SARANAC LAKE - A new program designed to promote positive behavior among students got a cold reception from a group of Saranac Lake Central School District parents Wednesday night.
The district launched its Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) program on the first day of school Tuesday. Students in each building were given basic lessons in how they're expected to behave in school as the first step in what will be a three-year program.
At Petrova Elementary and the Saranac Lake Middle School, for example, the lessons included everything from raising your hand and using appropriate language in the classroom to using good table manners in the cafeteria and flushing the toilet after going to the bathroom. Students are offered incentives and rewards - eating lunch with a teacher, extra recess time - for modeling good behavior.
Each school building has developed its own "matrix" of expectations for students. That work was done by PBIS teams of administrators, teachers and staff who participated in a series of training sessions and held meetings in advance of the program's kick-off on Tuesday.
"Traditionally the kids come in to school and it's, 'Go ahead, this is what you're going to do,'" Rebecca Goldman, a Petrova Elementary counselor and one of the school's two PBIS coaches, told the district's Board of Education Wednesday night. "Well, this year when they came in we spent the past two days training them how to do bathroom, how to get on the bus and how to walk down the hallway. The kids don't necessarily come to school knowing what to do."
But the program was blasted by a group of parents who called it frivolous and humiliating, especially to students at the high school.
Annette Scheuer, the parent of a high school senior, said she respects what the district's staff is trying to do but called the program a "convoluted jumble of jargon with little substance." She said students shouldn't expect to be given prizes or awarded for doing what they're supposed to do.
"It seems appropriate for little kids," Scheuer told the school board. "But taking a 16- or 17-year-old in the bathroom to show them how to flush the toilet, how many paper towels to use, not to socialize with their friends in the hallway - to me it's a little bit laughable."
Michelle Hill said her three children - in fifth, sixth and eighth grades - told her that they only have three minutes to go to the bathroom between classes and can only go at the beginning of the day.
"That is unacceptable for me," Hill said. "It is a physical problem for children to hold it that long, and it's unhealthy. If I wanted my child to go to a military school, I would have enrolled them."
"I applaud this effort, but I do believe it's misguided to institute this at the high school, the middle school and even the higher elementary school levels," said Leann Baker, whose daughter is a junior at the high school.
Baker said there are pages of posts on student Facebook pages mocking the program.
Anne Bayruns, who has two kids at the high school, said her children felt humiliated and insulted when they had to be taught what side of the hallway to walk on, and how many paper towels to use when they were washing their hands.
"It's like it was a juvy facility yesterday," said Laura Jean Swanson. "It was like psychological torture for the students to be told the same speech over and over again from the principal to the ladies that work in the cafeteria. This was a form of bullying. It's not worth taking instruction time away."
The parents also complained that neither they nor their children were told about the program in advance.
The district's teachers and administrators admitted they could have done a better job getting the word out, but they were surprised by the criticism and defended the program.
"I think there's a misconception that we inundated the student body with rules and all these new disciplinary actions," said Jen Moore, a teacher at the high school who, along with fellow teacher Trish Wickwire, is one of the building's two PBIS coaches. "That certainly is not the case, and that's not what PBIS is all about."
"The goal is to sit down and teach kids the behaviors, even though in many cases they're behaviors and procedures they already know," Wickwire said. "That way, later on in the school year, if a kid gets in trouble, they can't go back and say, 'Well, I didn't know,' or 'This isn't something you taught me.' It's only fair for the kids to be taught the rules that are expected of them at the beginning of the school year."
Wickwire said four states require PBIS to be taught in their schools, although New York isn't one of them.
"It's a behavior program, it's not a discipline program," said Tyler Chase, a middle school teacher and PBIS coach. "Research has shown discipline referrals do significantly drop with a successful PBIS program."
School officials also said they were surprised to hear students were told they couldn't go to the bathroom during class. That isn't a rule of the PBIS program, they said.
"Any child who needs to use the bathroom at any point in the day - that should not be a question," said school School Board President Debra Lennon.
Lennon said the program should be age appropriate.
"Obviously what's done in the elementary school shouldn't even be close to the same way in the high school," she said. "In my eyes, this is still very much a work in progress."
School officials encouraged the parents who spoke to get involved and join each building's PBIS committee.
"I think we're probably going to be making some adjustments," said Superintendent Gerald Goldman. "We're open to that and receptive to that."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.