IWCS: Security officers, deans making measurable impacts

Published 10:36 am Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The addition of unarmed school security officers, or SSOs, and “dean of students” positions at each high school has, over the past five months, achieved a measurable reduction in the amount of time principals must spend addressing student discipline, according to Isle of Wight County Schools’ director of secondary education, Marsha Cale.

IWCS Superintendent Theo Cramer, in a budget proposal for the current school year he’d made last February, asked for additional funds from the Board of Supervisors to cover the cost of adding five SSOs and the two deans. Though the supervisors declined to approve funding the requested positions, Cramer was able to hire three SSOs – one at Windsor High and two at Smithfield High – by repurposing funds already in the budget for unfilled clinic assistant positions.

Cramer was able to absorb the cost of the two deans within the 2023-24 school year’s approved $88 million budget as well by promoting from within. According to personnel records, former Westside Elementary teacher Danielle Hewitt assumed the dean of students role at Smithfield High in August. Shantelle Basking, Hewitt’s counterpart at Windsor High, also assumed her new role in August after previously serving as an administrative associate at the school. The roughly $146,000 collective impact of the two new positions, according to School Board Chairman Jason Maresh, was absorbed by diverting funds from two teaching positions that ended up going unfilled due to lack of student attendance.

According to data Cale presented at the School Board’s Jan. 11 meeting, SHS Principal Patricia Cuffee and her three assistant principals have collectively observed 164 teacher lessons over the past five months, up 141% from the 116 they’d completed over a 10-month window during the prior school year. At Windsor High, Principal Dawn Carroll and Assistant Principal Chelsea Kulp have collectively observed 77 lessons over the past five months, or roughly 82% of the 94 they’d observed during a 10-month window the prior year.

According to Cale, that’s largely due to the deans having handled more than half of the discipline referrals that in past years would have fallen to principals.

“It is so important that principals spend the majority of their time working and supporting teachers’ instructional initiatives,” Cale said. “They are highly trained professionals and academics are their specialty. … Over the last several years we’ve seen an increase in student discipline issues and that has led to a substantial amount of principals’ time being spent in an office.”

WHS Principal Dawn Carroll said the deans process, investigate and determine consequences for minor to moderate student infractions that would warrant five or fewer days of out-of-school suspension, as well as attendance concerns.

“The state requires us to monitor chronic absenteeism,” Carroll said, which the state defines as a student missing 10% or more of the school year.

“Our deans in both high schools take the lead of that attendance process,” Carroll said.

Cale said even a minor discipline referral can take 15 to 20 minutes to fill out the associated paperwork, “and that doesn’t include the parent conversation that you’re going to have at the end of the day.” For a more severe infraction, “it could really derail an entire day for an administrator,” Cale said. “You could walk in, something happens first block, and your whole day will be spent tracking down witnesses and gathering statements, and interviewing students and getting counselors and contacting parents.”

According to Cale’s data, Smithfield High saw 290 reported incidents over 10 months during the prior school year. Another 139 had occurred from Sept. 5 through Jan. 11, of which 76 or 54% had been handled by Hewitt rather than Cuffee or her assistant principals.

Both high schools, prior to the addition of the SSOs, already each had a certified sheriff’s deputy serving as a school resource officer, or SRO. As deputies, SROs carry firearms and are employees of the Sheriff’s Office. Their unarmed SSO counterparts, by comparison, are employees of the school system.

Jason Brinkley, Isle of Wight County Schools’ security and emergency management specialist, said SSOs also go through a certification process through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which once completed remains valid for two years. 

Cuffee said she’d been nervous about the prospect of SSOs at Smithfield High at the start of the school year, and had worried her students would become fearful or adversarial with them, but she says students and teachers have each become very receptive to having them around.

“The SSO position has been invaluable in creating a second layer of safety. … They know the whole layout of my building; they call the teachers by their first name,” Cuffee said.