School-safety complaints raise questions

Urbana parents need to feel confident that the district is providing the proper environment for learning.

There’s a spirited debate going on about discipline problems in Urbana schools, specifically about the impact of a new therapeutic approach toward problem-causing students.

In one corner is Urbana school board President John Dimit, who remains supportive of the so-called “restorative justice” approach toward misbehaving students but complained bitterly about the rushed and sloppy implementation that’s led to big problems.

“… many of our fears have been realized,” said Dimit at an Oct. 2 school board meeting. “In April, a board directive was given to the superintendent to slow this process down. The board warned the administration of the disruptions that would occur should this step not be taken. But the process went on as if the board had not spoken.”

In the other corner is Superintendent Don Owen, who acknowledges problems but contends that circumstances aren’t as bad as they are portrayed.

“I would say this isn’t a disaster at all,” said Owen, who took questions on the issue while appearing on WDWS radio’s “Penny for Your Thoughts.”

Indeed, Owen suggested the real problem lies in “messaging” and “communication deficits.”

“I could have done a much better job of communication from start to finish,” he said.

In other words, everything is A-OK, except for some public-relations missteps?

That seems to be selling the substance of the problem short.

Just two weeks ago, at a school board meeting, both parents and faculty members portrayed discipline issues at Urbana’s middle and high schools as out of control.

One parent told board members, based on what she hears about violence at the high school, that “I don’t feel safe sending my kid to UHS anymore.”

One staff member said “the middle school is no longer safe,” while another told the board that “we are a building in crisis right now.”

Even allowing for some exaggerations, that’s harrowing talk.

Schools are supposed to be oases of calm where teachers and all members of a diverse student body enjoy a nurturing and safe educational atmosphere. Anything less is unacceptable.

The discipline issue has been a major topic of conversation among parents since the end of the last school year, when Owen announced the district would adopt a more-lenient, less-punitive approach toward discipline issues that emphasized restorative justice.

The district’s goal was to reduce the number of students, particularly minority students, subjected to severe sanctions for misbehavior.

Speaking on the radio, Owen said the approach is designed to “prevent conflict, to prevent fights” by providing “more intense counseling” for students who misbehave. He said many students in the district come from difficult backgrounds and have difficulty processing issues of “anger and fear.”

There’s no question about that. It makes sense to help those who need help. But the key to overall success is to do so while maintaining order, not encouraging disorder by taking an unduly lenient approach to serious wrongdoing in the school setting.

In acknowledging problems in the school, Dimit raised two important issues.

He chastised Owen for moving too fast in the face of board admonitions to slow down. Who’s in charge? It’s supposed to be the school board.

Second, Dimit expressed the hope the district could “re-establish trust and confidence.”

Once lost, trust is difficult to regain. That’s why parents who can go elsewhere will — they’re not about to sacrifice their children on the altar of someone else’s ill-conceived idea.

Owen said — what else can he say? — that all is well or will be soon.

He asserts that “any program takes time to get fully implemented” and that “things are really smoothing out quite a bit.”

They’d better be. But so far, this grand and grandiose plan has all the earmarks of a flop.


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