A Message Regarding Safety, Discipline + Communication in the Wauwatosa School District
The vast majority of students in the Wauwatosa School District do the right thing every day. This school year alone, six students were invited to participate in the Wisconsin School Music Association's (WSMA) State Honors Band and Orchestras, nine students have been nominated for Jerry Awards for their theatrical performances, 13 students have received awards from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation, 55 students have created artwork that has been recognized with a Scholastic Art + Writing Award, and so much more.
As a District, we recognize that the physical and emotional safety of students and staff is absolutely critical to ensuring a productive learning environment. Unfortunately, over the past 18 months, we have seen an increase in physical altercations between students - particularly in our middle and high schools. In nearly all cases, these incidents begin as conflict between individuals or groups over social media that escalate to students confronting one another at school. This finding is important, as it has provided District and building administrators with the information necessary to develop and implement systems and strategies to directly address a catalyst to the challenging behaviors we see exhibited by a handful of students in our schools.
Last school year, in the spirit of increased transparency, the District began the practice of sending communication to families each time a physical altercation took place on school property. Due to student privacy laws, we have often been unable to share as much information as our community has desired. Unfortunately, this has led to an inaccurate perception that our schools are unsafe and that the Wauwatosa School District has actively attempted to hide information from the community. This is unfortunate and, most importantly, untrue.
We continue to believe in the importance of transparency to make visible the strategic and proactive work done by our building leaders and to provide our community with a clear picture of the state of our schools.
Our Division of Pupil + Family Support continues to proactively address school safety, which The Aspen Institute defines as “the school related activities that keep students safe from overt and subtle instances of violence, bullying, harassment, as well as drug use,” and student discipline, defined as “the system of rules and expectations, behavioral strategies, and consequences to maintain order in schools.”
The Division of Pupil + Family Services has worked diligently to identify and implement strategies that preserve the safety and security of our students over the past 12 months. These include but are not limited to, increasing supervision and student supports, delivering professional learning, adhering to consistent discipline practices, and defining consistent systems and processes.
For example, our high schools have addressed physical safety by increasing security at all home basketball games. This includes ensuring the presence of School Resource Officers and school administrators, as well as hiring private security personnel.
In support of students’ psychological safety, additional student services staff has been added to all schools, including five elementary Social Emotional Specialists, four secondary Mental Health Specialists and five secondary Deans of Students. Additional Student Supervisors have been allocated to our secondary schools, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Advocates have been identified at each school building to work directly with students, staff, and families.
Our secondary schools have also taken steps to address student discipline. Administrators and student services at all schools have participated in the Department of Justice Threat Assessment training to assist school safety professionals in identifying students whose behaviors can be mitigated for increased safety. The Division of Pupil + Family Support has also developed our Disciplinary Framework, which is a document that provides administrators with a guide for delivering consistent discipline to students. The team has also defined a process for behavior intervention planning, which aims to address the root cause of individual students’ misbehavior and build positive social skills. Multiple sessions related to discipline norming have been provided to administrators to further understand the disciplinary framework, ensure compliance with all legal/procedural guidelines, understand best practices, follow special education requirements, and to ensure proactive behavior planning and action. These sessions have been led by the District’s legal counsel as well as the Chief of Pupil + Family Supports.
Secondary school administrators have aligned with the Pupil + Family Supports team regarding the following key strategies for immediate implementation, which aim to improve the culture and climate in our school buildings:
Students who record fights will be investigated and disciplined accordingly.
Hall passes will not be issued during the first or last five minutes of a class period (exceptions for emergencies); a digital hall pass system will be piloted at Wauwatosa West High School during the second semester.
All teachers will be present in the hallways during passing time.
Increase frequency of hallway sweeps during class periods and other interventions for tardiness.
Student supervisors’ schedules and positioning within the school will be reassessed.
Monthly behavioral data will be consistently and proactively monitored and analyzed, and corrective action will be taken by school teams.
Campuses will be cleared of loitering no more than 20 minutes after dismissal.
We continue to conduct strategic work at the District level and within our school buildings related to school safety and student discipline. This work includes development and implementation of our Internal and External Safety Committees. Our Safety and Security Coordinator has secured a grant that allowed the District to engage in digital building mapping that will support the emergency response to our buildings.
Our Division of Pupil + Family Supports is working with building leaders to increase collaboration with mentoring and community-based programs that support student mental health, including PEARLS for Teen Girls, Wraparound Milwaukee, Urban Stables, Be Inspired Works, TrueSkool, My Sista’s KeepHer and more. Our secondary school principals are working with their student services teams to refine advisory lessons to incorporate teaching skills related to social-emotional health and self-regulation. Our Chief of Pupil + Family Supports and Safety and Security Coordinator are working diligently to finalize our Memorandum of Understanding related to our School Resource Officer (SRO) program in partnership with the Wauwatosa Police Department.
The Board of Education Policy Committee will be reviewing and, if necessary, updating the disciplinary policies that are currently in place in the District. And in support of students, our School Culture and Student Success Committee is working to develop a framework of support that incorporates Trauma Informed Care, Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems, and Restorative Practices for implementation across all of our school buildings.
And importantly, our Division of Pupil + Family Services has identified a lack of alternative educational programs and environments as a primary root cause of student misbehavior. For this reason, the team is also working to build alternative educational options for students who require a learning environment not offered in our traditional middle and high schools. It is anticipated that these options will be in place for the 2023-24 school year.
In our continued effort to maintain transparency while preserving the privacy and psychological safety of our students, we have identified criteria under which building principals will communicate about physical altercations in school buildings. The criteria are as follows:
Involvement of emergency personnel including police, fire or medical;
Active involvement of or injury to bystanders; or
Execution of our Standard Response Protocol, including a Hold (if emergency medical personnel are called), Secure and/or Lockdown.
At the elementary level, building principals will also communicate to affected families if students are required to clear a room and/or relocate to another area of the building due to the inappropriate physical or verbal behavior of a classmate.
Behavior data from the first semester of the 2022-23 school year will be presented to the Board of Education and the greater Wauwatosa community on February 13. We are confident this presentation will illustrate that our school leaders have been committed to following our Disciplinary Framework in order to ensure students are properly supported, disciplined, and, when necessary, removed from the school environment. In the meantime, we would like to share the following data that speaks to the District’s continued action to increase safety in our schools.
The Wauwatosa School District has held a total of 52 District level disciplinary hearings during the 2022-23 school year (34 were held in total last year). Forty six of those hearings were due to physical altercations/fights. The District has issued a total of ten expulsion notices. Six students withdrew after receiving the notice of expulsion and were subsequently withdrawn in lieu of the expulsion hearing. The District moved forward with a total of four hearings, and two of those expulsions were approved by the School Board. Additionally, 16 students have had alternative placements outside of a traditional Wauwatosa school. In total, after 16 alternative placements, six withdrawals and two expulsions, 24 of the 46 students - more than 52% - did not return to a Wauwatosa School District building after a physical altercation/fight. We respectfully disagree with the narrative that the District is not responding to fighting behavior, as illustrated by this data.
Additionally, 65% of the hearings were residents of Wauwatosa. The remaining 35% of the students involved in the hearings were non-residents. Unfortunately, 83% of the students involved in the hearings this school year are Black. Finally, of the 52 students who initially were assigned to a hearing this school year, nine students had a special hearing called a manifestation determination due to their special education designation. It is at a manifestation determination where the special education team and the family of the student review the behavioral infraction and determine any connection to the disability.
Eradicating fighting from our schools is only possible when meaningful dialogue and accountability occurs at the school level first, so parents and families are encouraged to communicate directly with their building principals. School principals and staff must remain vigilant in supervising hallways and other unstructured time. District leaders will continue to empower, support and provide appropriate resources to building leaders. When situations happen at the school, principals are strongly encouraged to involve the District at the administrative hearing level. In certain circumstances, the District will bring situations to the attention of the Board in the form of an expulsion hearing. This is how discipline is handled in the Wauwatosa School District.
We ask that our parents and guardians continue to partner with us by reinforcing appropriate behavior with their children, monitoring social media usage/conflict, and encouraging them to “see something - say something” at all times. We are confident that the strategies implemented by the Division of Pupil + Family Services team and our building principals will decrease the interpersonal conflict between students, minimize altercations in our buildings, and ensure our schools continue to remain safe for our students and staff.