By Mary Alice Murphy
The theme of the town hall was "The Journey To Fairness: Town Hall on School Policy."
Razanna Robinson-Thomas, Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition coordinator of a grant through Partnerships for Success II, moderated the event.
She explained the coalition is a 30-member group, which aims to create strategies that help to prevent substance abuse in youths.
"We planned and carried out 101 Things for Youth to do in Grant County last summer," Robinson-Thomas said. "We had 51 businesses partner with us, and there were 50 activities for kids to do aside from these. The kids would fill out the cards, which could be used as bus passes, turn them in and be in the running for prizes.
"Our programs are aimed at youths from 12-20 and 12-25," she said. "We also had a lot of younger youth participants in the challenge, and we didn't object to that. The 101 Things is coming back even better next summer."
Valerie Slover, YSAPC intern, said the purpose of the town hall was for youths from the schools, as well as adults in the audience to share opinions on school policy. "We want creative ideas and solutions. We will do a report to the school administrators."
Cheyenne Kimmick, 17, a Silver High School senior, was the first to speak. "I am here because I feel like school policies need some changes."
Caitlin Zollinger, 17, and also an SHS senior, said the dress code needed changing and fair enforcement. "For example, I saw two girls wearing the same shirt. One was a cheerleader, and the other not. One got dress coded, but not the cheerleader.
The third panelist was Xuan Dié Chavez, a La Plata seventh-grader.
Trent Petty, Silver School Board president, asked the first question. "What policy would you change if you could and to what?"
Chavez said she would not necessarily change policy, but would like to see better teacher enforcement of the policies.
Zollinger said her complaint was that the dress code is a page long, whereas the drug code is only a paragraph.
Kimmick said the fact is that the dress code seems to be more enforced by faculty than the drug policy or fighting policy.
Susie Trujillo, audience member, asked if school policies were for the entire district or for each school.
Zollinger said they were district policies. "And the school has to fit into the district policy."
Gerald Schultz, county resident, asked about the program on substance abuse prevention.
Robinson-Thomas said: "We can say that there are strong correlations between what we're doing and the results. Since the group has been in place, youth prescription drug use in the area, which was reported in 2011 to be at 22 percent, was reported last year at 11.2 percent. I think we're making people aware of the problem."
Hugh Epping asked if the policies applied to teachers and staff.
Zollinger said the staff policies are not the same as those for students.
Robinson-Thomas said Cobre Schools have all their policies online, but the policies for Silver Schools are "less accessible."
Epping said, from what the students had said, the district seemed to be obsessed with clothing.
Mary Stoecker, Health Council member, said she had an opinion on the Silver Schools policy, which might have changed since her son and daughter had graduated. "The sports and activities policy applies 365 days a year on or off campus."
Kimmick said: "I personally feel like the athletic policy concerning substance abuse is pretty fair. These students are in the community more, so I feel like they should be held to a higher standard."
Zollinger said she didn't know it was 365. "I don't think the athletes are monitored during the summer."
A woman in the audience asked if students had input into the policies. "And if not, do you think the policies would be more successful if you had input?"
Kimmick said a small group of students went to teachers about the policies. "I know some things in the handbook were written at that time. I think the policies would be better if they talked to the students."
Zollinger said three straight-A students were picked, so "they didn't get a full perspective of the school. I think they should have brought the changes to the rest of the students and let us vote. What I object to is that policies are only enforced on some students."
Chavez said she has talked to some students who think the ID policy is unfair. "If you don't have your ID, you go on suspension. Now they are keeping everyone's IDs until they go into the library."
An audience member asked if the schools have effective student councils to interact with the teachers and administrators.
"The councils are effective, but only at what they are allowed to do, such as plan dances and such," Zollinger said. "It think it's a great idea to bring things back to the student council. It would be effective."
Robinson-Thomas asked from a written question how policies could be easily revised to make constructive, positive changes. "Both superintendents were interested in what we are doing tonight."
Gary Stailey, audience member, said it sounds like the students are less concerned about the policy and more concerned about enforcement.
Zollinger concurred. "It's a definite problem how the policy is enforced. And some policies are absurd."
Zimmick said he agreed with Zollinger. "The way the policy is enforced shouldn't depend on who someone is. It should be the same for everyone."
Stailey asked if there needed to be fewer exceptions or more exceptions, to which Zollinger said: "Fewer."
Chavez said she has seen staff help bully another student, because their friends were bullying the person.
Epping asked if more faculty training should be required.
Zollinger said sometimes it seems like a teacher doesn't know what to do.
Trujillo asked if the administrators could say a policy was OK for one person, but not for another.
"For sure," Zollinger said.
Robinson-Thomas stood up for the schools. "Keep in mind why that is originally put in policies. Some students are special needs, and they may have more episodes of violent behavior. Suspending might not be effective. That may be a reason why it's in the policy and not being enforced consistently."
Another woman from the audience asked how suspension is empowering students. "Has anything been brought up, such as counseling or treatment, so the consequences can be changed?"
Robinson-Thomas said that could be difficult, because some policies are state or federally mandated. "In those cases, there is no way for the administration to get out of it. Maybe talk to the legislators. We need to show what other rural areas in other states are doing. You may present options to the school boards, but they may be out of their control."
The woman said yes, suspension is often mandated. "But couldn't it be changed to a mandatory meeting with a counselor? An in-school suspension should be with a counselor, not messing around with others in suspension."
Kendra Milligan, assistant Health Council coordinator, said the country is having a lot of debate on minorities. "Do you see problems with race or ethnicity?"
Chavez said she had heard that her friend's younger brother, who lost his arm to cancer, was being bullied, but the brother got kicked out, and even the principal was bullying him.
Kimmick said he didn't think it was about race. "It's more of what group you belong to. If you are on a varsity team, you are less likely to get into trouble. But if you're not 'in the club' you may get into more trouble."
Zollinger agreed, and said if a student looks like he or she is in a gang, they will likely get in trouble. "For instance, bandanas are not allowed at any time. But there's one guy who wears one every day."
Robinson-Thomas asked what the associated stereotypes were.
Zollinger said it sometimes happen to people who are not in gangs, but may look like they are.
Kimmick said profiling sometimes happens, but it is not always the case.
A male audience member said he thought bullying was an important topic. "What would you like to see in a bullying policy?"
Kimmick said it should be stricter. "If someone feels bullied, they should fill out a form to a higher-up. If someone doesn't feel safe, it should be a priority of the school to make that person feel safe."
Zollinger said she had a threatening note on her car. "When I took it to the principal, she said she was sorry, but she couldn't do anything. This student is still harassing me and others."
Epping said there was a glaring difference between the Silver and Cobre policies. "At Silver, you have no grievance procedure. You need something in place for a student to file a grievance."
Chavez said she knows of some who have been bullied, who didn't tell the teacher, because they knew nothing would be done.
Robinson-Thomas asked if the students had outlets to report without getting in trouble.
Kimmick cited a personal experience, where "someone took a list of mine and wanted to copy the answers. I took it back from him and went to the principal, who wasn't there. Neither was the assistant principal. It almost seemed like it was not worth worrying about for them. It doesn't make sense to me. They should care that these things are happening. Yes, it was an athlete," he replied to a question.
Trujillo thanked the Silver and Cobre districts for administrating the Youth Risk and Resiliency surveys, which provide statistics on problems. "We urge both school districts to figure out how to help students with substance abuse. Yes, there should be consequences, but there should be options to help them recover. Look at recovery as an issue."
Epping asked where the attitude comes from to treat athletes differently. "The atmosphere comes from the top. Are there people above who want to address these issues?"
Kimmick said it feels to him like the higher ups think they have bigger things to worry about.
Zollinger said: "If you go to a teacher you trust, they often just say: 'Good luck.'"
Robinson-Thomas asked if the students felt like their counselors and teachers could go to the administrators.
Zollinger said it feels like administrators don't take enough steps to address problems, that they think it's done.
Robinson-Thomas said perhaps "there is a willingness in some administrators and teachers, but maybe the next step is lacking."
Stailey said: 'On a positive note, another youth group, The Youth Advisory Council under Judge Robinson feels that suspension further burdens those being suspended because they get farther behind in school. There is a movement to have school on the JPPO campus. All suspensions are now referred to JPPO."
Robinson-Thomas asked it if were mandatory.
"I think it is done with parental permission," Stailey said. "The suspended student is referred to the school-certified teacher at JPPO."
A woman commented on drugs in schools. "Back when I was at Silver High School, there were students using drugs. It was obvious to the students. It seemed less obvious to the teachers. I think it would be beneficial for teachers to have training to recognize the signs of drug use. Then you would know something would be done to help the students, if the teachers stepped in. It's a standing joke, that 'we know where the druggies are, and we need to address it.'
"Yes, have a dress code, but more emphasis needs to be put on the drug problem," she continued. "Whether it's athletes, student leaders or gang bangers, let them help set the policies. I think it would make the districts more successful."
Kimmick said regarding teacher recognizing drug use. "Some teachers realize that there are bigger problems, but they enforce the dress code because they have to."
Robinson-Thomas again spoke in defense of teachers. "When I got into that line of work, we were given a semester to learn the signs of drug use. But it changes so much, that it is hard to keep up with everything that is going on today."
An earlier woman speaker said, with all of the discussion, policies are needed, and so are boundaries. It seems like it's a culture within a district or school. "A lot of those drinking and going down the road of substance abuse are doing so because it's the easiest road. The way we glamorize it, some kids have no way to belong, but drinking and drug use are an easy way to belong. It's not easy, if you don't have parents or support for you. Teachers need to recognize students who are struggling. Maybe it's a problem in the schools and our culture."
Zollinger said a lot of students with mental health problems or those who think no one cares about them, don't feel they have any way to be happy, except when they feel happy with drugs. "If you are able to fix that problem, the age gap between youths and adults would not be that big a thing. There needs to be more engagement between youths and adults."
Schultz said, when he was a math teacher, teachers could make their own rules. Teachers who had good rules always seemed to be happier. "Bullying also exists among senior citizens. Bullying seems inherent in our species. Keep working on the issues."
Another woman asked what the students' thought about policies for athletes or regular students.
Zollinger said: "They are different. If you are an athlete, and I am one, during a 90-day suspension, you can't play, but you can practice. I know a lot of athletes that party and get away with it. Athletes get away with more than they should. If they get caught, the coach will let it slide if the person is on a varsity team."
Robinson-Thomas asked how much the students and their peers understood the policies.
"It depends on the teacher," Kimmick said. "Some spend a couple of days, at the beginning of the year, going through the policies. A lot of the time, it falls on the kids to read the student handbook."
Zollinger said she had a debate with a teacher about policy. "I showed her in the handbook. I don't think teachers know about changes in policy."
Chavez said; "Some of us don't really understand the policies."
Kimmick said it seems as if the policies are written in a legal manner, and sometimes it gets confusing.
Robinson-Thomas said it is important to know that the adult literacy rate is on average that of a fifth-grader. "Parents may not understand them either. If a 10-year-old can't read it or understand it, maybe the parents can't either."
Stailey asked if the three students felt comfortable talking about the policies.
"I think it would help to talk about the policies," Kimmick said. "If we are afraid to talk to adults, then we will not be effective as adults."
"I understand we are young," Zollinger said, "but that doesn't mean our feelings aren't valid."
Petty said he understood the regular policy on bullying, but asked about social media bullying.
"If it happens online, you can turn off the computer or go outside," Zollinger said. "But it needs to be addressed as much as that in person."
Petty noted that a cyberbullying policy came down from the state.
A woman asked if town hall would happen again. "I think it needs to happen more often."
Kimmick agreed, as did Zollinger, who said: "It's the first time people have asked our opinions."
Robinson-Thomas said she thought it was important to continue the dialogue with different students to get different perspectives. "People can feel safe. We are continuing to function in this role."
A woman said it was interesting to know about the cyberbullying policy, because a principal didn't do anything because he/she thought it was irrelevant. "Back to training. I think teachers should be aware of all types of bullying."
Robinson-Thomas asked what the best method of communication was. "Do you have suggestions on how to increase communication between you and the school?"
Milligan said they could communicate through her.
"The reason we had this town hall was because during our summer town hall, school policy came up," Robinson-Thomas said. "It seems the community is receptive. We will hold more town halls on specific topics, so we can gather specific information."
Schultz noted that a ringleader bullier might be the problem. "We used to flatten them. If nothing is done about bullying, it drives people to violence or suicide."
Chavez said her main reason for being on the panel was because of bullying. "The bullying rule isn't enforced. One of my friends was harassed. When she told the administration, they told her they needed more proof and didn't look into it."
Robinson-Thomas said she thought if things go unidentified, it could lead to more serious situations and consequences.