Students as young as 4 are acting out violently and schools are struggling to cope, Murfreesboro and Rutherford County school boards and superintendents told legislators Wednesday.
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Rutherford County’s local Legislature delegates met with school leaders and county commissioners in two separate panel discussions Wednesday at Smyrna Town Center.
During the education panel, one topic centered on funding for mental health specialists.
State Rep. Tim Rudd said he has been told that nearly two dozen Rutherford County Schools teachers have been assaulted recently by students. Violent students may be arrested but then return to school because there is nowhere to place them, he said.
He suggested one answer is to increase funding for special schools.
The Murfreesboro Post asked RCS for clarification about the injuries. A statement from Communications Director James Evans said, “From August 2018 through February 2019, we had 23 On the Job Injury (OJI) reports related to a student hitting an employee. Typically, these are from students who are in the special education program and have emotional disabilities or other issues that can cause outbursts.
“Often times, these incidents occur when a school is a new student with special needs, during the period when the staff is determining the triggers for a student’s behavior.
“We want to limit these types of situations to ensure the safety of our employees and students, and so we do provide ongoing training for employees.
“We also utilize de-escalation teams in our schools and have put an emphasis on providing additional school psychologists, social workers and behavior specialists to support our teachers and education assistants,” the statement concluded.
Terry said one factor in the disruptive behaviors is adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), a term that refers to traumas a child experiences. RCS Superintendent Bill Spurlock said educators are seeing such behavior at early ages, and most of these kids are in special education programs and cannot just be removed from those services.
In cases of severe behavior, the district can incur the cost for placing them in a special outside program, but those type facilities are extremely rare in the elementary age group. He said Rutherford County has only one such facility for grades 7-12.
“There’s no easy answer for this,” Spurlock said.
Dr. Linda Gilbert, superintendent for Murfreesboro City Schools, said educators are seeing “very violent” behavior in children ages 4-6. There is simply no place to assess and treat them other than emergency rooms, she said.
State Sen. Dawn White, a former MCS educator, asked the school leaders for ideas about how legislators can help protect teachers. Gilbert said having funding for more counselors would help but also providing more long-term treatment options as well.
Rudd said he has been crafting a bill for three years to address providing treatment options for violent mental health offenders, and work on that is on-going.
Another topic was rapid growth. White and State Rep. Charlie Baum said there is pending legislation that would provide additional funding for school districts defined as having rapid growth. It got “hung up” in a committee last year but she vowed to “continue to fight” for passage.
State Rep. Bryan Terry asked Spurlock to talk about capital needs. Spurlock said RCS is projecting it has a $68 million backlog on performing maintenance or replacement for items like roofs and HVAC units.
Gilbert said that the state mandates a certain number of school nurses per certain number of students. The state provides some — but not all — of the funding for those positions.
Spurlock said the majority of RCS nurses are funded by the local government. Those nurses do more than hand out medicine — they take care of medically fragile children such as those who have feeding tubes, students whom the district must provide both education and health care for, he said.
Gilbert said other unfunded but mandated positions include finance, human resource, communications and technology coaching jobs.
Education savings accounts/vouchers
State Sen. Shane Reeves said he will never support education savings accounts (ESAs), which in some cases allow parents to pull their kids out of failing schools and use some public funds toward private schools or other education expenses. The controversial program is being rolled out in a handful of Tennessee districts, but not in Rutherford County or Murfreesboro.
State Rep. Mike Sparks said officials should “look at every tool in the toolbox” and he knows parents who want to homeschool.
“Anything that can relieve overcrowding,” Sparks said, and said the cost of school construction is “unsustainable. Addressing the county commissioners in the audience, he said, “Who wants to vote for a big tax increase?”
Spurlock said there are conflicting state laws that hold districts accountable for students who have chronic absenteeism yet require zero tolerance for certain behaviors. Alternative schools are at capacity.
“We don’t want our kids out of school unless it’s serious,” Spurlock said.