Portland middle school principals sent the district’s leadership a letter asking for more support to manage student behavioral problems. The letter was co-signed by all 15 middle school principals and stated that they needed more dedicated staff to help navigate the issues. They also highlighted that sixth through eighth graders had more disciplinary incidents through the end of March than for the entire 2021-2022 school year. The letter writer, Robert Gray Middle School Principal Lisa Newlyn, said that disruptive conduct, harassment toward fellow students because of race, disability and religion, and physical altercations are on the rise among middle schoolers.
Petition to Hire Staff Dedicated to Student Safety and Mental Health
The principals are petitioning for the district to hire at least 15 new full-time employees who would focus on student safety, mental health, and alternative approaches to discipline that emphasize mediation instead of a more punitive system of detentions and suspensions. The district’s 12 K-8 schools were not included in the original ask but would benefit from similar support.
Newlyn said, “We need help. The things that I worry about as a building administrator are issues of mental health and anxiety that are exacerbated by interactions with kids at schools. Microaggressions towards students are something that we are problem-solving all the time, along with threats of violence and actual fighting.”
A Closer Look at the Crisis
The letter was written in response to a student behavior crisis in Portland middle schools. There is no shortage of examples, including a social media threat made against a group of female students at Da Vinci Arts Middle School in Southeast Portland that prompted an investigation by the Portland Police Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security.
Parents at the school said some students threatened to bring guns into the school if a group of girls wouldn’t give them nude photographs. Police were called to West Sylvan Middle School in Southwest Portland after a fight broke out between students in early March. Students at Ockley Green Middle School in North Portland walked out of school recently to protest two Black teachers being placed on leave.
Exacerbated by the Pandemic
Discipline issues in middle schools are not new but have been exacerbated by the lengthy school building closures during the pandemic. Newlyn said that this came right as the current generation of middle schoolers should have been gaining independence and social skills in their later elementary school years. Instead, they were confined to home and to screens, interacting via social media sites like TikTok and Snapchat, which Newlyn said have fueled some of the current spate of harmful behaviors.
Proposed Budget for Instructional Coach Positions
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s proposed $832 million budget for the 2023-2024 school year, which was presented to the school board Tuesday, includes money for new instructional coach positions at every elementary, middle, and K-8 school in the district. The new positions are intended to help teachers with professional development and curriculum rollouts. However, middle schools don’t want to lose that position to free up money for student behavior supports. The principals wrote in their letter that “Having to choose between additional instructional support, larger class sizes, and school climate support is untenable and unsustainable.”
Support from School Board Members
School board members said they were sympathetic to the issues raised. Julia Brim-Edwards, a school board member, said that “Parents and students and staff all over the city know that these kids need more support.” She also said that she would propose amending the budget to support the principals’ request. It’s not immediately clear where the funding would come from, though potential sources could include state dollars should the final general fund allotment for schools top the current $9.9 billion proposed by the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. The district could also choose to tap into its reserve funds or shift money from other programs.
Grappling with Escalating Behavior Issues
Portland middle school principals are facing a student behavior crisis and need more dedicated staff to help navigate the issues. The current generation of middle schoolers should have been gaining independence and social skills in their later elementary school years, but they were confined to home and to screens during the pandemic. This has fueled some of the current spate of harmful behaviors.
The principals are petitioning for the district to hire at least 15 new full-time employees who would focus on student safety, mental health, and alternative approaches to discipline that emphasize mediation instead of a more punitive system of detentions and suspensions. They are hoping that the district will provide the necessary funding to address this critical issue.
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