SUNDAY EDITION | Safety, lack of support causes some JCPS teachers to resign

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After months of putting up with disruptive behavior from students and a lack of support from the administration at Frayser Elementary, Lucretia Gue finally had enough.

The first-grade teacher walked into the central office of Jefferson County Public Schools around 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday and turned in a hand-written, three-page resignation letter.

"I just can't take it anymore," she told WDRB News shortly before resigning. “Kids out of their seats, yelling, crying, knocking supplies on the floor, kicking chairs and doors, calling other students names, putting hands on other students, refusing to do what is asked of them, pulling things off bulletin boards, peeing on the floor… the list goes on and on.”

Gue, who was in her fourth year as a full-time teacher at Frayser, said she “can no longer be responsible for things that are going to end up happening if something is not done.”

“I have kids who are verbally, emotionally and sometimes physically abusing other students, teachers and staff on a daily basis,” she said. “I am being prevented from doing my job as a teacher more often than not by students engaging in disruptive behavior, and I am not getting any support.”

Gue is not alone with her frustrations – and she’s not the only teacher walking away.

Since the start of the 2015-16 school year, 72 JCPS teachers have resigned their positions, up from 62 during the same time period (July-October) of last year. Both of those figures are down from the 92 teachers who resigned during the same time period in 2013-14.

Earlier this year, a survey by the Jefferson County Teachers Association found a growing concern among teachers about student behavior, even at the district’s elementary schools, which typically receive few complaints.

Superintendent Donna Hargens told WDRB on Thursday the district doesn’t keep a record of why teachers resign before their contracts expire. She says the district’s “big picture” data shows that the majority of its 6,000 teachers feel safe and supported.

“We do a comprehensive survey every year, and it provides us with important feedback,” she said. “92 percent of JCPS certified staff told us they feel safe and secure at their workplace. We rely on teachers to respond to those surveys so that we can make decisions based on their feedback.”

Hargens added that teaching is “complicated and difficult, but we are committed to providing systems and support so that the classroom experience can be the best it can be.”

School board member Linda Duncan, whose district includes Frayser Elementary, visited the school for an hour and a half on Wednesday – during which she said she heard “multiple” calls for assistance from teachers.

“I saw adults moving from one situation to another, doing what they are directed to do, but completely undermanned for the number of incidents their students present,” Duncan said. “We need to put more adults with these kids during their meltdowns.”

‘I called for help and no one came’

Since September, 17 teachers at a dozen JCPS schools have contacted WDRB to share classroom concerns ranging from assault and disruptive behavior to the lack of action from the district’s Student Response Teams (SRTs), a committee of school-based staff that is supposed to support teachers with extreme student behavior.

Hargens said those who are complaining or resigning only represents a small a fraction of JCPS teachers.

“You’ve heard only one side of story,” she said.

But another teacher from Rutherford Elementary who resigned Friday said there's a reason why 20 teachers have left the school in the past year.

"It's not because they were retiring, it was not because they are moving onto bigger and better things, it was because they were fed up with the way our school was run," said the third-year teacher, who requested anonymity.

Duncan said the district is aware of teacher retention issue that Rutherford has faced.

"I know there is a great deal of struggle going on because many teachers feel there is not control in the classroom that they need in order to teach," she said. "This is a problem at many of our schools."

The Rutherford teacher said the majority of her time is spent "managing behavior when I am trying to meet the needs of my other students who are participating and willing to work."

“If someone told me three years ago I’d be walking away, I’d say there’s not a chance – I can’t afford to leave," she said. "But at this point, I can’t afford to stay.”

The teacher said she had always tried to manage student behavior on her own and never had to call for SRT assistance until a fight erupted during school dismissal about two weeks ago.

“No one responded,” she said, pausing for a moment to recall the incident. “I was so upset, I went home and cried. That was the day I decided no more. I called for help and no one came.”

The SRT represents a fairly new approach for JCPS to deal with disruptive students. In the past, a student may have been removed from the classroom immediately. Now, teachers are discouraged from sending them out too quickly – instead they are to call the SRT, which is comprised of of administrators, a case manager, counselors, security, psychologist and others designated by the principal.

"We have a code of conduct that sets very clear expectations on how a students is to behave," Hargens said, adding that the goal of the SRT is to use different methods to keep the student in the classroom while the teacher continues to teach.

The Rutherford teacher said in her situation, not only did the SRT not respond, the call for help was not logged.

“If a child falls and scrapes his knee on the playground, the teacher is supposed to fill out an incident report,” she said. “But when I call an SRT, there is no documentation?”

JCPS spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth said that in that particular case at Rutherford, the student’s bus arrived and the students were dismissed.

“The SRT pulled the student aside before he boarded his bus and he stayed at school until his parents met with administration,” Hackbarth said, adding that the call was logged "internally at the school level."

Gue said there were numerous times she called “every number on the list” at her school and no one responded.

“There are times I have called six numbers to get the student response team and no one has answered,” she said. “It felt like I was trapped in my classroom.”

Several of the teachers who contacted WDRB said they attended a student behavior institute over the summer that providing them training – but that many of the techniques they learned are not working.

“There are no consequences for some of these kids,” said a Byck Elementary School teacher, who did not want to be identified. “I have rewards set up for them, the ones who behave love it, and the ones who don’t behave don’t care. They are not afraid of anything. And they know that if they leave my room, they will come right back.”

Gue said some strategies include “planned ignoring.”

“I say a code word and my students, except for the disruptive student, all put their heads on their tables and we all ignore the student while they walk around room, rip papers off the bulletin boards, knock crayons on the floor and does whatever else they want,” she said. "One time, we sat for about 15 minutes. And that was after I called for help."

‘Worse we’ve ever seen it’

The resignation of the two teachers last week comes five months after JCTA surveyed all of its members and found the number of JCPS teachers who have "significant concerns" regarding student behavior in their classrooms has increased over the past year, along with the severity of the problems.

It also comes a month after WDRB reported about several incidents at Minor Daniels Academy that have occurred since the beginning of the year. One of those involved a student locking a teacher in a closet, another in which a teacher had her car stolen.

"I had a student threaten to shoot me when I left school and even told me the caliber of gun he was gonna use," said Craig McCrary, a teacher at Minor Daniels, the combined middle and high school on Bashford Manor Lane that JCPS is using in an effort to reshape alternative education in the district.

McCrary said the kids constantly harass teachers and use profanity.

Brent McKim, president of the JCTA, said the district officials have not yet met with the JCTA to go over the union’s survey results and talk about districtwide concerns regarding student behavior.

"I think everything you are hearing is right on the money in terms of what is going on in the buildings for many teachers," McKim said. "We are getting calls of teachers who are crying on the phone during their work day, more than we’ve ever received. This is the worse we have ever seen it.”

McKim said many teachers are leaving the profession altogether.

“There are teachers all over the district who are leaving the classroom – both beginning teachers and experienced teachers – due to the combination of student behavior and a lack of support,” he said.

Hargens says she regularly meets with McKim, adding the district will look at the JCTA survey results in addition to other surveys the district conducts on a variety of topics.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

Parents like Sherri Moore say they are tired of the constant interruptions in their children’s classrooms.

“My own children are frustrated with going to school and having the teachers spend most of the class time trying to control unruly students,” said Moore. “What about the other children that are also entitled to an education but are having that taken away by those students that are unruly and truly do not want to be there to learn?”

Moore said she knows of several instances in which her children’s teachers have been told to “keep the unruly kids in their classroom.”

“One time, one of my kids told me they were reading in class and they had to evacuate the classroom over the action of one kid who has throwing a fit,” she said. “All of the kids who were behaving had to pack up and move over the action of one kid."

School-based support

Hargens said the district has spent $243 million over the past three years to increase its school-based support. Among the additions: assistant principals at the elementary level, as well as mental health counselors and goal clarity coaches at all schools.

“It’s really important for people to know that we teach academics, but we also teach non-academic skills, like how to get along with people,” Hargens said. “We can’t take a magic wand and eliminate how complicated this work is or some of the challenges we have.”

Duncan said different schools need different support – some more than others.

For example, the students at Frayser and Rutherford are among the most disadvantaged in the district. Ninety percent of students at each school qualify for free and reduced price lunch, and both schools have among the largest percentage of non-English speaking students.

“We desperately need our schools identified and resourced appropriately,” Duncan said. “One school may need three behavior coaches or mental health counselors instead of one. This has less to do with discipline and more to do with the socio-emotional issues that need trained help.”

Hargens said the district has already reduced class sizes at Frayser and has added a security guard, nurse, a readiness coach, a success coach, a goal clarity coach and provides additional time for its teachers to meet and collaborate. 

She says that Rutherford has added a success coach and mental health coach to address student needs.

“I know that every day, we have people adjusting support based on the particular needs of a school,” Hargens said. "We individualize our support at both the student and teacher level."

‘Something had to give’

Of the 17 teachers who have contacted WDRB, sixteen were afraid to give their names – many feared retaliation and couldn’t risk losing their jobs, they said. 

For those who decided to resign, it wasn’t an easy decision.

Gue was a long-term JCPS substitute teacher for nearly 15 years before she went back to get her master's degree in elementary education.

"I got into this job to save the world," she said. “I care about my kids and their families, but the reality is that they are not getting the education in the safe place that they need to have.”

The Rutherford Elementary teacher shared a similar story, saying she “wanted to work in public schools because that’s where I thought I’d be able to make a difference.”

“In many ways, I feel a lot of guilt because I feel that I’m giving up on kids who want to learn -- almost like I am letting them down,” she said. “But at the same time, my physical and mental well-being has to matter. Something had to give.”

Hargens said she encourages teachers to “talk at the school level” about their concerns.

“If they need district support, then we need to provide the support they need,” she said. “Transparency and feedback are very important to making this school system better and we are committed to that.”

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Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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