When’s the right time to discipline middle school students? During academic class time or after school? What about during the 20-minute recess allotted for Ridgefield tweens and teens?

It was a question that generated almost an hour-long dialogue at the Board of Education meeting on Sept. 23.

“Developmentally speaking, we think it’s best to have these conversations right when the mistakes are made during the day. ... It’s very pertinent to do it in the moment. It’s more effective than waiting hours until after school or pulling them out of the classroom during academic time,” said Scotts Ridge Middle School Principal Tim Salem. “Our students use the time to reflect on their actions and take ownership of them. And that’s how they learn to grow.”

Salem, who presented his case alongside East Ridge Middle School Principal Patricia Raneri, said that after school detentions were the only alternative to intervening during the school’s recess time.

“We’re not going to pull them out of the classroom unless it’s something that’s really serious, and it’s punitive to do it after school. ... We don’t want to go that route if we can avoid it,” Salem explained. “... We have a strong opportunity to do this during the day, during non-academic times.”

Salem and Raneri were giving feedback on a draft of the district’s “Physical Activity and Student Discipline” policy that had been presented at a school board meeting on Sept. 9 and that they had felt went beyond statutory requirements.

Per state statutes, the district is required to have a policy that prevents schools from pulling kindergarten through fifth grade students out of recess and bringing them back into the building for disciplinary reasons. At the Sept. 9 meeting, the school board had decided to extend the drafted policy to include middle school students.

“The middle school administration was making the case about why they believed the board should not include the middle schools in the new policy,” explained chairwoman Margaret Stamatis. “So the discussion wasn’t about changing an existing policy, it was about not going beyond the statutory requirement of K-5 to include grades 6, 7 and 8 in a new policy.”

‘Social drama’

A few board members felt uncomfortable pulling middle school students from recess.

“My concern is that they need that mental break to socialize and be kids. If we’re pulling them back into the building, then they’re not going to have enough time outside and that could create a negative impact,” said Carina Borgia-Drake.

Salem countered that the “interventions” during recess were not something that dragged on.

“It’s almost always one conversation and its finished —10 minutes maximum, and it’s a minor number of incidents,” he said. “ ... We had one parent come in today and we used the recess time to bring in three kids. We had a discussion and all the parties were satisfied with what was said and the apologies that were given, and we all moved on. The parent was very happy with how we handled it.”

Raneri added that not every conversation happened in the school’s central office and that not every conversation was disciplinary in nature.

“Anyone who’s had a middle school kid knows there’s always a little social drama,” she said. “... What we’re talking about is more managing emotions and having guided conversations.

“...This is a much better way of intervening than pulling students out of the classroom or having them stay after school, which creates distractions.”

“The other students don’t even notice they’re not at recess, it’s that quick,” Salem said. “... When they have to stay after school, everyone notices.”

Need for flexibility

Both principals said they viewed the drafted student discipline policy as restrictive.

“Having the flexibility is vital to us,” Salem said. “The way that the current policy is worded handcuffs us. It’s important that there’s time during the day to have conversations that are developmentally appropriate.”

Raneri agreed, and noted that sometimes incidents happen in the morning.

“It’s not necessarily something that happens at recess, it’s something that could be happening throughout the day that we feel should be addressed when we all have a pause in our day,” she said. “It allows us to catch up.”

Board member Fran Walton wondered if changing the wording in the draft might create some flexibility.

“Maybe not call it recess? I know the state statute says that administrators are not allowed to take away a students’ recess as punishment at the K through 5 [kindergarten through fifth grade] level,” she said.

Walton agreed with Salem’s assessment that the number of incidents that required middle school students to come in from recess were minimal.

“It seems we’re focusing on the exception and not the regular performance of a day,” she said. “On a regular day there’s a 20-minute recess. The exception is when they have to come in.”

“And 95 percent of the time it’s one conversation and it’s over,” Salem said. “It’s very rare they end up back in the office. We have very brief conversations that help our students reflect, learn and grow ... We wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t believe it to be true.”

District’s strength

Salem said that the middle schools were in their third year of letting seventh and eighth graders out for a 20-minute “brain break.” The district has always allotted recess time for sixth graders.

He and Raneri said that building that time into the school day is what separates Ridgefield from other towns in the area.

“Few other districts have this time built in for kids to go outside ... we cherish giving them that mental break, and our teachers love being out there with them,” Salem said. “But this is one of those situations, we have to be able to pull kids in to have these conversations.”

‘Gray area’

Board members said they saw value in the midday interventions and were in favor of keeping them, but still had concerns about changing the policy.

“We trust you, you’re the educators,” said board member Sharon D’Orso. “But we don’t want to change our spirit as a district, which is: We want our children playing.”

“Can’t it just be an operational decision made with the administrators’ discretion?” asked another board member.

Salem’s concern was that parents would begin to see “the gray area,” and refuse to allow their kids to be brought into the building from recess.

“It’s going to get very difficult for us ... You’re not supposed to have these meetings at recess, it’ll muddy the waters,” he said.

The alternative?

Salem said he’s reached out to parents and asked them how — and when — they prefer these conversations to be held.

“Parents have said they would much rather have them during the day then after school. They don’t like picking up their kids at 3:30-4, it’s not easy for them,” he said. “After school is more punitive on everybody.”

A board member asked if there was an alternative to disciplining kids.

“The alternative is what we’re doing — one quick conversation during the day,” Salem said.

“The problem is there’s no flexibility in the wording of our policy. There’s nothing that allows for a decision or action to be made based on administrator discretion.”

He reiterated a point from earlier.

“We wouldn’t have put it forward if we didn’t believe this was important.”

After hearing from the two principals, the board agreed to take a short recess and returned with a retooled draft that declined to extend a new policy about discipline beyond the kindergarten through fifth grade requirement.

“Students in sixth through eighth grade must have a brain break but we will leave it more ambiguous and create some of that flexibility you were asking for,” said D’Orso.