CAMBRIDGE — “On Sept. 20, I was assaulted by one of my kindergarten students,” Kendra Mero said.
The Choptank Elementary School teacher was speaking to members of the Dorchester Board of Education during their meeting on Thursday. Word had spread that violence in the county’s classrooms would be discussed, and the public responded - the meeting had to be moved from its regular location to a larger room in the Dorchester Career and Technology Center.
Every seat was filled, and the walls were lined with citizens, including students, who wanted to hear what is being done about violent outbursts in local schools. Many teachers were on hand, wearing red T-shirts identifying them as members of their union, Dorchester Educators.
Ms. Mero began to cry as she recounted the day one of her students began punching and head butting her in the abdomen repeatedly. When help arrived, the kindergarten teacher had been injured badly enough to require treatment in the emergency room for internal bruising and muscle spasms.
She was out of school for three days recovering, “while the student returned the next day,” she said.
“I feel abandoned,” Ms. Mero said, speaking directly to President Glenn Bramble. “I want to know, when will enough be enough?”
Craig Schwickrath is a third-grade teacher at Choptank Elementary School. He said the children “are capable of great things,” but also, “Students need to be held accountable for their actions.”
He said the culture of what is acceptable often changes, but now, “We must admit that discipline is out of control.” Referring to a meeting a year ago that followed fights at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, Mr. Schwickrath said, “The school board said they had our backs, but our backs are against the wall now.”
One change has been the opening of New Directions Learning Academy in the previous Vocational-Technical school, where students with behavioral issues can now be separated from their original classes, and receive special attention. But there are questions there, as well.
“We have untrained staff,” said Precious Hampton, who works with the children there, and sometimes faces dangerous incidents. “When do we have to duck, when do we have to run?” she asked. Ms. Hampton asked for more help and resources at the academy.
Many calls were made for increased mental and behavioral health staff in county schools. Behavioral Health Counselor Omeaka Jackson brought her perspective to the testimony, noting, “I would say that approximately 75 percent of Dorchester County students are living in poverty,” and have suffered some form of trauma.
Ms. Jackson suggested training for faculty in social and emotional learning. “There’s a reason” for the students’ behavior, she said.
An educator’s understanding and patience can have far-reaching effects. The Rev. Charles Cephas is now a Hurlock Town Council member, who was also a difficult student, by his own admission.
Speaking to board Member Phil Rice, the Rev. Cephas remembered his days as a student in Mr. Rice’s math class. “I was bad, but you understood where I was coming from,” he said. “Teachers cannot be afraid of the students if they are to teach.”
President of Dorchester Educators Katie Holbrook said though teachers had asked for support at the similar meeting last year, they have not received enough. One frustrating response from administrators, she said, when a violent incident occurs, has been the suggestion that “if only educators had formed relationships with students,” trouble would have been avoided.
“We have had enough,” Ms. Holbrook said. “We have an obligation to do better.”
C-SD nurse Donna Payne spoke to the board, saying, “You’re not doing your jobs.”
“Hold somebody accountable, hold the parents accountable,” she said, adding a remark that drew a round of applause from the crowd, “Where are the parents in all this?”
After hearing more than an hour of testimony, Mr. Bramble spoke to the audience. “Yes, we all heard you,” he said. “You will get some answers.”
Those answers will come at a specially scheduled meeting of the board, this Friday at 3 p.m., when Mr. Bramble said the public will hear “the rest of the story.”
Member Laura Layton referred to Maryland Senate Bill 651, passed in 2017, saying, “It prohibits any child, pre-K through second-grade student, from being suspended or expelled. Our hands are tied.”
A voice from the back of the room called, “They are not tied! You have a responsibility.”
The website of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education summarizes the bill as follows.
“Legislation passed in 2017 to prohibit a child enrolled in a public prekindergarten program through second grade from being suspended or expelled from school, subject to limited exceptions. (HB 425/SB 651) (Del. Lierman/Sen. Smith).
“The bill allows a student in the specified grades to be expelled if required by federal law. It also allows a student to be suspended for up to five school days if the school administration, in consultation with a school psychologist or other mental health professional, determines that there is an imminent threat of serious harm to other students or staff that cannot be reduced or eliminated through interventions and supports.”
Funds play a role in the complex issue. After thanking teachers for attending the meeting, Ms. Layton agreed that more staff is needed, but lack of money restricts the board’s ability to hire them.
She pointed to the County Council as the source of the lack of funding.
“Parents have to be vocal to the county council,” Ms. Layton said. “They would not even allow us to come in to present the budget. I can’t even imagine why not.”
“There is no money,” she continued. “There only way for the money to appear is for the county council to allot it, and they don’t seem to be willing.”
Mr. Bramble said, “We’re about $1.5 million short of meeting our proposed budget. It was unbelievable what we had to cut just to get there. We started about $7 million in the hole.”
Speaking to the audience, he said, “Most of what you said, I agree on,” adding that many people don’t understand the constraints under which the board operates.
Superintendent Dr. Diana Mitchell said she has been to the last seven county council meetings, where she asked for funding over the minimum, maintenance of effort, “by myself,” without parents or teachers, except for a presentation by Ms. Holcomb on March 19. Dr. Mitchell also noted that the issues discussed were not unique to Dorchester County, and that on March 20, assistant principals had received training on the effects of trauma.
Charlene Jones spoke at the meeting and continued her remarks in a video on social media after she left, saying, “It’s just a cycle of complaining, a cycle of frustration, a cycle of violence.”
Friday’s meeting is scheduled at the Board of Education at 700 Glasgow St., Cambridge, phone 410-228-4747. The website of Dorchester Educators is www.dorchestereducators.weebly.com. The website of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education is www.mabe.org.