points out that, although posters are on display throughout the campus and the school provides a link on the school’s website, “I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone tell us that we’ve been contacted…but we make it available just in case,” she states. The resource, which is manned from a central location in Southern California, gathers pertinent information and forwards it to appropriate agencies, including law enforcement.

Etiquette, ‘Online Playground’ Monitoring

Another new hire this year, Belleview Elementary Superintendent-Principal Carla Haakma, made her leap to full-time living in the Mother Lode this year from San Jose. As an educator for 26 years, she spent 13 as a principal; all the while spending vacation sojourns on her family’s Lake Don Pedro houseboat. Now living closer to her Oakdale-based family and enjoying the far more rural local environment that she has grown to love, she happily shares, “It’s better than I could have dreamed of.”

With Belleview classes as small as 11 students, Haakma qualifies that it is much easier to see and stay on top of what is going on between students who are additionally not generally allowed to use their cellphones during breaks or lunch. Being proactive from the first day of school forward — and continuously teaching, reinforcing and incentivizing empathy are keys, she says, to maintaining a set stage of expected behavior and etiquette. Belleview also uses a building positive behavior system, according to Haakma, where “Awesome Eagle” award tickets are excitedly accumulated by students for use in numerous drawings and other activities. The school equally applies consistent consequences for negative behaviors; in the event of serious incidents, the proper authorities are alerted and involved without hesitation, she states. Both contribute to an overall goal, as she describes it: make it a positive environment, where students want to be engaged and really value the environment…feeling safe and being kind to others.

With the edge of a sigh in her voice, Haakma admits that, as social media use by students continues to blossom, administrators and teachers are just beginning to learn technology interfaces that their charges are already adeptly picking up. “Our role is to educate the students about Internet safety and to make our Internet safe…the firewalls — the access,” she states. She believes that it is also on parents to do what they can outside of school. Internet browsers, like SweetSearch, when parents install them at home, can be powerful tools that help provide the necessary filters for kids to be safe in their searches, she points out. Then, there is the matter of carefully keeping tabs. “Most of [the parents] are probably already aware — but are they monitoring what their children are doing online…the times, places in the house, [their] access to apps on their devices?” she asks. “They need to have that dialog — and ask ‘show me your schoolwork’ and what they are doing online. At home, [students] do not always have these restrictions,” she states. She equates parents learning about their kids’ online playground with checking out their physical schoolyard. Among the questions she advises parents and guardians to consider are: “Is it safe? Are they leaving footprints and using the internet as a diary?”

Haakma, like her counterparts, alerts to the fact that these days, virtually anything students post online is subject to future comments, criticisms and repercussions. Subsequently, as they create profiles, communicate and promote their personal lives and successes in the cyber world while preparing for further education and careers, students more than ever before need to understand what is appropriate to share. Akin to that, she advocates students who feel uncomfortable with anything someone else is posting about them to let the adults around them know so that it might immediately be addressed.

Character And Cameras Count

At Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District, Superintendent Dave Urquhart notes that, even as students at Tenaya Elementary begin to bring in cellphones at lower grade levels, none are allowed to use them outside of breaks and lunch. While he says that cyber-bullying has not yet presented itself to be an issue within the student body, “people are going to say what is on their minds,” which is why it is important for staff to teach etiquette, behavior and proper responses in what he dubs a “constant learning situation.” He points to character-building curriculum components, such as the daily morning “character counts” lessons that are incorporated into the school’s announcements as one example.

Urquhart adds wryly, “Just with kids having phones at earlier ages, the whole process starts earlier now with how you educate them…how they learn to use the stuff that, with their earlier access and knowledge…they can either have a great time or get into trouble with.” Along with providing its computer learning programs on instructional iPads, the school incorporates a series of filters that the county helps monitor, as it does at other schools, to help ensure that students are not able to access inappropriate sites. He admits that the filters are a blessing and sometimes present a challenge, “It’s something the teachers are always talking about…finding [new] inappropriate…and [accessing new] appropriate [learning] sites.”

Campus security-wise there were updates last year, according to Uruquart, when his district’s schools all received security system improvements and other districts also report recent, similar upgrades. At Tenaya, he reports there are now about a dozen cameras for staff to observe online and in real time. “When you hear about something, you can punch up the cam and see what happened,” he says, calling the system a great tool, not just for during school, but to help keep watch on school grounds in the off-hours. He also praises a new Blackboard Connect platform, available in the county schools, which brings to his fingertips a ready communications interface for reaching parents and guardians. It allows administrators to reach parents via text, phone or e-mail on a mass scale. As he notes, “I can record something…push the button…and adjust who it goes out to…it really is effective.”

Of note, for this series focused on school safety, Clarke Broadcasting also reached out to the superintendents at Sonora Elementary, Summerville Elementary, and Curtis Creek Elementary. However, those schools did not respond to our requests.

Next: How the Tuolumne County Office of Education and the state are addressing these issues as part of the bigger picture here.

Click here for the Part One story in our series.