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Amherst shifts to ‘positive’ stance on school discipline

AMHERST — In an attempt to focus more more on the the causes of bad behavior than on the consequences, the Amherst school district has eliminated two secondary school deans and replaced them with “what will now be called climate control coordinators.”

The positions will be filled by two guidance counselors, Maureen Fleming at Amherst Regional High School and Talib Sadiq at Amherst Regional Middle School, said Faye Brady, director of student services.

Mary Custard will continue to serve as dean of students at the high school, a key enforcer of the schools’ disciplinary code. Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk declined to say whether the other staff members, who served as deans in the high school and middle school, have been reassigned, writing in an email, “I cannot comment on personnel issues.”

Fleming will be paid $81,347 and Sadiq, $78,861, according to Geryk. The guidance positions they left will be filled, Brady said.

In their new roles, Fleming and Sadiq will work with other administrators, staff and teachers to assess why a particular student has misbehaved and then teach the individual better ways to respond to whatever triggered the incident, Brady said. Punishment still will be imposed when needed, she said, but the focus will be on intervention.

“We’re really going to put a lot of energy into promoting the positive behaviors and teaching skills to help students behave in a way that supports a positive learning environment,” she said.

The effort is part of the school district’s adoption in 2011 of the nationwide program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Brady said.

It is also an attempt to erase the disparity in the number of suspensions between students of color and white students, an issue the schools have been grappling with for years. Figures Geryk presented to the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee last year showed that in the 2011-2012 school year, 65 percent of the out-of-school suspensions were given to students of color at the high school and 58 percent the following year.

“It’s a very strong, focused decision — I don’t want to go so far as to say eliminate — but to significantly reduce suspensions,” said Brady said of the reshaped administrative positions. “We’d really like to focus our efforts to include the behavioral skills students need to learn as part of their education,” she said.

“We are not pleased with the discipline disparity concerns,” she added, “and will be monitoring closely to see if this can help address it.”

Brady said a revision of the code of conduct is also are underway as well to reflect this “tiers of intervention” approach.

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.

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