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Building better behavior

October 20, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Whether good or bad, the behavior of students in Tri-State schools is watched carefully. The rewards - from tickets to field trips - and punishments - from detention to off-campus suspension - are taken seriously by the school systems' students and staff.

At E. Russell Hicks Middle School in Hagerstown, students who raise their hands to answer teachers' questions, who open doors for each other or who tell the truth when someone asks for it, receive tickets that can be traded in for such items as basketballs, discounted dance tickets or baseball jerseys.

This school year, E. Russell Hicks became the seventh school in Washington County to work under the national model Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. The program encourages teachers and school staff to reward students' good behavior in an effort to drive down the bad.

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So far this year, 8,000 to 10,000 tickets rewarding good manners have been handed out by the 730-student school's teachers and staff, said principal Roger Stenersen.

"We are a problem-oriented culture," he said. "Negatives don't motivate human beings, positives do."

Taking the first letters of the school's name, teachers and staff reward Effort, Respect and Honesty, said Sharon Conley, school psychologist in Washington County. That individualized, three-tiered focus is required under the PBIS program.

They're the same traits rewarded under another of the school system's models, Character Counts! That program works to build students' character, such as teaching them to be fair or responsible, Conley said.

In Chambersburg Area School District, schools also reward students for good behavior. They not only use the PBIS model, they offer classes to parents to help them curb bad behavior, said Ted Rabold, the school system's assistant superintendent for pupil services.

When students are bad, Rabold takes a no-excuses approach.

The school system used to give in-school and out-of-school suspensions to students who acted up in classes. After seeing that the designations sometimes were regarded more as reward than as discipline, Rabold looked to a vacant building and to different disciplinarians.

Students who received in-school suspension, which kept them in a small room for an entire school day, would catch up on sleep, he said. Students who received out-of-school suspension, which removed them from school for a day or more, considered their sentence a day off from school.

Neither sent the message Rabold hoped.

"We need to find what they like and remove it," he said.

Now students are given off-campus suspension. They're sent to a room in a Letterkenny building outside their school operated by Manito Inc., a private, nonprofit organization that provides services to adolescents and families.

"They need to learn how to make better choices," Rabold said.

When students were suspended, they were under the direction of a different teacher for every period. Now, a group from Manito runs the building, which has 30 slots for students from sixth through 12th grades.

"If they sleep, they get their desk taken away, and if they slouch, they stand," Rabold said.

Mark Keck, program coordinator for off-campus suspension with Manito, said the group set a goal: "When a student comes in, they will not return for a visit."

So far, it has worked. The group tracks data and provides a packet on good behavior practices, as well as therapeutic services during a student's stay.

Keck has heard at least one student refer to the room as a prison, which he said is a good thing.

"They have to deal with what's going on outside," he said.

Off-campus suspension isn't the only way the Chambersburg district tries to keep students in line. Some of its other options are The Alternative High School, which helps students who have dropped out get their GED; Hope classroom, which holds misbehaving students work their way out; and The Browns Mill Treatment Center (also run by Manito), which works intensively with students to correct bad behavior.

Jefferson and Washington county school systems have similar alternative high schools.

In Washington County, the alternative high school Antietam Academy takes in students who act up in their schools and keeps them until they're ready to return to their home school. In Jefferson County, the alternative high school focuses on helping students get their GED's.

"Some kids walk around with a 'V' on their head for victim," Rabold said. "Most things that happen to us, we can control how we react and behave."

In Jefferson County middle schools, three teachers work on turning bad behavior around, said Patrick Blanc, the school system's director of student and pupil services.

He said some county students are in special sessions to work on social skills, such as understanding how to manage anger and respect authority.

Since Jefferson County, like all other counties in the country, are under pressure to meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind act, controlling bad behavior becomes an even greater issue, Blanc said.

"Disruptive kids hurt their classmates," he said.

Rabold said schools are not always right for all children.

"We need to ask, 'What do we do to help them become successful?'" he said.

Stenersen said some E. Russell Hicks students walk around flashing tickets wrapped in rubber bands, a stroll like that of a Las Vegas big spender with a fold of winnings in his hand.

"If they think it's cool, the battle is won," Stenersen said.

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