A standing-room-only, sign-waving crowd of educators and parents told the Evanston/Skokie Board of Education Monday night that they are sick of fights and other behavior problems at Haven Middle School, and they want something done about it immediately.
“Stop the lecturing and lead with concrete actions,” Haven parent Marlin Milner told the board members. “Your final exam is right here, right now.”
While recent altercations at Haven led to such large crowd showing up, there was no doubt that conditions at the school have been percolating for a long time.
Amber Evey-Schmidt is the Haven teacher who was knocked to the ground earlier this month after she heard an apparent fight in progress and stepped out of her classroom to see what was going on.
Evey-Schmidt said she was “blindsided” by a student, and was forcibly kncked down.
The student apparently did not mean to hit her, said Evey-Schmidt, who ended up in the hospital with minor injuries.
But still, Evey-Schmidt said that based on what’s taken place at Haven, “I was not surprised this happened, only surprised that it didn’t happen sooner.”
A music teacher, Evey-Schmidt received everyone’s undivided attention when, at the board meeting, she sang the Whitney Houston hit, “Greatest Love of All,” to symbolize her concern and her hope.
It was a tune that Evey-Schmidt sang in her eighth grade talent show. “I believe the children are our future,” the song begins. And when Evey-Schmidt sang those words, the room was otherwise silent.
But mostly, it was a tense and occasionally raucous meeting, as crowd members sometimes booed school board comments, or laughed in complete disagreement, or even blurted out comments.
Board Vice President Biz Lindsay-Ryan told the audience “you have a sign which says ‘We Deserve Respect.’ We want it too,” she stated.
“Our children are watching us all the time,” Lindsay-Ryan added.
“Welcome to our world,” rang out a voice from the crowd.
Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “We share a concern over safety at Haven, physical and emotional safety.”
She said the district is “up to date with the necesssary deployment of resources” to maintain a safe building.
She also acknowledged “decades of culture and climate problems” at the school, and said that Black and brown students had historically faced discrimination and “acts of violent racism” at Haven over the years.
She said it’s wrong to “criminalize a bunch of middle school children.”
But the board president’s historical frame of reference did not go over well with the audience.
Milner, the parent with two Haven students, is Black,and told the board that “my family is one of the ones you claim to be talking about when you talk about equity.”
But Milner said he was tired of being lectured to week after week.
“Some have couched this issue in racialization, gender expression and sexual orientation. What about safety?”, he asked.
“It’s not what are you theorizing,” he said. “It’s not what are you planning.” It’s “what are you doing right now” to make Haven safe for students and staff which mattered to him.
In a community message last week, Superintendent Devon Horton outlined a number of steps previously taken to improve conditions at Haven, including the hiring of more counselors, hall monitors, and an additional assistant principal.
Other actions, he said, are coming, such as training at least eight more Haven staff members in Crisis Prevention Intervention, a way of defusing tensions before fights begin.
However, some speakers said more should have been done long ago.
Kate Robinson, a Haven parent, said, “Smiling at each other now that the mask mandate is lifted is not going to fix this problem.”
About a dozen adults addressed the board, as did two Haven students, who have gotten more than 450 signatures from their classmates, demanding safety improvements.
There have been “numerous fights,” as well as kids being “slammed against doors and walls,” they said.
The students called for even more hall monitors, and also said “student voices” must be heard when safety measures are discussed.
“Haven,” they said, “can be so much more than a school with a bad reputation.”