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Pandemic takes toll on school behavior


HUDSON—Reports of injury, body piercing, racial provocation, absenteeism, staffing shortages, sanitation shortfalls and other challenges emerged from accounts described at the Hudson City School District (HCSD) Board of Education meeting December 7.

“I’ve never seen a year like this before” in 30 years of working with children, said Nicky Genito, head of the aide union.

Teachers feel unsafe and disrespected on the job, said Wayne Kinney, science teacher and president of the Hudson Teachers Association (HTA). Bus aide Bernadette Martin and high school senior Jacob Hromada also reported incidents and concerns. The school culture has changed from what it was before the Covid shutdowns, observed Superintendent Maria L. Suttmeier.

For generations, school operated 100% in person five days a week for most students. Then in March 2020, that practice abruptly changed to 100% by video screen. The next school year, most students followed a hybrid model: some days in person, some days by video screen. This September, school returned to 100% in person for almost all students. Officials reported students of all grades happy to be back. But now, three months into the year, Dr. Suttmeier noted the schools are different than two years ago.

Students roam the halls, including during class time, and teachers feel they cannot make them go to class, Mr. Kinney said. “The halls are crowded every day, every second of the day,” added Mr. Hromada, who is student representative to the board.

Once, after trying to break up a fight in an In School Detention (ISS) room, a teacher required medical attention, Mr. Kinney reported.

‘Too many incidents have happened.’

Student Rep. Jacob Hromada

Hudson City School District

The teacher was not badly injured, but she was asked to see a medical expert to be on the safe side, Dr. Suttmeier later explained. Mr. Kinney said the teacher is back at work.

Mr. Kinney also reported that someone discovered two students piercing each other’s bellies with the same needle in a school restroom.

Ms. Martin reported a 14-year-old white boy wearing a blackface mask on the school bus she was monitoring November 1. When she advised him to change it, she said she was told that if anyone had a problem with the mask, they could sit in the back of the bus. Both blackface and the back of the bus comment have racist connotations. The bus driver is the boy’s father, Ms. Martin said. She complained about the incident, and the next day the local company that operates that bus, fired her.

When teachers and staff have asked students what they are doing in the hall or tell them to pull up their masks, some students respond with insults, Mr. Kinney continued. Teachers feel students “are allowed” to disrespect them.

In addition, the High School’s In School Detention (ISS) rooms have become the place where some students “hide” to avoid somebody else, Mr. Kinney continued. Some students actually “opt” to go there instead of class. Sometimes “students are in these rooms with no supervision.” Ms. Genito added that there is not enough staff to guard the ISS room.

Why are many school restrooms now locked? More than the maximum number of students were crowding into them, said Mr. Kinney. Mr. Hromada added that he had heard of kids vandalizing the restrooms, including taking toilet paper dispensers.

On a related matter, more frequent sanitizing is part of the pandemic policy, but Mr. Kinney reported that desks and stairwells are “not all cleaned,” and school buildings overall lack cleanliness.

Of the above situations and episodes, Dr. Suttmeier said, “Some of this I have not heard about until now.” Mr. Hromada said something similar.

About 20 people attended the December 7, many of them to support Mr. Kinney. Some wore HTA badges; some brought children.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Michigan school shooting, Mr. Hromada reported he had personally contacted the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office about more training at the HCSD to prevent and respond to active shooters. “Too many incidents have happened,” he said.

Dr. Suttmeier added that district-wide safety meetings are planned.

“We don’t want anyone to feel they are not safe,” physically or emotionally, students as well as teachers, Dr. Suttmeier said. She said she meets with Mr. Kinney weekly.

“They’re good kids,” Ms. Genito said. Of the high school’s more than 400 students, she said that “only 10 are the ones causing trouble. We have to emphasize that we’re not doing nothing.”

For discipline, Dr. Suttmeier advocated restorative justice. Suspension “doesn’t change anything,” she said, adding that without that approach, when disruptive students go back to class, they go back to their undesirable behavior.

But restorative justice “sort of stopped” when Covid arrived, Ms. Genito reported. “We don’t have the people or staff to do it.” And new staff is not trained in the method.

Meanwhile, “attendance is atrocious this year,” Dr. Suttmeier acknowledged.

The administration did not know when a student was absent six out of nine days, Mr. Kinney reported. Dr. Suttmeier said that “once we’ve done everything we can to get chronic absentees back in school,” County Human Services could step in.

Students experienced trauma in the past year, said Dr. Suttmeier. “We have families living in poverty, families affected by Covid, families that lost their job, families in crisis.” And sophomores who spent much of last year at home are as new to the high school as freshmen, observed Ms. Genito.

Dr. Suttmeier said she is meeting with the county and Promise Neighborhood about these matters. Mental health services are “flooded with cases,” she said.

Both Ms. Genito and Assistant Superintendent of School Improvement April Prestipino spoke of staff shortages. Dr. Suttmeier pointed out that causes include quarantines and testing requirements.

Also at the meeting:

• Interviews for a new superintendent and a new high school associate principal are continuing, several speakers reported. So does the search for a diversity equity inclusivity manager, but decisions need to be made about the job definition

• External auditor Scott Preusser reported that the district is in a healthy financial position, with an asset-to-liability ratio 4.7:1.

The next meeting of the HCSD Board of Education will take place Tuesday, December 21, at 6 p.m. at the Hudson High School library.

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