Meeting Held at the Legislature to Discuss Student Safety

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Superintendent Jon Fernandez says the students involved in the fight videos are only a small portion of the entire student population. 

 

Guam – In light of security concerns at the Guam Department of Education, a round table discussion was held this afternoon at the legislature. 

 

Senator and Former Guam department of Education Superintendent Nerissa Underwood decided to hold the round table discussion after a video on social media showing a one-to-one aide getting physical with a student with special needs went viral in addition to multiple fight videos posted online. Underwood invited the parents of the student with autism, the General Department of Education, the Guam Police Department, and the Judiciary of Guam among others.

 

Underwood says she not only wants to make sure that there are certain policies in place to protect the island’s students, but assure parents that their children are protected in school. At the meeting this afternoon, GDOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez says the students involved in these fight videos are only a small portion of the entire student population. 

 

Fernandez said, “We’re also looking at the disciplinary process. When does expulsion become the solution? What do we do in working with our partners at GPD, DYA, and the Judiciary to address the most serious offenses and so forth. That’s where we are with that conversation. How do we deal with the most severe offenses, and ensure that we are protecting all of our students?” 

 

Superintendent Fernandez emphasizes the goal of improving safety and preventing problems as their core strategy rather than responding to problematic instances. 

 

You can read Superintendant Jon Fernandez’ statement below: 

 

 

 

 

Roundtable: Guam Department of Education relative to the safety concerns of students in general and in Special Education programs

 

“Thank you for allowing the Guam Department of Education an opportunity to discuss the safety concerns of students in general and in special education programs. 

As Superintendent, I take seriously all concerns related to student safety. As a Department, it is our goal to ensure that we have a safe, positive and supportive environment for all stakeholders, especially our students and that means ALL of our students, including those in our Special Education programs.  This includes having safe facilities, achieving lower numbers of behavioral infractions at school (especially the most serious offenses), and ensuring that our stakeholders also FEEL safe and supported at our schools. This is a continuing commitment of ours and is included as explicit goal in our State Strategic Plan to ensure progress as we go forward. 

 

We are responsible for the education and well-being of 30,821 students in our 41 school facilities.  As of September 30, 2015, our 26 elementary schools reported 14,090 students, with our largest school being Upi Elementary with 887 students and the smallest school being Merizo at 250. Our eight middle schools reported 6,675 students with Vicente Benavente Middle School reporting the largest enrollment at 1,239 and our smallest middle school being Oceanview Middle School at 439.  Our six high schools reported 10,017 students with all high schools reporting below 1,900 students and the largest school being JFK at 1,873.  Our smallest high schools are Tiyan at 1,260 and Southern High School at 1,495.  If you recall, two years ago, JFK and GW were closer to 2,700 students. We also reported 39 students at J.P. Torres Alternative School.  

With regard to safe facilities, it is our ongoing responsibility to ensure that facilities meet all regulatory requirements. 

 

To that end, we have strengthened our partnership with our regulatory agencies in addressing our facility issues.  This year, we have begun implementation of a pilot program with Department of Public Health and Social Services to improve our self-monitoring and regulation of any health and safety issues on campus.  We anticipate receipt of $2 million this fiscal year in Department of Interior funds (a total of $5 million over 5 years) to address immediate health and safety facility concerns. In addition, I am convening the evaluation committee next week relative to the RFP for $100 million to address the needs of Simon Sanchez High School, create a master facilities plan which will set forth the improvement strategy for all of our schools.

 

The data will show that the vast majority of our students behave in school and that our schools remain positive settings. If your child or grandchild is a student in our public schools, it is highly likely that you have heard them repeat our mantra of “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible.”  To support implementation of these principles, we have worked hard to utilize the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) framework to guide our activities and our focus at the school level.  You can learn more about PBIS from a number of sources, including the U.S. DOE Office of Special Education which provides technical assistance in this area. Three years ago, we were utilizing PBIS as a framework to improve academic and behavioral outcomes at all of our middle schools.  In SY13-14, I approved expanding the reach of our activities to include all elementary schools.  This past school year, we began the move to establish PBIS in the high schools. We even provide PBIS training to our partner agency, DPW, and its bus operators. The essential framework includes the school-level and the district-level use of data to identify and monitor behavioral outcomes and to develop systems to implement continued improvements to these outcomes and to the overall school climate.

When it comes to student behavior, our strategy is, by necessity, to set positive behavioral expectations for all students and to encourage positive behavior in all settings. 

 

Clearly, as students get bigger and older, and as they move to larger student populations, we are concerned about any increases in more serious offenses, especially those that are more disruptive and more harmful to themselves and to others.  While I would contend again that the vast majority of our students do not engage in these more serious offenses, we do, of course, recognize that these incidents do happen in our schools, just as they do in the broader community.  It cannot be surprising to see student fight videos when it is just as easy to download videos of the adults fighting in the Harmon intersection or at the Hagatna McDonald’s.  This is a troubling issue for our entire community, not just at our schools. I can vouch to all of you that the Guam Department of Education does not teach violence, does not condone violence, does not endorse violence.  But with almost 31,000 students under our watch, violence from the outside community does find its way into our schools from time to time, and it is our incredible and overwhelming responsibility to try to prevent and address these issues when they do arise. 

 

Even if these serious incidents reflect a small minority of students, these incidents can have a disproportionate impact on the schools, including victims.  When these occur in our schools, we have established protocols for all 41 schools to address student behavior and discipline.  Standard Operating Procedure 1200-018, our Student Conduct Procedural Manual, articulates the PBIS framework of support for all students but also addresses procedures for handling more serious offenses, including the consequences that offenders receive based on the severity and frequency of the behavior.  For students who fight, consequences may involve parent shadowing, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or all three.  Students who fight are also required to have a mandatory parent conference, referral to a counselor and placement on a monitoring contract for a certain period.  For the most severe Level III offenses, including assault/battery, sexual assault, use of a weapon, intoxication, and use of drugs, the consequence is an automatic 10-day suspension.  These are offenses where we would also contact our partner agencies, such as the Guam Police Department, for additional support.  In the most extreme cases, expulsion is a potential consequence and would require the Superintendent’s approval.    

 

When it comes to incidents on campus, despite the well-established protocols and procedures in place, it is challenging to prevent all incidents from occurring if we are not at the right place at the right time.    When students fight, they are doing so with increased sophistication.  They do so when adults have passed through the area.  They do so in a much quicker amount of time, some incidents lasting as short as 15 seconds.  They can be difficult to restrain when we do intervene, at risk of harm to our own staff.  Once the incidents occur, I am confident that we are able to address the issue, but to prevent all incidents, we have to find the right solution, whether it is increased staffing at the school level, whether it is increased presence by law enforcement, whether it is increased support for school surveillance and monitoring.  We welcome solutions and we welcome the resources needed to address the concerns that raised here and by the general public.

 

Technology and social media can compound the issues by making more visible these types of offenses as we saw last year at the beginning of the school year and this year as well. There are positive and negative aspects to social media.  On the positive side, it is helpful for me to have evidence of an offense so we can aggressively address the situation.  Last year, I clarified for our administrators that we do have the authority to address incidents that happen off-campus if such incidents undermine the educational mission of the department.  As you recall, many of the fight videos that came to our attention were happening off-campus with students in uniform.  When these incidents occur, we ensure that all students identified on video are addressed, and we know that our partners at the Attorney General’s office and in law enforcement have fast-tracked handling of these offenses on their end.  

 

On the other hand, when we are apprised of an issue through social media, we do need to ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted to ensure that we are operating based on facts and on direct witness reports, rather than speculation and assumption.  This does not mean that there is no sense of urgency in addressing the situation, but it does mean that we must operate within our authority and within the rights due to others to ensure that we do not jeopardize our ability to effectively deliver the appropriate consequences.  

 

With regard to our students with special needs, all of what has been indicated in the above applies.  We also provide training to all of our one-to-one aides to ensure that they are also able to ensure the safety of their students.  The training includes, at a basic level, SAFE-training which guides our aides in identifying behaviors and in appropriately addressing these behaviors.  All one-to-one aides are required to be trained in order to work with our students.  If there are incidents related to the conduct of the student or the employee, they are handled within our established protocols, which includes fact finding by the school and, if needed, a department investigation.  As you know, we are constrained in publicly discussing information pertaining to students and to employees, but we do work to address all incidents.  If parents or other involved parties are not satisfied with decisions made at the school or department level, there are avenues to appeal and revisit these decisions.

 

We are here to answer any further questions in detail, and we appreciate this opportunity to discuss ways that we can improve the safety of our schools, focused on the interest and well-being of our students.  Thank you for this opportunity.  “