Norwich schools take steps to halt disciplinary 'free-for-all'

May 14—NORWICH — Chaos. Students wandering the halls, parents swearing at school staff and students ordering take-out food delivered to school.

Those were common scenes at Teachers' Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School at 15 Teachers Drive in the first half of the 2021-22 school year, prompting Norwich central office staff to move into the troubled school in February 2022 to crack down on rules, add teachers to reduce class sizes and to insist that parents treat school staff with respect.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow, Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster, other administrators and support staff moved into the school full time for what school officials called a "reset" of discipline policies, school rules and an end to DoorDash deliveries.

Several seventh and eighth graders interviewed last week described the atmosphere last year as chaotic, and a "free-for-all." Students would leave class and wander the halls. Fights broke out.

Stringfellow said cellphones were everywhere, escalating confrontations, and enabling the take-out food orders. School rules require students to store cellphones in their lockers at the start of the school day.

Students would text one another all day ― "class to class, grade level to grade level," Stringfellow said. A girl would accuse another girl of spending time with her boyfriend. A boy would post a photo on Snapchat of himself with a friend's girlfriend. Fights would start among students in different school wings, who otherwise would not have seen one another.

Enforcing the cellphone ban angered parents, who wanted to be able to reach their child in emergencies. Students may ask to use classroom phones or the office phone to call parents, Stringfellow said.

"Once we explained to parents the why," Stringfellow said, "the parents were very supportive. They would say, 'I don't want them going on Snapchat. I want them to be in school to learn.'"

Students used their cellphones to order take-out food bought to the school, Stringfellow said. Sometimes, parents ordered items for their children.

"DoorDash would come and ring the bell, and I would go to the front, or (Gloster) would go to the front, and look at this poor delivery person and say: 'What? You're here to deliver this to a child?'" Stringfellow said. "And the child was expecting me to take it, tip the man and bring it down to the eighth-grade math class. It was bizarre."

Stringfellow sent a letter to parents outlawing the practice immediately, stating the only outside food allowed was a student's lunch, brought or dropped off by a parent if the student forgot it. Some parents complained.

"I'm not giving them their pizza that they can eat in front of all the other children in class," Stringfellow said.

Inconsistent disciplinary practices

School administrators say a combination of factors contributed to the disciplinary breakdown at Global, which had 390 students last year. Ten-year principal Alexandria Lazzari was on leave for much of the fall. She announced plans to resign at the end of the year, citing family medical concerns days after the administrative takeover began.

School officials said leadership "instability" that fall contributed to inconsistent discipline practices. Long-established school rules fell by the wayside, and student misbehavior escalated.

New Principal Rayna Northcutt arrived last spring, before departing for maternity leave in May 2022 and returning this school year. Overcrowded classes were split, and deans of climate and culture were added to each middle school grade level. Norwich reinstated school resource officers in both middle schools and one for the the elementary schools. Administrators praise Global SRO Robert McKinney for building special relationships with students.

Changing student mindset

Northcutt cited subtle changes that helped improve student behavior. Teachers greet students at the front sidewalk each morning to start each day on a good footing. After the brief homeroom session, all students have a 20-minute social emotional learning, SEL, class.

In the rear corner of every classroom is a kinesthetic chair, "the calming corner," for any student who feels the need to step back and recompose.

Northcutt reactivated the student council, with six students charged with organizing events, communicating students' needs to the school and addressing issues. The council hosted a Women's History Month event in March and recently held a drug education program.

Eighth grade Student Council President Maya Veracruz, 13, said the school climate this year is much better.

"School has gotten a lot better," she said. "There's improved student activities, a lot more students enrolled, more people to talk to, less chaos."

Seventh grade Student Council member Wesam Altareb, 13, admitted he was suspended last year for what he called "a mistake" he declined to describe. Altareb said having more student activities helps keep students focused on learning and "not getting in trouble all the time." He said last year students would roam the hallways, even during class time.

Principal Northcutt described eighth grader Nyasia Martin, 14, as a "model student." She plans to go to Norwich Technical High School and study bio-tech nursing. That's a big change from last year. Northcutt first met Nyasia last May when the student was expelled for an undisclosed transgression.

"I did my time, I'm back," Nyasia said. "I definitely improved my mindset. I'm definitely nicer, more understanding. It's all about you, if you are motivated."

Northcutt said she was encouraged right away, when the student heading into expulsion wished her principal good luck with motherhood, as Northcutt was preparing to go on maternity leave.

Eighth grader Shaylee Janelle, 13, credited the school changes for improving her own outlook. An introvert too shy to talk to anyone, Shaylee now is on the Student Council, plans events and even addresses her class and the entire student body at times. Shaylee said school was "very chaotic" last year. She said the calming corners are a great idea.

By the numbers: Paying for permanent staffers

At the outset of the Global reset, Stringfellow wanted to equalize enrollment between Global and the Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School at about 500 apiece. Kelly had 631 students and Global, 389. Stringfellow ordered all newly arriving seventh and eighth graders to the district to be enrolled at Global Studies.

Classrooms at the aging Global Studies building are small and held classes with 26 to 28 students. "We couldn't put that many kids in (the room) and manage them safely," Stringfellow said.

Using federal COVID-19 recovery grants, Stringfellow hired 15 teachers for Global at the start of this year, including 12 new classroom teachers: social studies, math, English and science for sixth, seventh and eighth grade levels. She split large classes in two, with 12 to 15 students.

She added deans of climate and culture for each grade level.

The enrollment shift had an unintended consequence, Stringfellow said, as dozens of new students to Norwich needed more academic, social and emotional support as they adjusted to their new home, new school, teachers and classmates. Stringfellow halted the enrollment equalization in February with enrollment at 465 for Global and 564 at Kelly.

To improve relationships and trust between students and teachers and social workers ― adults who knew their stories ― the three new teacher deans of culture and climate and the three social workers will stick with their assigned students throughout their three years at Global. This year's sixth-grade deans and social workers will move to seventh grade next year, eighth grade the year after, and then picking up the new sixth grade class.

The deans were added to Kelly as well to create an equitable arrangement. Both middle schools already had three social workers each, but were not assigned to track classes as the students progressed. Reading and math specialists also will track the students through each grade level to better assess their academic progress.

Grant money funded school counselors at every school. In middle school, the counselors help students with high school choices and social/emotional learning. In the lower grades, they focus on mental health.

"We're seeing better behavior and better climate," Stringfellow said. "We're not calling for mental health outside services quite as much as we did."

With COVID-19 recovery grants drying up, 31 positions were placed in the $92.8 million 2023-24 budget request, including 11 teachers, a custodian and an administrative assistant for Global middle school, who are already in place.

City Manager John Salomone has recommended a total $88.9 million school budget, a 2.5% increase over this year, versus the 6.9% increase requested.

Discipline statistics at Global from this year and last year show mixed results. But school officials said a comparison is difficult. Global has 75 more students this year, and school activities, such as field trips, student dances and after-school activities have resumed after pandemic hiatus. The school has eased some of the clampdown, allowing students more unsupervised bathroom trips and generally more personal freedom.

"With that comes more opportunity for mischief," Stringfellow said.

Detentions have dropped from 106 last year to 44 so far this year. Expulsions are up slightly, from 11 last year to 15 this year. In-school suspensions jumped from 261 to 307, but the more serious out-of-school suspensions dropped from 166 to 78.

PTO President Michelle Miller, mother of seventh grader Kori Watford, said students are "coming around" to the behavioral resets and are paying better attention to their own mental health. Miller said Global's school-based health center "is awesome," and kids are using it.

The PTO, with only seven active members, is trying to do its part, Miller said. The PTO held Teacher Appreciation Week events last week and donated prizes to award students with perfect attendance.

Miller said she is alarmed by widespread chronic absenteeism at all schools. As of April 7, Global's chronic absenteeism was 37%, 175 of 463 students, and the districtwide average at 30%. Miller works at home and offers rides to her daughter's friends who miss the bus.

"We try to let them know it's really important for them to be in school," Miller said. "... As soon as we can fix the attendance problem, I think we'll be fine."

But she was surprised and disappointed that the school's attendance coordinator position was eliminated for next year and the staffer moved to another position.

"I don't know what they're going to do without it next year," Miller said.

PTO member Tamara Martinez, mother of twin seventh graders, a boy and a girl, said the school's discipline crackdown was too rigid in her daughter's case. She said her daughter was suspended when her situation should have been handled as a mental health crisis.

"They need better communication, so they see what consequences their policies have on kids," Martinez said.

c.bessette@theday.com