News Local/State

Urbana Schools Staff, Parents Voice Support For Superintendent And New Discipline Model

Shelley Washburne Masar speaks at an Urbana District 116 Board of Education meeting on Oct. 28, 2018.

Shelley Washburne Masar speaks at an Urbana District 116 Board of Education meeting on Oct. 28, 2018. Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

Five principals as well as several parents and teachers voiced their support for superintendent Don Owen at an Urbana District 116 Board of Education meeting Sunday evening.

More than a dozen people spoke at the public comment portion of the meeting, which lasted nearly an hour. The board did not address the comments made by district staff and parents, and adjourned to a closed session meeting following public comment. The closed session was described broadly as being about the “appointment, employment, discipline, performance, or dismissal of specific employees of the District… including hearing testimony on a complaint lodged against an employee.”

The outpouring of support for Owen comes after he’s faced criticism for an uptick in violent incidents inside Urbana schools and the implementation of a restorative justice discipline model.

“Under Dr. Owen’s leadership, our school district has assumed responsibility for the disproportionate outcomes for students of color reflected in our discipline data,” Yankee Ridge Elementary School principal, Brian Anderson, told the board during public comment. “And just as importantly, the school district has started the process of building up a school system that provides services and personnel to work with students experiencing conflict in our schools.”

The district implemented the new model this school year and created eight new positions to support it, while eliminating several dean positions. At a packed town hall meeting held in September in response to parent concerns about safety and discipline in the district, Owen said the new model still encompasses traditional methods of discipline, including in-school and out-of-school suspension. The intent of the new system is to provide more support for those students struggling socially and emotionally, with the goal of getting at the root causes of poor behavior.  

Speaking at the Sunday Board of Education meeting, Anderson added that he thought it was natural that such a change had inspired “a great deal of negativity, pessimism and fear… and I personally believe social media can bring out the worst of these emotions in us.”

Delores Lloyd, principal of Thomas Paine Elementary School, told the board that the new restorative justice system means “we are currently on the verge of creating a better future.”

“And while I hear and understand the process has not been easy or smooth by any means, real sustained change takes time — time that at this point that has not been afforded Dr. Owen,” she said.

A parent and a former teacher at the district, Alexis Jones, told the board she was upset by the outcry against Owen and the new discipline model playing out on social media. She said she wants students and staff to feel safe at school, as well as valued by the district.

“And I feel like I can say both of those things and be confident Dr. Owen is the person to lead this district through a time of transition, and into a time of greater opportunity for all students in Urbana School District,” she said.

Cris Vowels, principal of Urbana Early Childhood School, said disrupting the district’s leadership at this point would only “cause more chaos.” She said she sees Urbana residents struggling and that they rely on the school district to make a difference in the lives of their children. Vowels said she supports the new model, but acknowledged, “its hard work, it’s going to take time.”

Shelley Washburne Masar echoed those sentiments saying it takes time as well as trial and error for any reform to work. Masar said she raised four children who attended Urbana schools.

“I’ve come to believe all reforms require more time, more staff and more volunteers than we have patience for,” she said. Masar added that she was “sick of the resistance — I urge you to keep your staff and stay the course with redoubled effort.”

In an interview following the public comment portion of the meeting, Owen said he didn’t view the issue “as about me.” He said, “what I heard was support for the direction the district was going and a lot of care and concern about our students.”

Owen said there had been an increase in violent or aggressive incidents in the district this school year, but also cited the uptick in gun violence in the Champaign-Urbana community generally.

“I think this is a community wide problem,” he said. “We are one aspect of the community. My goal is to ensure our students have a safe and supportive learning environment that challenges them and does so in a way that makes sure safety is of the utmost importance.”