‘Hear them out.’ OCPS middle school curbs fights with new mediation effort

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | June 22, 2023

As the school year wound down, Piedmont Lakes Middle School administrators noted, with relief, that since spring break there’d been fewer fights and a sharp drop in discipline referrals for their most trouble-prone students.

One dean noticed he’d logged fewer steps each day on his smartwatch because he getting fewer calls to dash from one part of campus to another to remove unruly students from classrooms.

Even the graffiti was cleaning up its act.

This is working, thought Principal Fred Ray as he texted to his staff a photo of the “I (heart) Piedmont” he’d found written on a school wall.

The Apoka-area school attributed the success to a new plan adopted after spring break that uses “mediation teams” to respond quickly to students’ bad behavior and then to listen to the young adolescents about why they were upset, delaying, at least temporarily, any talk of consequences.

The school also targeted its most behaviorally challenged students — a group that represented less than 10% of Piedmont’s population but most of its problems — for extra attention from newly appointed mentors. The youngsters were told of the new plan at a celebration breakfast on campus, part of the school’s effort to show all students they’re cared for, even if they cause trouble.

Though in place for only 10 weeks, Piedmont Lakes’ effort is promising, officials said, and might be a strategy that Orange County Public Schools can share. OCPS and other districts across the country are wrestling with increased numbers of student fights and other misconduct since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The behavior problems in OCPS were worse in the 2021-22 year, officials said, the first year that all students returned to campus after many studied online the prior year because of COVID. But many problems persisted in the 2022-23 school year, district data shows.

By February, for example, OCPS middle schools had logged far more fights, physical attacks and incidents of “gross insubordination” than through March of the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic began and schools closed, district discipline data showed. The number of incidents of “serious misconduct” in OCPS middle schools by February hit 1,188, nearly double what was logged in the 2019-20 school year.

High schools saw similar spikes in problems.

Shootings spark action

The impetus for Piedmont Lakes’ new strategies was a meeting called after a January shooting in the parking lot of Wekiva High School, which followed a Friday night basketball game and sent a teenager to the hospital. Wekiva, less than two miles away, is where most Piedmont students head for high school.

Melissa Byrd, the Orange County School Board member who represents the area, said she was “completely devastated” after the shooting and asked leaders from OCPS, law enforcement, community organizations and local churches to attend a meeting with her and start looking for solutions to troublesome student behavior.

The incident at Wekiva, where her younger child attends, followed a November shooting at a Jones High School football game and ongoing concerns about disruptive behavior at schools across the district, Byrd noted.

“Kids just have no conflict resolution skills,” she said. “A simple thing can just blow up.”

The isolation of the pandemic, she and others said, seemed to have eroded students’ coping skills and exacerbated problems caused by social media sites, where so many youngsters spent so much of their time.

Ray and his staff decided the key to improving behavior was listening to upset students, not immediately telling them to calm down or handing out punishment. “We’re going to get to a point where they can trust us and have a conversation,” he said.

That was a change, he added. Previously, “The students were just getting consequences. No one said anything to the children.”

Piedmont Lakes Middle School principal Fred Ray engages with 6th graders during lunch period, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. The Apopka school is piloting a mediation program among its students to reduce conflicts and behavioral issues as the school year winds down. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Piedmont Lakes Middle School principal Fred Ray engages with 6th graders during lunch period, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. The Apopka school is piloting a mediation program among its students to reduce conflicts and behavioral issues as the school year winds down. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

OCPS is working to improve student discipline in all its schools, said Deputy Superintendent Michael Armbruster, and Piedmont Lakes’ strategies may be ones that can be replicated.

Superintendent Maria Vazquez, hired a year ago, last fall began hosting what would end up being 44 community meetings. The superintendent heard so many concerns about behavior from both staff and parents that even before the meetings wrapped up, she pulled together an OCPS discipline task force that continues to meet.

Piedmont Lake’s efforts respond to “the power of relationships” and the need for students to feel they have that at school, Armbruster said.  “When kids are connected, they’re going to learn,” he said.

Piedmont Lake didn’t see problems disappear but they did diminish.

The middle school had 38 fights in the second semester of the 2022-23 school year, down from 56 in the same semester the prior year. There was also less “mobbing in,” Ray said, meaning fewer students rushed to watch or record the fights on their phones, Ray said.

The students targeted with mentors saw at least a 70% drop in discipline referrals. And when discipline problems weren’t such an outsized problem, everyone could focus on academics with fewer disruptions, he said.

The ‘lunch bunch’

The school’s efforts, which involved administrators, counselors and teachers, pulled from work on campus already underway.

Christian Marinas, a Piedmont Lakes school counselor, had seen the benefits of giving students space to talk about what was upsetting them after he invited a group of girls, some of whom had gotten in fights, to eat lunch in his office.

Maryauna Montero, 13, a rising 8th grader and part of that “lunch bunch,” was happy to avoid the busy lunch room, which is full of “drama and everything,” she said.

“If we don’t come here to talk our problems out…” she added, her voice trailing.

“It would follow us,” said Aniyah Eldell, also 13, finishing her sentence.

“I settled my problems with that girl,” Maryauna said, as the five girls sat down to lunch with the counselor during the last week of school.

They chatted with Marinas about the new Little Mermaid movie, their grades, new shoes and then, on their own, also brought up what was bothering them, including upsetting messages from other students that they showed him on their phones.

Marinas told them to block or stop engaging with the offenders but also made mental notes to follow up with the students sending the bothersome messages. He told one it wasn’t her fault another student was suspended and reminded another that mean comments about her mother weren’t worth a fight.

“Words aren’t going to hurt your mom,” he said.

“But they hurt me,” the girl said, but in a tone that suggested she knew he was right.

As the school year ended, he said, more students seemed willing to report potential problems and discuss concerns rather than get into altercations.

“They don’t want to disappoint us,” he said. “Before they wouldn’t have cared.”

Once the mediation effort began, Gerald Wright, one of the school’s deans, noticed he was leaving his office less because fewer teachers called him for help and logging fewer daily steps. More students also approached him with issues, he said.

When discipline problems did crop up, his philosophy was “let them talk” and “hear them out,” which did not give them a pass from consequences but left them feeling less angry and, if the conflict was with another student, more willing to work it out.

Wright said when he called parents to ask if he could mediate between their child and another to help end the problem, no one turned him down.

“I did one yesterday,” he said on the last Tuesday of the school year. That duo, he added, “They’re walking around school together.”

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