Citizens of Mexico pulled no punches in questioning the eight candidates for the Mexico school board Thursday as part of a Mexico-Audrain League of Women Voters candidate forum. Questions ranged from how they would combat behavioral issues, suicide and even optional religious instruction. All candidates only had one minute respectively to respond to audience questions. Initial respondents to questions were on a rotation.

Reducing fights

An early audience question asked how the candidates would address behavioral issues and fighting at the schools and sought suggested remedies. All candidates said they were not aware of any extensive behavioral issues, but did agree that there will be occasional fights.

Nicole Nelson promoted the disciplinary use of in-school and out-of-school suspensions.

Guidelines for in- and out-of-school suspensions are in the school handbook.

James Oxford plans a different tact. He agreed that continually disruptive students need a different environment in which to work, but he suggested the creation of a peer-mediation program.

“Students learned how to mediate … (Two students) would talk to the mediator and then the mediator would refer each person’s feelings back to the other using different words,” he said about a program he went through in junior high.

Student mental health may be affecting their behavior, which is leading to the fights, Hailey Schutte said. The school board in December approved an agreement with the Arthur Center to provide behavioral health services in district schools. The students causing fights may have something which affects them, said or done and they have reached a breaking point, Schutte said.

“We just really need to continue to focus on mental health … and pull them in and figure out what is the cause of their fights, but I think old-fashioned discipline works just as well,” she said.

Nick Tietsort agreed student mental health is a factor in behavior issues and that the agreement with the Arthur Center is a step in the right direction. Policies would need to be developed to address continuing behavior issues, he said.

Research is needed to figure out where the majority of behavior issues and fights are happening, said Jeremy Wright. Then, the district and board can get to the bottom of the issue, he said.

“(Is) it the same students, or is it just multiple different students? Seeing what the issue is and giving them somebody to talk to,” Wright said.

The community has ample opportunities and resources in Sheriff Matt Oller and Kerri Ferrari, director of alternative education, who were in attendance at Thursday’s forum, Andy Craig said. The district relationship with the Arthur Center is also a positive, he said, adding that conflict is going to happen. It’s how one responds that makes the difference, he said.

“(We should have) resources available to the students to address any concerns that they have, whether it’s from home life, an incident that happened at school in the classroom, to be able to tap into appropriate resource we have to find a better alternative than a fight,” he said.

Aligning how the schools react to incidents is needed said incumbent Heather DeMint. That way as students transition from elementary to middle to high school, the behavior expectations are consistent across all grade levels, she said. Administrators could talk to each other about their building incidents so administrators are informed on student behavior issues, she said.

Consistent communication across grade levels, and buildings relating to student behavior was echoed by Karsten Femrite.

The Arthur Center agreement is also useful along with the alternative school for students who need that sort of environment, Femrite said.

Bullying and suicide prevention

As a further extension on student behavioral issues, the audience also wanted to know what board candidates would do to lessen bullying and increase suicide prevention.

Bullying prevention doesn’t start at the school, but it starts at home, Schutte said. Student mental health issues need to be communicated to teachers, as well, she added.

Suicide is a very personal issue because it doesn’t just affect one person, but everyone, Tietsort said. The community has made strides, though in its goal of preventing suicide, he said.

“Even though it’s in its infancy, working with the Arthur Center is very good and hopefully programs can develop there to reach some of these students so they don’t feel like that is their only choice,” he said.

Already established school policies relating to bullying and suicide prevention are working well, Wright said, adding there are no bad students, just making bad choices. Communication and support is what those students need, he said.

Instances of bullying, especially directed at Craig’s children, break his heart, he said. There are now resources available to students who may have mental health issues, unstable home lives and they are the ones who need the district’s support, he said. He wants to see those resources better implemented into district policy as a means to address student needs relating to bullying and suicide prevention.

Partnerships with the Arthur Center and Mental Health Task Force are a definite positive, DeMint said, but the district also needs to focus on its guidance departments to give counselors the resources they need.

“(We need) to see if they can spend some more time with those students, and give them some professional development so that they can understand and handle and recognize those signs a little bit more,” she said, adding education programs for students also should be explored.

Communication would work wonders, said Femrite, adding students, teachers and others should feel comfortable telling an authority figure if they have concerns about someone.

School used to conclude at 3 p.m., you could go home and get away from it, Nelson said, adding that is no longer the case due to social media. So, a lot of bullying prevention starts at home and from a young age, she said.

“We need to work with parents and monitor what our children are doing and working with the guidance counselors,” Nelson said, adding guidance counselors are needed students feel comfortable talking to.

Counselor support, training and reporting procedures need to be an aspect of bullying and suicide prevention in the district, Oxford said. If there is bullying at school, the district should also look to what is happening at home, in case intervention is needed, he said.

Elective at-school Bible study

Board members addressed a question relating to the separation of church and state regarding Bible studies as a class in public schools. The audience wanted to know, if the Missouri General Assembly were to approve a bible-study course as an elective, would candidates support it.

All candidates said they would approve of the course, but two candidates did have caveats.

“I would also hope that we would expand upon that and have another type of, maybe eastern cultures class, or develop another type or religion (class) as well,” Nelson said.

Oxford mirrored Nelson’s sentiments, but would want the class to be presented from a historical/literary standpoint. “Make it an academic study … as long as there is no preference for one exact denomination,” he said.

Other questions

The audience also asked about solutions for teacher retention. Opinions ranged from looking at salary and benefits, to benefits for support staff. Candidates were split in opinions on whether to provide district funds for students at the Mexico Education Center to take the General Educational Development test, or GED, which is a $95 test. Students at the center are already on a diploma, rather than GED track. A number of candidates could not give a definitive answer until they knew more about how many are taking the GED rather than going for a diploma.

When it comes to how students and staff dress, the district offers more general guidelines than an actual dress code with rules about shirt condition or shorts length. A majority of candidates wanted to continue working under the general guidelines for dress rather than impose a more stringent dress code on students and even staff.

All candidates said they would either attend all school board meetings or attend as many as possible, due to either work or student commitments. For those who have students in athletics programs, or other programs, they come first. Candidates also would look for ways to be a more active presence in all school buildings, such as through the lunch buddy program, or other means. This can include a classroom observation.