Saugus school district working on addressing, correcting behavioral issues 

The Saugus Union School District office. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Saugus Union School District officials spent more than an hour at last week’s governing board meeting discussing plans for how best to address behavioral issues in the future. 

The discussion stemmed from the implementation of office data referrals, or ODRs, throughout the district to learn where and when behavioral incidents were taking place, as well as why and which groups of students. The idea is to learn more about why a student is acting a certain way and if the district can find ways to proactively intervene and help students to become more socially-emotionally aware, according to Tonya Nowakowski, coordinator of student services. 

“One thing that is really imperative is that (social-emotional learning) is not a subject that is just to be taught,” Nowakowski said. “It’s not 20 minutes on the calendar and then we tuck it back in the box until the next day. SEL is something that really needs to be integrated throughout the day.” 

The district used the 2023-24 school year as a baseline for behavioral issues and will use that data to determine which practices are working and what needs to be improved or changed. 

According to data presented at the meeting, a total of 6,490 ODRs were submitted throughout the district, out of an enrollment of 9,046. Out of those students, 1,925 had at least one ODR, representing about 21% of the total student population. 

The number of students with multiple ODRs was 1,020, or 11% of the student population. The grade with the most ODRs was kindergarten and the location that garnered the most reports was the playground. The most-often cited perceived motivation for behaviors was listed as “obtain peer attention.” 

“This could suggest — not trying to say there is a causality — but it could suggest that kids are trying to make friends,” Nowakowski said. “They’re trying to get their peers’ attention and they might not know how to do that.” 

The following is a breakdown of the most frequent behaviors cited in the ODRs at each school site: 

  • 10 sites had minor physical contact. 
  • Three sites had physical aggression. 
  • One site had minor disruption and physical aggression. 

Santa Clarita Elementary was the lone school site of the 15 sites the district used this past school year not included in that breakdown as the site will no longer be used as an educational institution. 

So what is the district doing, or planning to do, to help students grow both academically and socially-emotionally? 

According to Gail Angus, a consultant with Keenan & Associates, the issue is not a behavioral one; these behaviors need to be addressed systematically or in an integrated manner. 

She and Mary Beth Kropp, a student behavior specialist with Keenan, toured each of the school sites and made the following findings: 

  • Campuses appear and feel physically safe and have high standards for learning, while elements considered as conditions for learning are evident but not consistent. 
  • There is a strong Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support system in place, and behavioral data is available, but it needs to be used more robustly to identify students who may need support. 
  • Schools have a process for reporting bullying but it may not be fully accessible by everyone, and there is no evidence of a 24-hour, central reporting system. 
  • When reported, actions were swiftly taken, and threat assessments are evident but it was apparent that there was some confusion among staff. 
  • A multi-tiered system of support is evident at schools but has not been integrated across SEL, behavior and academic development. 
  • Social workers are viewed as valued and instrumental for student well-being at most campuses and have roles in tiered supports for student emotional health. 

Superintendent Colleen Hawkins said the district will use these findings, along with recommendations provided by Keenan, to create a plan that is in place at each school site, and does not differ across the district. The hope is for that system to be fully implemented in the next three years. 

“We’re trying to use our current data points to address future data points that we’ll measure so that we can see if we’re systematically and systemically implementing the recommendations, meeting some targets,” Hawkins said. 

Of the five recommendations that the Keenan consultants provided with their report, the one that the district does not yet have in place is an anonymous reporting system for incidents of bullying, as well as harm to self or others. 

The other recommendations revolve around: shifting mindsets to align all aspects of education to help student outcomes; communicating with site leaders the shared vision and definition of whole child education; aligning SEL, PBIS and academic goals in the local control and accountability plan to capture the integration and alignment of systems in support of each goal; and enhancing existing PBIS implementation to create consistency in meaning and language. 

“There’s definitely a lot of pride in what you’re doing,” Kropp said. “But again, it’s just shaping things into one system that really creates more efficiency, more efficacy and really helps the adults kind of propel together moving forward as they move forward for their kiddos.” 

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