Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo, who took over three months ago, wants to nip Booth-Fickett’s problems in the bud.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

In an attempt to turn around unruly behavior and, ultimately, improve test scores, Tucson Unified School District is pumping resources into an east-side K-8 school that has been plagued by absenteeism, defiance of authority and other disciplinary problems.

And TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo wants the district Governing Board to re-evaluate disciplinary practices district-wide in the coming month.

But Sylvia Campoy, the representative for the Latino plaintiffs in the district’s longstanding desegregation order, said the district will need approval from the court to make any major changes to its discipline policy, and the district hasn’t even mentioned the plan to the plaintiffs or special master overseeing the case.

“I was blown away that plaintiffs haven’t heard one single word about this,” Campoy said.

Trujillo announced the new initiative for Booth-Fickett Magnet K-8 school, 450 S. Montego Drive, at a hastily scheduled press conference Tuesday, saying while behavioral problems are a problem at schools across the district, Booth-Fickett’s problems are “more pronounced.”

“I think the difference with Booth-Fickett is the amount of parents and employees that are expressing concern. We listen to parents, we listen to employees from within the school, and employees who have visited the school,” he said.

The district’s 2017 employee surveys show that 90 percent of employees at Booth-Fickett don’t think students treat teachers with respect. More than 80 percent said students don’t behave in class. Nearly 80 percent of employees said they saw, or students reported, bullying or harassing.

More than a third of students said they have been the victim or bullying or harassment more than “rarely.”

Trujillo said the problems didn’t rise to the level of assaults or systemic bullying but were enough to make the school unmanageable for teachers and staff workers, and were detrimental to students’ ability to learn.

The district recently sent a team in to audit the school’s disciplinary problems and found absenteeism, truancy, defiance of authority, frequent obscenities and students simply walking out of classes without permission, he said.

“When you’re so focused on student management and discipline, it’s hard to be focused on student achievement and academic instruction,” he said, noting that the next round of state testing is coming up quickly.

Booth-Fickett’s scores on AzMERIT, the state’s main standardized test, have slipped from about 33 percent of students passing the math portion of the test in the 2015-16 school year, to just 24 percent last school year.

To combat the discipline problem, the district this month brought in an additional three campus monitors, bringing the total to five, to manage student behavior in hallways, in the cafeteria and on the playground. The school also brought in a social worker to meet with students one-on-one. And it brought in an additional school resource officer, essentially a campus cop, along with a full-time student success specialist.

All of those positions were loaned to Booth-Fickett from other schools at no additional cost to the district.

ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Trujillo laid the blame for the school’s disciplinary problems at the feet of Arizona’s teacher shortage crisis, saying that the school had nine vacant teacher positions filled by substitutes, who often have a harder time controlling students than a certified teacher does.

Five of those substitutes were long-term, while the other four were daily subs. And when the school couldn’t find a substitute for those daily positions, it was routinely pulling counselors and other support staff into classrooms to fill in.

So the school was allowed to hire three additional long-term substitutes, leaving just one position to be filled by daily subs.

While he acknowledged that it isn’t as good as hiring full-time teachers for the positions, Trujillo hopes it will bring some stability and allow the other support staff to go back to doing their jobs.

He’s also asking the school to streamline its disciplinary procedures to allow quicker responses, and to offer clear expectations for both teachers and students.

Booth-Fickett, a K-8 magnet school for math and science with about 950 students, has been the subject of intense debate over the past few years for its problems with behavior, especially bullying.

In 2015, the school created a student “bully patrol” program developed by a school resource officer who saw bullying as the most prevalent problem on campus. In 2016, then-principal Charles Bermudez told media that the school was safe, but TUSD’s lenient discipline policy made it hard for teachers to do their job and keep students in line.

Trujillo, who officially took over as superintendent just three months ago, said he wanted to nip Booth-Fickett’s problems in the bud before they festered and became worse.

But TUSD’s student discipline policy has itself been a continuing source of controversy.

The district is under a longstanding desegregation order, and as part of that, has been ordered to reduce the disproportionate discipline of minority students.

But that led to a backlash from teachers and administrators who claimed the district was artificially deflating its discipline numbers by simply not allowing teachers to discipline students.

Campoy, the representative for the Latino plaintiffs in the desegregation case, said the district still has a significantly disproportionate overrepresentation of African-American and Mexican-American students being disciplined, and African-American students are twice as likely as white students to be suspended.

Over the years the district has attempted to rewrite the discipline policy, known as the Guidelines for Student Rights and Responsibilities. But those efforts have fallen flat, despite the district paying out $35,000 to a consultant to overhaul the code of conduct.

Trujillo said he hopes this time is different, and that the TUSD Governing Board will be able to approve changes to the policy at its Dec. 12 meeting.

“It’s time to make recommendations for the revision of the Guidelines for Student Rights and Responsibilities, so that we have a more teacher-friendly approach to how we’re handling classroom disciplinary incidents that doesn’t require the teacher to engage in a lot of bureaucratic steps,” he said.

The district uses a restorative justice approach to disciplinary issues, meaning students are encouraged to talk through how their actions affect others, with a focus on those who are harmed. But those practices are full of bureaucratic steps that take up teachers’ classroom time, Trujillo said.

“You have systems on each campus, and on some campuses, before a disciplinary infraction will be handled by the administration, the teacher will be required in some instances to perform seven, eight, nine or 10, interventions,” he said.

Trujillo said he would recommend getting that number down to no more than three interventions by a teacher before a principal or vice principal steps in.

“Every time an intervention is being performed on the spot, it’s time away from the teacher, from instruction on math and (English) to address repetitive behaviors,” he said.

But Campoy said the problem isn’t the restorative justice practices, but rather that teachers aren’t properly trained in how to implement them and that the policy has never been clearly articulated by the district.

“It’s not the policy. It’s the misinterpretation of the policy, and the misalignment between policy and practice. It’s confusion to the extreme,” she said.

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter:

@hankdeanlight