“I don’t feel safe sometimes walking down the halls,” said the Haven Middle School student named Audrey.
“I want to know,” said the 7th grader, “when I’ll feel safe again.”
Those comments came during a virtual town hall last week involving parents, students, and teachers at Haven, the school’s principal and assistant principals, and District 65 administrators, including Superintendent Devon Horton.
One day before that, more than 100 sign-toting parents and educators packed the district’s Board of Education meeting, making pointed complaints about fights among students, and other forms of misbehavior.
Now, two more opportunities are coming to sound off, and also to find out what the district is doing as it tries to improve student behavior.
Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) says Horton will address the issue during a virtual ward meeting at 7p.m. Thursday.
And on Wednesday, May 4, Horton plans an in-person town hall at Haven. Details are not yet on the Haven website.
In the virtual town hall last week, school officials released data to support their argument that a tiny percentage of Haven students are causing the overwhelming majority of behavior and discipline problems.
Discipline problems at Haven are not new. Out of 18 schools in the district, Haven has consistently led in the number of out-of-school suspensions, where students are banned from the building for a specific number of days.
In 2018/19, before the COVID pandemic, there were 115 out-of-school suspensions in the entire district. Haven had 29, or about one-quarter of the total.
So far this school year, with about two months yet to go, District 65 has seen 83 out-of-school suspensions, with 31 (about 37%) from Haven.
Principal Chris Latting, in his second year as Haven’s leader, conceded that “there are some things we need to do better.”
“We need to get to a place,” he said, “that we’re not yet at.”
Out-of-school suspensions are the last resort in the district’s five-tier level of disciplinary measures. Most misbehavior referrals (almost 90%) are simply dealt with by verbal warnings or counseling by the classroom teacher.
So far this year, the report says there have been 2,113 referrals at Haven, which may seem like a stunning number for a school of 772 students.
But again, most of the referrals, from minor ones like wandering around the room, to major ones like starting a fight, are for a small percentage of youngsters.
Assistant principal Michael Johnson said that 1,513 of the referrals are for just 46 students.
That, Johnson said, means only 6% of Haven’s students were responsible for nearly three-quarters of the behavior referrals so far this year.
Those frequently-cited youngsters, Johnson pointed out, have at least ten referrals apiece, with some having 70, 88, or in the case of one student, 95 disciplinary writeups.
Besides trying to help those causing the most problems, there is another component of the issue getting attention.
Johnson said that the largest number of the high-referral students, the 6% causing the most disciplinary action this school year, were Black. (33 Black, 9 white, 3 Hispanic, 1 Asian).
Marlon Milner, a Black parent with two children at Haven, said to principal Latting, “I don’t trust you.”
Milner said school officials need to meet with Black parents, and have some “real conversations,” in person.
Superintendent Horton said he will make sure those meetings take place. “Trust,” he said, “is built over time.” The issues at Haven go back before he got here, Horton indicated, but also said they are continuing, and steps will be taken to make things better.
Administrators also promised to work more closely with teachers.
And just as a small percentage of students are connected to most of the trouble, a relatively low percentage of teachers are doing the most disciplinary referrals.
1,307 such referrals were written by 26 staff members, according to the report. That’s about one-third of the staff, writing up approximately two-thirds of the referrrals.
Each staff member in that group, the report noted, had written up at least 25 referrrals, with the highest number at 122 by a single individual.
Teachers union president Maria Barroso said that despite some well-publicized disagreements this past fall with the administration, the District Educators Council (union) is working with district and Haven officials to make the school safer.
Returning to the building after COVID-related remote learning has been a challenge, she said.
“People are tired, a little burned out, and frustrated, but we can get this done because we are child-centered,” Barroso added.
Among the short term (this year) and long term (next year and beyond) culture and climate measures either already in place at Haven, or planned for the future, are additional staff, more training in crisis intervention, more outreach to families, focusing on social-emotional learning, and helping students of color feel more welcome at school.
Haven is also calling upon outside social service agencies to help, and is even asking parents for suggestions. One idea, have parents who are waiting to pick up their children keep an eye out for kids who are, say, riding their bikes the wrong way on the sidewalk, sort of a “parent patrol.”
A little thing, yes, but the hope is a lot of little and big things will add up to a safer school environment.
The superintendent said “we know emotions are high, but please know we are working in the best interests of all students. We will respond not just through an email, but through action.”
And said principal Latting, “I’d love for Haven to be a Blue Ribbon School,” a school that others come to visit” to learn how things are supposed to be done.