LAS Board of Education Recap: Book Review Decision, Mental Health Grant, Emergency Operations Plan

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met in the administration building this past Monday evening, April 24, at 6 pm for their monthly work session meeting. All board members were present for the meeting, and about 10 community members were there to listen in.

Public Comments

The evening began with public comment, and first up was Annie Whitlock, an education professor at Grand Valley State University, LAS graduate and parent to two students currently enrolled in Lowell Schools. Whitlock said she was there to voice her disapproval of a “…small but very vocal group of parents who have taken up a lot of time and space in these meetings lately looking to ban books from the LHS library…” Whitlock took issue with this group’s claim that LAS parents don’t have rights or a say in their child’s education. She pointed out that parents could vote for their choice of candidates for the Board of Education and could choose where their children attend school, even if they live out of district. Whitlock added that LAS has policies in place to restrict certain books deemed to have more mature content, and parents have the ability to restrict their own child’s access to certain books or themes.

Next up for public comment, several LAS bus drivers took to the podium. One speaker, longtime LAS driver Trevor Harrison, urged those in attendance to get the word out that LAS is in need of and currently hiring bus drivers. He said, if interested, to contact the bus garage for further information.

Jan Herb, who has been a bus driver for LAS for 21 years, commented that many of the “senior drivers” (those working as school bus drivers for 15-plus years) were upset by the recent contract renewal proposal offered to LAS drivers. She said that many bus drivers felt that the proposed contract did not adequately incentivize the more senior drivers to want to remain with LAS.

Deb Schuitema, a LAS bus driver for the past 20 years, echoed Herb’s statements and agreed that it felt as though senior bus drivers were not given enough incentive to stay at LAS. She invited board members to take a day and ride along with a bus driver on their route to see how difficult their job was from day-to-day. She mentioned job stressors such as cars running red lights as young children are trying to cross the road and said that school bus drivers “…have to be there 100% physically and mentally at all times, watching everything…our number one concern is the safety of the children, getting them to school and home safely.”

Book Review Committee

For the second time in recent months, a book review committee was formed in response to a formal book challenge.

The first occurred several months ago when a parent requested that the memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue be removed from the Lowell High School library since it contains a passage describing sexual activity. That review committee determined the book should stay in LHS libraries as it was, restricted to seniors only.

The new book challenge was for The Sun and Her Flowers, a book of poetry with sketch drawings by Rupi Kaur. Like the first book that was challenged, this book contains sexual references and has been restricted to senior check out only. The challenge request was that the book be removed from the high school library entirely.

The review committee for The Sun and Her Flowers was made up of Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen, Lowell High School Principal Steve Gough, District Media Specialist Christine Beachler and four new members; a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, a parent and a student. Additional copies of the book were purchased, members of the committee read the book and then gathered last week to have a discussion and make a decision about whether the title should stay at LHS. After reviewing LAS Collection Development Policy and standard book tests such as the Miller test for obscenity, the committee took an anonymous vote and ultimately decided in favor of keeping the book of poetry as it was, restricted to seniors only at the LHS library.

VanderMeulen said that, “The overall feeling of the committee is (that) this (book) could be helpful to a particular target audience of a person that had gone through similar experiences or wished to compare their experiences with this person…(the book) speaks to the reality of growing up and broadening one’s understanding of what it might be like to grow up with the lenses that that particular author viewed the world through.”

Board Vice-President Laurie Kuna said she read the book and enjoyed it, and because some mention had been made about the nature of the sketch drawings, she took special notice of them. Kuna said that by her count, there were 105 illustrations in the book, three of which she would consider explicit and three of a “prurient nature.” Kuna surmised that according to the Miller test — the standard test for whether or not a book can be deemed “obscene” — The Sun and Her Flowers was “…nowhere near what the percentage has to be in order to be considered obscene.”

Board member Jessica Curtis said that she had read the book, as well, and added that, “As a mom of a young woman and an older teen, I would let either one of them read it. I think there’s a lot of empowering poetry in there that would really speak to them.”

Board President Brian Krajewski asked whether any parents had restricted their child’s access to The Sun and Her Flowers at LHS, and VanderMeulen responded that there were no current restrictions from any parent on this book.

Superintendent Nate Fowler said that board policy specifies that the book review committee submit their findings to the board, and that’s as far as the policy reads. With the last book review decision, the board issued a formal statement to accept the committee’s decision and to thank all involved for their time and energy. Fowler said that if the board wished to make such a statement regarding the committee’s latest recommendation for The Sun and Her Flowers, they could do so at the May meeting.

Mental Health Grant

LAS has received $410,000 from the State of Michigan which is earmarked for improving student mental health. VanderMeulen communicated to the board that a lot of conversation had been happening regarding how these grant dollars could best be spent. He said that because the money was a one-time grant that would “go away,” the intention was not to begin any new programs but to supplement existing programs with additional mental health support.

Fowler said some of the ideas suggested include: physical spaces like comforting classes/sensory rooms, partnerships with local health-related agencies such as Core Health, Family Resource Center and Gilda’s Club, trauma-informed training for LAS staff, a school psychologist intern, expansion of the current character development program “True Success,” or adding mental health support capacity for school nurses.

VanderMeulen said administrators were continuing to seek input regarding use of the funds, including from a parent meeting that will take place in early May, the LAS mental health team, other educators and administrative staff.

Chief Financial Officer Sonia Hodge added that LAS would have until the end of the next school year to spend the funds.

Student Perception Survey

Information will be sent out next week to parents of 5th-9th graders who will participate in a student well-being survey put out by Kent Intermediate School District. Setting specific goals in regards to SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) is something LAS has been wanting to work on, and the hope is this survey will give administrative staff some good information on which to begin to build SEL goals for the district.

Approximately 55-60 districts across the State of Michigan will be participating in the survey, which will look at student engagement, students’ sense of belonging and also students’ relationships with both friends and school staff. The survey is expected to take 10-15 minutes for students to complete, and parents will have the option to opt their child out of participating.

Emergency Operations Plan

LAS is due for a reauthorization of its emergency operations plan, which happens about every other year. Fowler presented the board with some updates to the plan as well as some new additions.

Updates include some revisions to the emergency contact roster, daily schedules, visitor check-in protocols and updates to the new middle school, including new maps of the school reflecting construction and a new labeling system for the exterior doors.

Additions to the emergency operations plan include a new threat assessment process which will include several documents and a checklist that will need to be filled out by the building principal, all involved personnel, and administrative staff.

Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki added that once staff meet to discuss next steps for any student involved in a threat assessment, a district team will meet and collaborate together on a plan going forward. Cichocki said that all staff involved in the checklist and documentation process will be trained in how to do so, and input will also potentially be gathered from outside sources such as parents, outside therapists and counselors or law enforcement.

Fowler said the threat assessment process is very thorough and involved to determine the next course of action and the best way to support the student in question going forward.

Personnel Update

Cichocki said he is currently working on a job posting for the LAS Director of Operations position. The current director, Steve Turnbull, is retiring, and Cichocki emphasized that his position would be a difficult one to fill, owing to how much Turnbull does for and around LAS. Turnbull has said that he is committed to staying on until a suitable replacement for his position can be found and trained to do the job.

Cichocki and Director of Special Education Heather Snyder will also be visiting with building principals to discuss paraprofessional positions for the coming school year. He said that there are many different types of parapros, including indoor/outdoor paras that may help with lunch or recess and 1:1 paras who may help with one particular student with specific behavorial or medical needs. Staffing needs for each building change as students move from one school to another.

Marsha Wilcox Award

Some submissions have been received by the board for this year’s Marsha Wilcox award, but Board Secretary Pat Nugent questioned whether the candidates were appropriate for the award. He said that the award not only looks at someone who goes above and beyond to support public education within LAS but also someone who extends that support into the greater Lowell community. Nugent felt the candidates submitted didn’t have that community involvement piece that was necessary for the award.

Some of the board members discussed the possibility of a regular employee of the month or employee of the year award, as there were some submissions received of candidates who may not be eligible for the Wilcox award but who are excellent employees and should be recognized for their efforts within Lowell Area Schools.

The board adjourned to go into closed session for negotiations at 7:30 pm. The next regular board meeting will take place on Monday, May 8, at 7 pm.

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