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Plan to Better Handle Disruptive Students Introduced
Written by Bradley Schlegel, Staff Writer

            Administrators have introduced a proposal to help elementary teachers in the Upper Perkiomen School District better cope with disruptive students. Last month, Andrea Farina unveiled a series of proposals that would commence during the next school year.

            Her recommendation, introduced during an April 22 Special Education and Pupil Services Committee, calls for the addition of a student assistant counselor at Marlborough and Hereford elementary schools and the district's 4th and 5th Grade Center to train a group of para-professionals as registered behavioral technicians and consider adding a fourth full-time school psychologist.

            The implementation of an emotional and learning support teacher does not permit the removal of a special needs student from a regular classroom, which is illegal, according to Farina who is the district's acting superintendent. She said during the meeting that the intent of the recommendation is to support the emotional needs of students and to support classroom teachers with strategies to collect necessary data that "saturates a multi-tiered support process."

            Farina emphasized that the proposal could leave some high school special education teachers with a caseload of more than 35 students. She said administrators are pursuing other ways to help support the high school.  

            In March, five teachers and a staff nurse from Marlborough Elementary asked the Upper Perkiomen School Board to provide emotional support services at the school. Philip Detwiler, vice president of the Upper Perkiomen Education Association, advocated for the service. During the March 28 workshop meeting, he asked the members to provide the necessary tools to implement the crucial services in order to "facilitate a truly inclusive environment for our most complex students while maintaining the safety of the classroom environment."

            The room was packed with concerned teachers and residents during the March 28 meeting, according to Maggie Buckwalter, an Upper Hanover resident and parent of four. Buckwalter estimated 50 teachers attended the meeting.

            The quintet of Marlborough teachers implored the members to help the students who are entitled to receive emotional support services. However, one discussed the emotional toll absorbed by the teachers.

            "We are here to educate the students. They are number one," teacher Melissa Deitrich said during the meeting. "Teachers are a close second. Our physical and bodily safety matters, too. Our mental health is important."

            Deitrich, who started by explaining that she intended to speak about the elementary school setting rather than specific classrooms or students, stated that lessons are being disrupted because of multiple evacuations, usually due to the same student "who desperately needs, and is entitled to, emotional support services."

            While the incidents are infrequent, some staff members receive black and blue marks and have experienced "major anxiety" about coming back to school according to Deitrich. She said that beside reportable injuries, some teachers have experienced "extreme guilt" about not being able to protect to other students.

            "One teacher who was so traumatized had to take a leave of absence," Deitrich said.

            According to multiple district sources, the teachers union filed a grievance during the previous school year against the district in which it argued, it part, that the district should obey language in the contract allowing disruptive students to be removed from a classroom at the request of a teacher. However, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law which makes available a free, appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children, prevents removal. Detwiler did not return an email message seeking comment.

            On April 11, the board voted to hire two registered behavior technicians for each current elementary school. According to Farina, the technicians would assist the teachers in deescalating behavioral issues. She characterized the action as a solution for a symptom, not the underlying cause.

            Eleven days later, during the committee meeting, Farina laid out a series of proposals for the 2019-20 school year she described as conditions. The presentation calls for four special education teachers to oversee 21 students at Hereford, two teachers for 13 students at Marlborough and five teachers at the new 4th and 5th Grade Center for 50 students. According to Farina, administrators favored two special education instructors at Marlborough even though one could handle the total case load.

            "This recommendation could come with a consequence at the secondary level," she said, pointing out that state law allows one special education teacher to handle a caseload of up to 50 students. "Right now, we're willing to put it on the table."

            Her proposal covers all the schools in the district. During an April 25 interview, Farina declined to characterize or quantify any incidents at any of the buildings. However, she said the situation in the district hasn't gotten significantly worse during the current school year and that all districts throughout the Commonwealth face similar challenges.

            According to Farina, a student assistance counselor, who would have a background in therapy, trauma and behavior issues, would deliver direct service to any student. The counselor could also provide strategies to classroom teachers, parents and families, according to Allison Stephens, a technology, curriculum and innovation specialist with the district.

            Rather than contracting for service, Farina has suggested training a select group of the district's paraprofessionals to work as registered behavioral technicians. "We have a really good group of paraprofessionals who have proven themselves invaluable to the kids," she said. "We value their services."

            By converting one of its four school psychologists from part-time to full-time, the district would have additional help from a professional with a mental health, counseling and therapy background, according to Farina.

            Administrators will have to make staffing recommendations based on the budget for the 2019-20 school year. If the changes are approved, each of the district's three elementary schools will have a core team of five – which includes a principal, counselor, reading and math specialists and a psychologist – to deal with academic and behavioral issues.

            Farina identified the root of the conversation between the teachers and the board as the multi-tier system of supports (MTSS), a model of providing targeted support to students with academic and behavioral issues by collecting data and providing interventions in the classroom and monitoring student growth over time.

            By nature of their training, teachers are better equipped to deal with academic issues, according to Stephens. She said for them it is fairly easy to identify strategies and interventions that may or may not work.

            However, dealing with behavioral issues on a global scale can be very challenging for teachers, because it's not part of their instructional process, according to Farina.

            "When there's a disruption in the classroom when a child is struggling with behavior, it's hard for teachers to know exactly what to do or what interventions to use," Farina said.

            Most disruptive students have not been identified as special needs students, so they do not have an Individual Educational Program, according to Farina. Protocols developed at each building dictate how a teacher and principal handle each situation, according to Stephens. None of the interventions deployed are allowed to prevent a child with a disability access to a classroom, Farina said.





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