Grappling with safety: Debate has emerged over how to prevent school violence

JAMIL LOTT HAS a lot to deal with every day.

“The teachers can only do so much. Many of them are trying to do the best they can do. I think the same goes for the administration. They can only do so much.” – Jamil Lott, behavioral specialist at Washington Technology Magnet School.

He might be assuring a substitute teacher that a student is frustrated, not dangerous, or soothing a sobbing middle school girl who was raped and cannot focus on her classwork. Lott, a behavioral specialist at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, understands the needs of students and teachers through a lens that few others see through, especially after recent outbreaks of violence in Twin Cities schools.

“Sometimes (students) are with me in my office or whatever, (and) we’re building this rapport that goes a long way,” he said. “Students would tell me who’s going to fight. Or who just broke up. Or what girls are upset with each other, and ‘So-and-so’s picking on me and calling me names.’ So I’m able to intervene before another issue brews.”

Since the beginning of this school year, students have attacked high school teachers and officials at schools throughout St. Paul and Minneapolis. Fights, student suicides and other deaths have occurred.

In the aftermath of the violence, a debate over how to improve school safety has emerged among admin­istrators, teachers union members, staff and students, with some propos­ing easier access to mental health resources. While many staff members insist safety should be prioritized over money, administrators point out the high costs of these reforms.

And some students assert that implementing only top-down reforms criminalizes students and neglects the root cause of student-staff violence, which some attribute to cultural and communication-related gaps.

Looking for solutions

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers, the teachers’ union representing workers in the schools, has pushed for “increased support in schools to help meet the needs of our stu­dents,” said union president Denise Rodriguez. In December, union lead­ers threatened a teachers strike over safety concerns, following the alleged student assault of John Ekblad, a St. Paul Central High School teacher, according to reports.

While Rodriguez could not speak specifically about the assault of Ekblad due to pending litiga­tion, she said school districts need to implement improved safety resources, such as more counselors, psychologists and behavioral specialists for students and staff.

Lott agreed that more mental health professionals are needed to prevent violence and deal with its aftermath.

“The teachers can only do so much,” Lott said of behavioral discipline in the classroom. “Many of them are trying to do the best they can do. I think the same goes for the administration. They can only do so much.”

Learning about alienated individuals early on could protect schools not only from fights, but also from more violent measures such as large-scale shootings, said Rick Kaufman, leader of the crisis response team at Columbine High School in Colorado, where two students killed 13 people in 1999.

“What kind of changes are needed? Increased attention to detecting warning signs of violence, and mentoring or counseling programs that enable schools to identify and provide support to alienated or at-risk youth,” said Kaufman, who is now executive director of com-munity relations, family engagement and emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools.

Central High School senior Angela Vang agreed, citing Central having only one social worker for its 2,000 students, despite a student commit-ting suicide earlier this year.

Angela Vang
Angela Vang, a senior at Cenral High School in St. Paul, speaks about school violence. (Photo by Danielle Wong/ThreeSixty Journalism)

“We had a lot more counselors and dogs in the office for like two days,” Vang said. “And anybody who needed them could go see them, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, that was so great, that was so amazing to have those resources.’ Why don’t we always have those kinds of resources? Why do we have to wait until something so tragic happens?”

In response, administrators acknowledge that while staffing more mental health professionals would be ideal, it could cost millions of dollars.

Rodriguez said the St. Paul district and the union recently negotiated a new contract that is “a strong step in the right direction” but falls short of a complete solution. The new contract includes $4.5 million in spending on school climate programs that implement restorative practices; 30 new counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and language teachers; and 2-percent raises for teachers.

Engaging students

Others point to less costly alternatives to improving safety, such as engaging students.

“If we had our students engaged and allowed for some more leader-ship from students, we would find some different avenues that wouldn’t necessarily cost more for staffing,” said Jason Matlock, director of operational and security services at Minneapolis Public Schools.

In St. Paul, a student group called the Student Engagement and Advancement Board aims to help students and administrators communicate. The board, which began meeting this school year, conducted a student survey on school resource officers and presented its findings to the school board in February to show administrators students’ opinions.

Lott, a former Como High School student who said he’d gotten into a few fights himself, said student feed-back is especially important because of differences in cultural perspective. Cultural gaps, he said, can cause staff members to feel uneasy or threatened when students are truly only “blowing smoke.” The answer is hiring more culturally diverse staff or training teachers, he said.

Interpreting that smoke as a full-blown fire can lead some people to view students as aggressive criminals and call for harsher punishments, such as suspensions and expulsions, which only exacerbate the situation, according to Vang, the senior at Central.

“I don’t think sending a student home is really addressing their behavior, and I don’t think that dis-engaging them from a class any further is going to teach them anything,’’ she said. “But I don’t think we have strong enough alternatives, either.”

Vang said she hopes to see alternatives that allow teachers to discipline students without criminalizing them, as well as more open, inclusive dialogue.

Relating to one another, Rodriguez said, is a crucial step in this process.

“It’s not possible to heal from conflict if we all can’t relate to each other,” Rodriguez said. “We need to stop finger-pointing and blaming, and work together with parents, students, educators and the community to come up with real solutions.”