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School system cuts STAR program
STAR officials say they feel slighted by a lack of communication
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For the past 15 years, the Liberty County School System has contracted the Student Transition and Recovery Program as a means for discipline and behavior intervention.

This year, however, marks the first time since STAR’s implementation in 1999 that LCSS will not offer the program.

At a May 13 board of education meeting, LCSS Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee recommended elimination of the program, stating that “STAR costs the district $249,278.”

However, in a letter addressed to board of education Chairwoman Lily Baker, STAR Program Director of Operations Lisa Stancil said that LCSS’ contract with STAR totaled $188,375.60, a difference of $60,902.40.

In an email interview, Lee stated that the $60,902.40 included indirect costs, such as loss of rental income for the district space that STAR occupied, utilities, trash collection and copier and supply expenses.

As to why the district decided to cut the STAR program, Lee said that the recommendation was made to her by a review committee and was based on several factors. According to Lee, the program’s philosophy of “punitive consequences” and “negative reinforcement” were not in line with the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports initiative in LCSS.

Lee also said that since STAR only served middle-school students, the district would be able to “cast a wider net” by employing two behavior-modification specialists to serve all students in kindergarten through 12th grades “in lieu of the STAR program.” She also deemed STAR’s recidivism rate as indicative of a need to “modify behaviors” and “identify problem-solving and coping skills,” rather than “return to practices that research tells us serve to undermine students’ self-esteem.”

Stancil, on the other hand, paints a different picture of STAR. Although she admits that not everyone agrees with a military-style bootcamp program, she said that the “shock and awe” factor is only a small part of STAR’s regimen.

“The majority of the time is spent mentoring, getting grades up, making sure they’re in school, talking to parents, physical training,” Stancil said.

She refuted Lee’s “negative reinforcement” valuation by saying that physical training actually helps to increase students’ self-esteem by instilling positive habits and increasing overall health and well-being.

Stancil also said students received positive reinforcement from STAR instructors “through their strong leadership skills, encouragement, mentoring practices and daily accountability.”

Capt. Marnita Johnson, the former coordinator of the Liberty County STAR program, also expressed concern.

“I respect the board, but I’m not happy with the way some things were done,” she said. “I think that we didn’t get a fair shot on the way out.”

Regarding Lee’s claim that STAR only served middle-school students, Johnson said that she implemented an elementary program three years ago in an effort to put troubled kids on a straighter path “while they’re young.” According to Stancil’s letter, the STAR Lite program served 68 elementary students in the 2013-14 school year. Those 68 students “were seen, at a minimum, every day by a STAR instructor,” Stancil said.

Johnson also said that a high-school program had been in place until about four years ago, but that she still dealt with high-school students if they were court-ordered. However, after discussion with principals who expressed a need for STAR’s return, Johnson said that the program had been set to come back to the high schools this year.

Stancil’s letter said that of 355 students who attended STAR’s one-day program last year, only 28 returned to participate in the 30-day program. She also said that STAR instructors met individually with 735 students last year through STAR’s Courtesy Intervention program.

Beyond STAR’s track record, though, Johnson said she takes issue with the way in which the district handled the program’s elimination. She said that she was informed via the Coastal Courier that STAR was being considered for elimination, and tried to schedule a meeting with Chief Academic Officer Mary Alexander to discuss the matter, but to no avail.

In an email interview, however, Alexander refuted this claim. She said that she did meet with Johnson, and “explained that the board was looking at several different programs, and I could not tell her how the vote would go or even if the program would go to a vote since we were just starting the budget process.”

Johnson also said that once news of STAR’s possible elimination broke, parents began approaching her. She said she told them their only course of action was to call their elected board of education members to express their opinions regarding STAR. Shortly thereafter, Johnson said, she was called into a meeting at the central office with Alexander, Chief Administrative Officer Jason Rogers and Executive Director for Student Services Dr. Kathy Moody.

Johnson said that in the meeting, Alexander told her to stop encouraging parents to call board members, and that she should instead direct parents to come to administrators with any issues.

Alexander said the meeting was held after Johnson directed parents to call board members regarding STAR’s inability to perform all the services it had in the past due to the departure of a staff member. Johnson made the decision not to hire another STAR instructor. She said that decision was based on the rumors of STAR’s pending elimination.

Johnson said that the district’s inability to give her any clear information regarding STAR’s future especially was problematic for her staff, which was stuck in limbo while trying to make career decisions.

According to Johnson, it wasn’t until 6 p.m. May 14 — the day after Lee’s recommendation to eliminate STAR — that she received a phone call at her home from Moody, informing her of the decision.

“We’d already worked a full day,” Johnson said. “Why didn’t anybody call me and tell me that morning?”

Both Johnson and Stancil said that STAR designs programs around individual districts’ needs, and that if budget restraints and specific disciplinary measures presented problems, they could have been worked out.

“Whatever you wanted here, you needed to talk to us — we could do it,” Johnson said. “We could remove the logs … if it was budget, had you talked to me, we have programs that run with two people.”

According to Stancil’s letter, Lee canceled two scheduled meetings with Johnson, and never made a site visit or talked with Johnson directly to see what the program was all about.

Though Johnson and Stancil both say they take no issue with the decision to cut STAR from LCSS’ program offerings, they feel slighted by the lack of communication on the district’s part.

“Cutting the program is not the issue,” Johnson said. “Not letting me know what’s going on is the problem.”

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