Forest Park School District 91 will employ a half-time “behavioral interventionist” at the Forest Park Middle School next year in hopes of solving disciplinary issues that many say have become increasingly problematic.

The new position was one of 11 recommendations made by a committee of seven parents formed after concerns regarding discipline were expressed on numerous occasions including a February school board meeting.

“Our middle school is not substantially different than most middle schools, but we can do better,” said District 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder, noting that administrators had to get past their initial “defensive” reaction to recent criticism in order to address the issue.

At this point, the specifics of the new position are uncertain.

“Dr. Tinder and I still need to finalize the details of it, so I’m not comfortable discussing it at this time,” said Middle School Principal Karen Bukowski.

Tinder said that he saw the position as “not a disciplinary situation, but more of a proactive counseling situation.” He said that the district would seek a certified teacher with a background in social work or counseling, but that the rest of the details are yet to be determined.

“We all have, in our own minds, different ideas of what this person’s going to look like. I mean really, what they’re going to look like,” said Tinder after school board member Catherine Denham jokingly suggested that the district seek “someone big.”

Tinder said that the person’s responsibilities would include counseling students before they return to school from fighting related suspensions. The district’s policy is that any incident of physical fighting at school leads to automatic suspension for those involved.

The person will also meet with all new transfer students to explain that “what might have been acceptable where you went to school before might not be acceptable here,” according to Tinder.

“I don’t have the statistics, but my guess is that most of the kids being suspended are not kids who have been here since kindergarten,” he added.

If a student continues to have trouble, the interventionist will get the student’s parents involved to determine whether there are problems outside school that are leading the student to act up.

“An awful lot of school fights are just a way to get frustration out from things going on in their family life,” said Tinder.

In severe cases, he said, students could be referred to the West 40 alternative school program.

Board member Steve Johnsen noted that, in addition to the recent complaints alleging a lack of discipline at the middle school, there have also been voices accusing the school of being too strict in its response to disciplinary issues. He said he sees it as crucial that the administration know that it has the board’s support in doing what is necessary to maintain order in the schools.

Some parents have objected to the school’s policy of suspending all students involved in fights, asking for the school to instead make an effort to determine who the aggressor was and to discipline those involved accordingly.

“They should do all they can do to protect the safety of our children, and one or two or three screaming parents should not deter them from doing what they need to do,” said Johnsen.

In August, the district’s teachers will all go through a workshop developed by Dr. Ruby K. Trayne designed to provide guidance in understanding the issues faced by students growing up in poverty.

Efforts will also be made to catch habits which could lead to disciplinary issues early, as the district’s elementary schools will have a “bullying prevention” element added to their curriculum. This program will be funded through a $1 million grant received by the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA).

ICASA Communications Director Sean Black said that the program is still in its preliminary phases, but described it as “a program intended to involve the entire school, from busdrivers to students to administrators.”

Black said the initiative will begin with pilot programs in about 10 districts throughout the state in 2007. He said it will include training sessions conducted by various agencies for teachers and personnel, who will then integrate what they’ve learned into their clases.

“A lot of bullying is sexual harassment and sexual violence, especially once you get into high school ” we’re trying to stop that at an early age,” said Black.

Tinder said that the school will also make an effort to ensure that there are always adults stationed in the hallway and will work with the police department to increase supervision around dismissal time.

The district hopes to install security cameras behind the Middle School and some of its elementary schools sometime next school year. Though the primary purpose would be to catch vandals, the cameras could also catch fights in progress, and could even be monitored from the police station and squad cars.

Cameras could be paid for by the Juvenie Accountability Incentive Block Grant received by the police department, which recently funded the installation of surveillance cameras at the Forest Park Public Library, but Tinder said that if grant money is unavailable the district would likely pay for the cameras on its own.

Johnsen, who is also a lieutenant with the Police Department, spoke favorably of the idea of installing cameras.

“I don’t want to compare us to Columbine, but if they had real-time video into the squad cars in Columbine, many better outcomes could have been had,” he said.