NEW BERLIN - The kind of rough-and-tumble student interaction taking place in one local elementary school has parents more than a little upset.
A room full of parents came to the school board meeting on Monday, June 12, to demand action to curb what they called the rising violence at Orchard Lane Elementary School.
"Our children are scared," said parent Jennifer Milkovich of Sunnyslope Road, who was reading from one of two letters the group Families of Orchard Lane Elementary School wrote. "Classrooms incorporate students with extreme threatening behaviors, including physical, verbal, emotional and sexual engagement."
At the school, 2015 S. Sunnyslope Road, which serves students through sixth grade, there is regular violence in the classroom, on the playground and on the school buses, the parent letters charge.
Letters of concern
The parents took turns reading from the letters that they wrote so that all their complaints could be read into the record. They had already sent at least one of the letters to the superintendent and the school board.
One of the letters has been signed by 85 parents.
In that letter, the parents, who have children at every grade, wrote that they want to work with school officials to improve discipline and communication with parents on what steps are being taken and the results being achieved.
The parents wrote that even teachers are not above being targets of foul language and physical aggression.
"To say that we are concerned is an understatement," the joint letter states.
One of the letters also alluded to an incident that required what parents said resembled a lockdown.
Renee Baron of Meadowlark Drive, who has a sixth-grade daughter who was involved in that incident, told the school board how her daughter and her classmates were evacuated to the gym when a student lost control in class.
The student then went to the gym and pounded on the doors, she said.
"The children in the gym were crying and scared," Baron said.
Further, the parents were critical of the school administration, writing that parents whose children were involved in incidents were not notified, that parents have trouble getting information about those incidents and that parent concerns are not validated.
Children have come home with unexplained injuries that they are often afraid to tell their parents about, the parents wrote. When parents tried to learn what was happening, they were told the issues are confidential, one of the letters said.
"In reality, they aren't. It is a public safety issue occurring in a public space and involves our children," the joint letter states.
"We are here to voice our deepest concerns for the administration and practices at Orchard Lane Elementary School," they wrote.
The administration seems unresponsive to what the parents described as a "drastic rise in unsafe behavior" over the last three or four years, they wrote.
"This is happening without any repercussions that are effective enough to change behaviors," the parents wrote.
Before the parents presented their concerns, School Board President Tom David assured everyone that the board had discussed the letters in closed session that evening before the open portion of the meeting. He also said that the parents who signed the letters would be contacted.
The parents said they want to work with school officials, emphasizing that they don't see the situation as an "us against them." They seek collaboration to strengthen the school, they said.
However they said, "Parents need a seat at the table."
There is also some question about how many students are viewed as the source of the problem.
Superintendent Joe Garza issued a statement Wednesday, June 14, indicating that the number of misbehaving students is small.
"We cannot and will not talk about specific students, their behaviors or their disabilities, including the few students that families have directly or indirectly referenced, but Orchard Lane’s set of student-behavior challenges is not unique in today’s inclusive educational model," Garza said.
The term "inclusive educational model" is a reference on how certain students are included in classrooms whereas years ago they may have been placed in other settings.
On the promise of anonymity, some parents disputed that only a few students are causing the problem. Parents at the board meeting had children in grades throughout the school, one parent said, adding that each had at least a couple of incidents, if not more.
Garza's statement continues: "It’s important to know that we work hard to support the staff and building administration in their efforts to address each individual student’s needs, and will always do so."
Again, one of the parents' letters challenged that view. It charges that the current situation isn't helping any of the students.
"You are no longer serving the child with the behaviors and you are no longer serving the other 25-plus children in the classroom," they wrote.
Garza's statement goes on to say that the administration worked with parents who came to them, but that the vast majority of those signing the letters had not complained.
"Of the 40 or so families represented on the (joint) letter, according to our records and recollection, a large majority never once shared specific concerns with building administration," Garza's statement says. "For those that did, we were able to have conversations about how other students’ behaviors were specifically affecting their child and what could be done to help."
Again, the parents had a different view. They wrote: "When concerns are presented, responses and solutions are not acted on."
Further, Amy Jandrisevits of Krahn Court, one of the speakers, said parents are often reluctant to come forward, fearing their children might be targeted for retaliation.
Safety and support
In a separate June 12 statement, Garza tried to reassure parents that the district cares about their children's safety and welfare.
"Our students’ safety is of the utmost importance to us, and we take it very seriously," he stated. "Our staff will continue to work with parents, guardians and families to address their specific concerns regarding their individual students. We are always willing to do so."
The statement also says: “We, no doubt, have students with behavioral problems in our district, but you would be hard-pressed to find a district that can say otherwise.”
As school board president, David expressed support for both the administration and the parents in a written statement, as well.
"We appreciate the families bringing their concerns to us," David stated. "It is my understanding that each and every board member, myself included, is confident that the district administrative team will continue to work with Orchard Lane’s building administration, as they already have, and have all school year, to alleviate the concerns about student behavior. As a board, we are committed to providing the support our staff needs to successfully handle difficult and disruptive students, not just at Orchard Lane, but at all of our buildings."
The parents said they are talking with other New Berlin schools about whether they have similar problems and have had discussions with professionals and parents in similar school districts about how they handle student discipline.
They also have consulted with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on such topics as expectations for safe schools and student rights.
The parents promised to be back in July with more specifics.