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Disruptive students rattle Medford schools

The academic year is done, but school districts have an ongoing assignment: figuring out how to address an increase in disruptive behaviors by students.

Screaming at teachers, throwing objects ranging from musical instruments to chairs, and leaving class without permission but with loud outbursts are just a few of the behaviors parents and teachers say they and their students dealt with over the past school year.

“I feel as though the needs and rights of one or two students is outweighing the needs and rights of the rest of them,” Sandra Anderson, a fifth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, told the Medford School Board in a May board meeting.

Two students in her class acted out so forcefully that she had to evacuate her classroom at least once a week, she said. She had begun to consider retiring early.

To hear some parents and teachers tell it, including some who also attended that board meeting, the school district has been slow to respond to repeated disturbances in the classrooms. It’s a feeling shared both by parents whose kids are evacuated from class and parents of the kids causing the evacuations.

Kelly Taylor said her kindergartner daughter was first suspended in the past year for behavior issues after she returned from Christmas break. She threw objects in class and had outbursts that sparked evacuations.

Mental health specialists with the Medford School District and county assessed the child, eventually offering a diagnosis: disruptive mood disregulation disorder.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children with the disorder “have severe and frequent temper tantrums that interfere with their ability to function at home, in school or with their friends.”

Taylor said that after the diagnosis, the process to move toward an individualized education program, or IEP, was too slow — and her daughter’s and her classmates’ educational experience was diminished as a result. After a couple of meetings with district staff, her daughter’s school day was modified, cut down to as little as one hour and fifteen minutes of class time.

“Something needs to change with the school, the school board, the district,” said Taylor. “It’s ridiculous.”

District officials, meanwhile, said that schools across the nation are dealing with an increase in behavioral problems in early elementary grades.

“This is not a problem unique to Medford,” Karen Starchvick, School Board chairwoman, said at the board meeting. “This is something that the entire state is grappling with; this is something that the entire nation is grappling with.”

Most school officials will confirm the increase but don’t point to a cause.

“I’ve heard a lot of ideas the last couple months,” Starchvick said. “One of them is screen time. I have no idea.”

Michelle Cummings, the school district’s chief academic officer, said she would “hesitate to speculate” about what’s behind the increase in behavior issues. Even so, the district continues to deal with individual cases.

The evidence for increased behavioral issues is beyond anecdotal: Tania Tong, who heads student services, said Medford has seen a 20 percent increase in students qualifying for special education services in the past three years and an even larger percentage of serious classroom outbursts.

At Monday night’s board meeting, Tong presented the most recent numbers on incidents when students were physically restrained. The frequency has increased from 19 students being physically restrained 27 times in 2015-2016 to 30 students being physically restrained 53 times in 2017-2018.

Physical restraint is allowed under Oregon law only under narrow circumstances, “if student’s behavior poses a reasonable threat of imminent, serious bodily injury to the student or others.”

Oregon law has shifted in recent years so that criteria for other responses, such as suspension, particularly among elementary-age students, are also higher.

It also sets deadlines for districts to move forward with pursuing an IEP if parents consent.

IEPs lay out what special education services qualifying students will receive, as well as academic goals.

In response to parent and teacher concerns, Medford has increased funding for support staff in its recently passed budget, with particular emphasis on psychological services and mental health counselors. Several schools have also implemented “restorative justice” techniques to deal with disruptions.

For parents such as Cory Sherman, whose kindergarten-age daughter experienced multiple classroom evacuations at Wilson, the speed with which administrators can restore order and ensure safety should be the main focus.

“I just feel like we’re asking these little people to deal with a lot, things that in a workplace we would never deal with,” Sherman said. “And it seems very unfair.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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