When Fear Drives Great Teachers From the Classroom: Updated with Response from Superintendent Langenfeld

Green Bay, Wisconsin is best known to national television audiences as the smallest city in America with an NFL team. Green Bay Packers broadcasts are typically replete with scenes of bucolic torpor; cows grazing on grass, cheese being manufactured or perhaps fans noshing on bratwurst. With a city population of just a shade over 100,000 and a metro area of just more than 300,000, the city appears to typify Rockwellian middle-America. But largely hidden from the public eye in this “big small town” are very real big city school problems. A dedicated teacher recently chose to expose them and, for exactly three weeks, nobody noticed her warning cries.

Kerstin Westcott says teaching 6th grade reading at Washington Middle School was her dream job. She says her calling in life is to work with at risk kids and kids in need: “that’s what I was made to do, and I’m good at it.” In fact, Westcott was a 2014 recipient of a “Golden Apple Award,” presented each year to Green Bay area teachers who excel at their profession. Three years later, on June 5, 2017, Westcott appeared before the Green Bay Area Public Schools district board to announce her resignation. Westcott calmly told the board: ” I would not survive another year in the toxic setting at Washington. “I must resign, even though I have a broken heart. Because, I cannot survive in this unhealthy and unsafe environment any longer. I am here now to speak for the people who will remain there and try to survive in this dangerous work and school setting every day.”

Westcott’s declaration came after she detailed how students are largely running Washington Middle School. You can watch Westcott deliver her message here, starting at about the 1:30:00 mark:

 

Although her voice broke at times, Westcott remained calm as she described in jarring detail what students and staff face each day at Washington:

  • “I fear for my safety every day. I am equally afraid for the safety of my colleagues and, most importantly, my students. We are in danger every day when we show up to our school.”
  • “Students and staff are physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally and sexually abused, every single day in the building.”
  • “We are sworn at and called vile, crude and sexual names every day.” (Westcott brought with her a page full of examples from the previous two days but couldn’t bring herself to read them aloud, which she called devastating).
  • “In addition to verbal abuse, the people at Washington are getting injured more than ever…just a couple of weeks ago a teacher was taken away in an ambulance, with a bleeding head wound caused by a fight among three students.”
  • “Another teacher was physically attacked by students trying to set off a deadly allergic reaction on purpose, causing her throat to close and her to struggle to breathe.” (Westscott here is alleging that students attempted to induce a fatal allergic reaction in a teacher, yet a Google search yields no media coverage of an incident that could be described as attempted murder of a teacher in school.)
  • “A student was held down on a table and his legs put in vise grips, so that other students could take his shoes. “
  • “A student had his pants and underwear pulled down, exposing him in a crowded hallway of students.:
  • “Another student approached a group of teachers and pulled his pants down and touched himself inappropriately, while laughing at their requests to stop.”
  • “Just last week two students laid on a table in the  classroom and kissed each other  heavily and pretended to have sex, while a substitute teacher tried to get them to stop.”

Westcott said all of the incidents she described happened in the month of May. Westscott said fires have been set in the school, weapons brought in and drugs sold and used. Westcott said a student had recently threatened to shoot up the school and asked board members and administrators if it would take someone getting killed before they would “finally take the drastic action that is needed.” Again, none of this generated headlines in the Green Bay area media. Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin reacted to the video:

“School safety and classroom culture have been noted as key factors from parents who utilize school choice. Listening to an award-winning teacher resign because she felt the students and teachers were unsafe inside their school is heart breaking.”

Bender’s comment is notable because the Green Bay school district is bleeding students through the state’s public school open enrollment program. It allows parents to move their children from one school to another within a district, or to another school district altogether. The Green Bay School District gained 384 students through open enrollment in 2015-16, but lost 1,933, for the net loss of 1,549. Green Bay is, by far, the biggest open enrollment loser in Northeast Wisconsin and has tried for years to stanch the flow of students to other districts. Former Green Bay School principle Terry Fondow has argued that talk of a new high school on Green Bay’s far east side is driven by the desire to have a new school that “looks like” the suburban schools to which Green Bay is bleeding students.

At another point in her statement, Westcott described Washington as a barbaric environment where students come to understand that they have to adopt aggressive, violent behavior as a survival mechanism:

“Just the other day, I broke down after I witnessed an 8th grade student in the office; screaming and swearing at a staff member about his cell phone being taken away. This boy was in my class in sixth grade. He had never been in any trouble; never had an office referral. Great student, polite young man; happy. But every day for the last two and a half years he has lived in the chaos that we as adults have allowed to exist at his school.

 

And he sees that the only way to survive in this environment is to be aggressive. He saw my jaw drop open at his behavior. And his face crumpled and he started to cry instead of scream. Because he is not this person. We created this person, because of the environment we forced him to be part of day in and day out. Sadly, he’s not the only child who has changed for the worse because of the education they are receiving at Washington.

 

Their education teaches them the skills needed to survive in our school; swearing, screaming, skipping class, hurting people. That’s the only way kids survive at Washington right now. Kids who do not learn these tactics are being tormented daily. I look out to faces of students in my classroom and I see fear in their eyes.

 

I have instructed my students not to answer the door to our classroom, because of the truant students who run the school and come looking for fights. They pound on our door, shake our door handle, scream swear words into our vents, punch and kick the doors and terrorize us while we are trying to teach and learn. And these are just some of the violent, aggressive behaviors my kids have to deal with every day.”

In other words, Westcott is describing a situation where students and staff are captive in the classroom from dangerous students roaming the hallway.  And Westcott said the emotional, psychological and physical toll on staff is staggering:

“…our work environment has become so toxic, it is literally making us sick. I have numerous colleagues out on extended leave due to stress. It’s a vicious cycle because we cannot get substitute teachers to come to our building. So every single day we are asked to cover the classes of our colleagues who are out. This perpetuates the cycle because we are thrown into classes with kids we don’t know. Sometimes there are no lesson plans or rosters. We are given no support and then have all our preparation time taken away from our own classes. This compounds the stress put on us and makes us even sicker.

 

One of my colleagues has headaches every single week day and is taking medication. Another one wakes up with cold night sweats several times a week. One had nightmares for days after being threatened by an aggressive student. Another person, one of my teachers, wakes up every single Sunday night around 2 AM and throws up in anticipation of the work week starting.

 

We have heard of more teachers now than ever before being treated for anxiety, depression and stress and related health concerns that working at Washington bring. I comfort co-workers who are crying, daily. We exhibit symptoms of PTSD because we live in trauma from 7:30 to 3:00 every single day.”

 

So, what does Westcott want administration to do? She says Washington has been in a downward spiral for years, but recrimination over how it got where it is isn’t her goal.  She concedes that some steps have been taken, but she says they are band aids. She wants the district to take immediate steps to improve things for the staff and students she leaves behind. Westcott does ask for more human resources at Washington, but she says the district could start by enforcing rules already on the books as opposed to tolerating the current behavior.

 

“We need you to follow the student handbook that you have created…students who commit aggressive or violent behavior shall be required to seek an initial screening and ongoing counseling, and provide written evidence of this counseling to the principal within one month of their offense. Simply following through with that one rule would be a huge start to making positive change for us.

 

Enforcing the policy…for students with subsequent violent violations would be another way for you to make positive change for us. Start this long term change process by committing to following through with the consequences that you already have.”

Westcott’s plea for administrators to enforce the rules now on the books begs the question: why aren’t they being enforced now?  While there is no clear answer, there may be a racial element to the lack of discipline at Washington.

366 students, or 40.8% of the student population at Washington Middle identify as Hispanic, making up the largest segment of the student body.  That compares with 19.6% Hispanic at other Green Bay Schools. It’s also much higher than the typical 11% in the typical Wisconsin school. in 2015 the New York Post  reported that liberal disciplinary practices for minority students in New York City backfired:

Convinced traditional discipline is racist because blacks are suspended at higher rates than whites, New York City’s Department of Education has in all but the most serious and dangerous offenses replaced out-of-school suspensions with a touchy-feely alternative punishment called “restorative justice,” which isn’t really punishment at all. It’s therapy.

 

“Every reasonable effort must be made to correct student behavior through…restorative practices,” advises the city’s new 32-page discipline code.

 

Except everywhere it’s been tried, this softer approach has backfired.

 

Yes, other large urban school districts are reporting fewer suspensions since adopting the non-punitive approach. But that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer infractions.

 

In fact, many districts are seeing more classroom disruptions and violence — a national trend that ought to set off warning bells for New York school officials.

While “restorative justice” isn’t Green Bay’s disciplinary policy, it sounds a lot like what Westcott describes is being practiced at Washington, intentionally or not. As  Chicago fifth-grade teacher John Engels told the the Chicago Tribune: “If you knew the cops weren’t going to enforce the speed limit…you’d go 100 miles an hour.” But Green Bay isn’t Chicago or New York or even Milwaukee, for that matter. Disciplinary and violence issues in public schools are far from secrets in those large metropolitan areas.  So why are the serious issues at Green Bay Washington Middle School that Westcott described not on the public radar screen. It appears that at least part of the problem is local media aren’t paying attention.

There are four television stations, one newspaper and one radio newsroom in Green Bay. Green Bay Press-Gazette Editor Robert Zizzo told us that they did not have a reporter at the June 5 school board meeting where Westcott made her statement. It appears that no other media outlet in the city did either. In fact, we only learned of it because someone sent us the video in an effort to get us to cover another issue raised at the meeting. We, by chance, continued viewing and saw Westcott’s impassioned plea for help. Media consolidation has led to dwindling human resources in markets around the country. That means local governmental meetings often go uncovered.

When we reached out to Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld’s office for comment, we were told we could expect a written response “in a few days.” Bear in mind, that response came 21 days after Langenfeld heard Westcott’s comments in person and was personally called out by her:”We need to hear from you; what are you going to do differently to improve the conditions in our school? Dr. Langenfeld, what are you going to do differently. The school district did issue a brief response to a request by WTAQ news, which heard of the story from our reporting:

As part of our ongoing continuous improvement, District administration has been working with Washington Middle School administrators and staff on its school success plan to address academic and behavioral areas of improvement. The Green Bay Area Public School District, like many school districts across the state and nation, is working to adapt to an increased number of students and families that are impacted by poverty, trauma and mental health concerns.

We ask that our community and families be assured that the District is taking all concerns that have been brought forth seriously and has been working with Washington Middle School staff to continue to improve our plan to specifically address student behavior concerns. Washington Middle School staff and its students have many wonderful achievements and much to be proud of and we ask for our community’s support and understanding as we continue to work our plan to ensure student success and positive school culture for all.”

The community would not have known about the problems at Washington Middle School had not Westcott stepped forward. It’s a certainty that Washington Middle School is not unique. Unless more Kerstin Westcott’s step forward, big city school problems will remain hidden behind middle-sized city school doors.

 

UPDATE: Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld has provided a statement in response to our request. Read Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld’s statement here. She also responded to specific questions posed by Media Trackers:

1) Were police called to any of the incidents Ms. Westcott described? I’m especially interested in the incident where she said students attempted to intentionally induce a life-threatening allergic reaction in a teacher. If police were not called into that incident, why not?

Washington Middle School shares two School Resource Officers with East High School. When it is appropriate for the police to be involved in a student situations, we are very fortunate to have highly trained and student-centered officers on-site and available to assist. As to the specifics of each incident, we are unable to provide any detail as student behavior records are confidential under Wis. Stat. 118.125 and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”).

2) Does Dr. Langenfeld or the district dispute any of Ms. Wetscott’s characterizations? I’m especially interested in her description of essentially locking herself and her students in her classroom to prevent roaming students from entering.

Dr. Langenfeld did have the opportunity to visit Ms. Westcott’s classroom on April 26, 2017, with the Washington principal during a visit to the school and observed students to be well behaved and engaged in learning. Please note that per Board of Education policy, classroom doors in all schools should be closed and locked during class time as part of our safety plan, modeled after the national ALICE safety program.  Dr. Langenfeld cannot comment on Ms. Westcott’s personally held experiences, but she herself did not observe behaviors that caused safety concerns on that visit or on subsequent visits to Washington Middle School.

3)Is Ms. Westcott correct when she says current disciplinary policy is not being enforced at Washington?

The District has a student expectation handbook and code of conduct, which provides students and their families information regarding the behaviors that are expected at school and potential disciplinary actions.  Disciplinary decisions are governed by Board of Education policy. The expectation is that school administrators address behaviors brought to their attention and that they work closely with their supervisor and the School Resource Officer when there is a serious offense.

4) Ms. Westcott depicts a years-long downward spiral of the environment at Washington and makes it clear administration has been aware of the issues. Has the safety environment at Washington been a top priority? If so, what actions have been taken beyond those described by Ms. Westcott.

Answered in Dr. Langenfeld’s statement.