District 161 town hall meeting looks for answers to discipline questions

Nearly 60 parents and other community members brought their questions – and, hopefully, some answers – to last Thursday’s Flossmoor District 161 town hall meeting on discipline in the schools.

Serena Hills School Principal
Shari Demitrowicz leads a
breakout discussion at 
Thursday's town hall meeting
on discipline in District 161.

(Photo by Tom Houlihan/HF 
Chronicle)

During a wide-ranging program, audience members heard from the district’s attorney, administrators and a recognized discipline expert who has written a book on how problem students can positively change their behavior.

After that, audience members – seated at five large tables in the district’s administration center – shared their own thoughts during break-out sessions. By night’s end, they submitted their ideas to school officials and Superintendent Craig Doster said their input was a necessary and valuable contribution to the ongoing development of District 161’s discipline strategy.

Thursday’s turnout, and the many concerns raised at the meeting, likely sent a clear message that many parents and other community members see discipline as a nagging, unresolved problem in District 161.

Those concerns were heightened last month after a post-dismissal fight at Parker Junior High School. A 12-year old student was hospitalized following the incident and the fight received a great deal of attention, especially after a graphic video of the altercation turned up on Chicago-area media sites.

That fight was mentioned in only the most general of terms Thursday, even though it clearly was the precipitating event behind the town hall meeting. Doster said it would not be discussed during the session. What is most important at this time, he said, is that community members come together and help school officials find answers to questions about discipline.

Doster asked parents to think about how to diffuse “what is going on at the (Flossmoor) library or Leavitt Park after school.” Those are both spots where Parker students congregate at the end of the school and verbal or physical confrontations sometimes begin. Doster suggested that parents might consider volunteering at those locations to nip altercations in the bud.

Since January, Doster said, school officials have been reviewing school discipline practices and strategies, particularly at Parker. New discipline procedures will be unveiled this fall in the District 161 schools. School officials have been extremely busy dealing with state mandates this year but are now turning their attention to discipline issues and changes are coming, he said.

“When school starts this fall, students will know what is expected of them,” Doster said. “We will have strong discipline in the schools. We will use a balanced approach and rely on best practices.”

Doster added that he sees the need for greater relationship building at Parker. The district will also be turning to restorative justice measures such as peer courts and resolving conflicts by restitution contracts between perpetrator and victim.

“If we don’t do this, it will lead to societal problems in the future,” he said.

During one break-out session, parents listed their discipline concerns, and what the schools can do so that student behavior improves.

“Students need to be heard,” said one mother.

Adult supervision of students needs to be better, said another.

“Disrespect of students is palpable, even in the elementary schools,” said a third.

Bruce Nieminski, an assistant principal at Parker, recorded the comments, agreeing with some of them. As a teacher, Nieminski said, he always worked to build relationships with his students. When that happened, he’d know when a child was having a bad day and might need some extra support.

“If I have a semblance of a relationship with a student I’m not going to overreact the first time I see behavior I don’t agree with,” he said. “You have to have a relationship with the student. That’s the biggest factor in turning things around where behavior is concerned.”

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