COOK- A student cornered and bullied as others recorded the attack on cell phones. Vaping in bathrooms. Openly disrespectful comments toward staff.
What’s going on at North Woods School?
These are but a few examples of concerning behaviors at North Woods described by some of the dozens of parents, teachers, and others who attended an independently organized community meeting held April 27 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cook. The meeting was an opportunity for the public to air concerns about issues at the school and begin to brainstorm solutions.
Inappropriate and often intimidating behaviors by some students have created a sense of fear among many younger students, according to some of those in attendance at the meeting. Some younger students now reportedly avoid going into the restrooms out of fear of encountering possible bullying or vaping. Many complained that school administrators haven’t effectively addressed complaints when they’ve been expressed, or communicated in an effective or timely manner.
Tifany Briggs, both a teacher and a parent, moderated the meeting and began by setting ground rules and desired outcomes.
“We’re here to share concerns about our school culture and discipline and offer ideas and supports to help make North Woods the most positive learning environment we can,” Briggs said. “This is not a time for passing blame or making excuses.”
By and large, participants did their best to follow Briggs’s lead even as some comments were deeply emotional.
Nate Briggs, Tifany’s husband and parent of two North Woods students, was first to comment.
“I’m here because I want a great school in our community. I want other schools to be held up to the North Woods standard,” he said. He had a full list of things that could be discussed for improvements, but then set that aside.
“I don’t believe we’ll be addressing those because we’re going to get stuck on the obvious bigger problems – vigilantism, drug use on campus, physical violence, bullying, threatening. This is probably why we’re here. Many of us and many of the students don’t feel safe in the school, I’ve heard. It’s my wish that we get these major problems under control immediately.”
Briggs said the school handbook needs to be revised with clearer rules on behavior and consequences, a suggestion echoed later by numerous others. Sensors in bathrooms and locker rooms could address vaping, he suggested.
“Maybe we’ll come up with a lot of ideas tonight,” he said hopefully.
Tears flowed at times as teacher and parent Beth Wilenius talked about her concerns.
“We have a problem right now. Physical violence is a problem,” she said “I’m hearing that at home at my dinner table. As a mom, I want to change that so bad, because we deserve so much more. Every one of us in this room wants change, and it starts with this— with conversations and brainstorming solutions and working together. I just really want to send a message of zero tolerance for violence. We can’t send our kids out into the world thinking that’s OK. Every child is welcome in our communities.”
Jenny Panichi is also a parent and a teacher at North Woods. “I feel like (North Woods) is our house and it’s our place to protect,” she said. “Nate pretty much laid it out there that lots of little things can lead to big things, and we need to get it under control. That’s why we’re asking for your support. We need to spread the word further and wider. We want these people to grow up to the be best in society. We don’t want to settle for anything less.”
Stephanie Burckhardt is a parent of three North Woods students, and she said that she believes there’s a problem with kids being held accountable for their behaviors.
“As a parent, I feel that you’ve lost control of the school. It seems that students can do whatever they want without consequences. If (my kids) know it and teachers know it and administration knows it, why isn’t something happening? I feel that those kids need to be held accountable.”
A common theme as the nearly two-hour-long meeting transitioned into brainstorming was comparing the school environment today to that of commenters when they were school-agers, noting that they encountered stricter rules and consequences and urged a return to those. A significant part of that discussion centered on the accessibility and use of cell phones, which the majority appeared to be in favor of significantly restricting or banning altogether. One suggestion, to implement a system found in some other schools where students cell phones are checked in and stored in a common place at the beginning of the day and are only allowed to be used for a brief designated period of time for specific purposes, received multiple supportive comments.
While numerous other ideas were suggested, time constraints prevented more in-depth discussions and development of the ideas, and when Briggs asked if people were interested in having another meeting, attendees wholeheartedly agreed. Another meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30 p.m., again at Trinity Lutheran Church.
ISD 2142 School Board President Pat Christensen and Superintendent Reggie Engebritson were present to listen and observe, and Engebritson said Tuesday that they are already looking at how to address some of the issues raised.
“I’m glad I was able to attend and hear the concerns from the group,” Engebritson said. “Since that meeting, I have met with the teachers and paras to hear their concerns and have invited anyone to send me their concerns and suggestions. Both Principal (John) Vukmanich and I are discussing the concerns that we are hearing and looking at ways to improve communication and expectations for the rest of this school year and for next year. We both take these issues very seriously and it is our intent to make improvements so that all students and staff feel safe. I appreciate the hard work of the staff who organized the community meeting and welcome any further thoughts or suggestions as we continue to move forward.”