Climate survey shows ‘not great’ results at BUHS

Assistant principal says that measures to improve student life have been underway since fall; administration directed to implement recommendations from the School Resource Officer Task Force

BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro Union High School officials have disclosed the results of their internal climate survey from the fall, and they aren't great.

“This survey was given in mid-October,” said Curriculum Coordinator Paul Smith. “In some cases this is not surprising. Things were in pretty rough shape in October, coming back to school after extended time to being around other students created some friction. It's not great - no question.”

“Nevertheless, the percentile of scores are alarming,” said Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) Board Member Tim Maciel.

As defined by the National School Climate Center, an organization based in New York City, “School climate refers to the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.”

The climate survey - not the same as one that will be undertaken by communications consultant Christopher Overtree when a current sexual abuse allegation investigation is completed - has been undertaken at BUHS for the past 15 years in all WSESD schools.

Soon, the spring survey will be started and administrators say they expect better results.

This all-school overview included custom-built questions “for continuity” since the District recently started using the software products from Panorama, an educational technology firm, for the survey.

Overall, said Smith, the fall results followed the “national trend”: that “as you go up through the grades, there is less of an attachment to school and less satisfaction overall with school.”

Assistant Principal Chris Day said the results were taken “seriously.”

“We [have taken] action steps since November,” said Day, who has postponed his National Guard duty until the end of the school year following Principal Steve Perrin's abrupt departure on “administrative leave” after spring vacation. “If we did it today, we would have better results. I guarantee that.”

Among those actions were reaching out to eighth graders to “learn their interests” and connecting seventh and eighth graders to their advisors.

Following a staff analysis in December, Day said, too, that the school has enacted measures such as more hallway supervision and not allowing more than one student out of a class at a time.

The school has also introduced students to the process of reporting a sexual assault, he said. Responding to student feedback about crowded hallways, Day said wall lockers will be removed.

“We have wall lockers that are barely used,” he said. “High school students don't use them and carry things in their backpacks.”

Additionally, more supervision of restrooms is happening after students also complained about crowding and untoward activity in those areas. Day said sanitary products have been returned to women's restrooms.

School administrators and staff members are also working to develop more green spaces for students to congregate and more private changing/shower areas. A female dean of students has been hired and overall administrators are committed to proactively making the school “more welcoming.”

“There are a lot of little tips we share amongst ourselves to help make the day go better and build community in the classroom,” said Day.

Including students in the teacher hiring process in some way and “doing small things,” such as a health class trivia contest and in-class knitting, are also underway.

“Stepping back from the academics now and again and letting students do something a little different,” Day said. “I'm proud of what we do at BUHS. We are recently sending out more communications to parents about these things that we do.”

Day also said he doesn't want the fall survey - which showed a 15-20 percent student dropout rate - to be “the driver” of change at BUHS, but rather “a great snapshot.”

“I kind of want to get ahead of it a little bit,” he said, adding he is starting to “rebuild our vision at BUHS,” including stakeholders and looking at obstacles and then formulating action steps that also include other data points (teacher turnover/absentee rates, the dropout rate, honor roll, post-high school student plans) as benchmarks.

“I've got some big ideas,” said Day. “I don't just want to react to data, I also want to get ahead of it.”

“I'm surprised it took so long in getting this data,” Maciel said, adding he hopes the school will “evolve” from a more punitive system to a restorative justice model. “We requested it months ago. We could have been partners with you months ago [...] but again, I applaud the direction you're going. Really innovative ideas, and good for you. Good for us.”

SRO study group recommendations adopted

Also at the board's most recent meeting, Interim Superintendent Mark Speno was directed to implement the recommendations of a recent report by a task force made up of staff members and students that called for an end to the school resource officer (SRO) program at the school and establishment of a liaison relationship with the Brattleboro Police Department to respond to any incident in future.

Deputy Sheriff Tim Vinton, a former SRO, is the school's current head of security. The report states that Vinton is “very well liked.”

Activists with Youth 4 Change - a program of the Brattleboro-based nonprofit The Root Social Justice Center - called for ending the SRO program last year after some students, notably those of color and from marginalized populations in the school community, expressed concerns about having a police officer at school.

The program was then suspended for the study.

A task force found that students reported a sense that white students were punished more lightly than students of color and that the administration was not responding to reported incidents in a timely manner.

Pressed to bring a plan to the next school board meeting, Speno noted the report had just come to him before spring break.

“It is a process, and it takes time,” he said. “We can report out at our next meeting. I'm not going to have, like, a final report, but how we initiate and get started.”

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