Tangled roots: Students, teachers and officials weigh in on school violence causes, solutions

WHILE HEADLINES WARN about school fights and teacher assaults, Ian Marquez doesn’t feel threatened as he walks down the hallways of Central High School in St. Paul.

“Every school is going to come with their set of fights and their set of troubles, but that’s just a part of being a kid. It’s just part of this high school journey.” – Ian Marquez, senior at St. Paul Central High School

“Things are going to happen, but overall, I still feel safe,” said Marquez, a senior. “I know no one’s going to sit out there and have an urge to hurt me.”

Violence, however, has become an increasingly public reality in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. But students, teachers and officials have differing ideas on the root causes of school violence.

Minnesota Department of Education data shows that in 2014- 15, 3,869 reported cases of assault occurred in schools throughout the state, including 592 in Minneapolis and 257 in St. Paul.

This year, multiple incidents have been highlighted in the news, especially those involving violence against teachers and officials: In March, a St. Paul Como Park teacher was seriously injured by two students who tried to disrupt his classroom, police say. In January, a 14-year-old boy was arrested in connection with the assault of a teacher at the alternative high school Minneapolis Harrison Education Center, which came a month after a 17-year-old student was arrested in connection with the assault of the school principal, who suffered a concussion, according to reports. And in December, a St. Paul Central teacher was slammed, choked and punched, according to police, by a 16-year-old student while trying to break up a fight.

(The teacher is suing the school district for negligence, according to reports.)

The list goes on.

Jason Matlock is the director of operational and security services for the Minneapolis Public Schools district and is responsible for emergency and security planning and critical incident response. Matlock believes the root causes of fights are the same as when he went to school—two students like the same person, differences in opinion, issues at home—but that technology is making it harder to get away from these situations.

“Social media—Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter—you’re talking about the ability to continue that stressor across time,” Matlock said. “Bullying no longer just happens when you go to school.”

Koua Yang, a teacher and coach at St. Paul Harding for 16 years, said he believes discussions around diversity are causing some teachers and officials to become too “soft” on students.

“We want to make sure that we understand where they’re coming from. We can’t just say everybody should be treated the same,” Yang said. “But at the same time, students shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever they want—come to school, come to class whenever they want … I would say about 5 percent of the population’s doing that.

“… We’ve been so loose now, the kids have kind of taken advantage of it.”

However, North St. Paul High School junior Coralie Maldonado feels her school environment has become anything but “loose.”

“I feel like it’s more suffocating, it’s become more of a prison,” she said. “… It’s just become a really stressful environment that no student wants to learn in, or can learn in.”

But from Yang’s perspective, stricter policies are exactly what students need.

“Contrary to many people’s beliefs, kids who are in poverty, kids who don’t have support at home, they want structure,” Yang said. “They need accountability. They need those skills. So as a building, as a school district, we need to tighten up a little bit, we need to make them a little more accountable.”

Mending through relationships

What administration, teachers and students agree on is the importance of building relationships that help avoid school violence.

“(Teachers) need to learn all those social skills that come with (being a teacher), emotional as well, so you can build this relationship with students to the point that they come out as the best students ever, and they’re ready for the world,” Marquez said.

Ian Marquez
Ian Marquez, a senior at Central High School in St. Paul (Photo by Danielle Wong/ThreeSixty Journalism)

While Matlock agrees that relationship-building is at the center of alleviating situations, he said that not all teachers are able to connect with every one of their students.

“Teachers have a very hard job,” Matlock said. “There’s no conceivable way that one human being can make 150 authentic connections in a 50-minute time frame each. It’s just not possible. What we’ve really been talking about wanting to do more is bringing the community in to make sure that they’re helping us fill that gap.”

For Yang, leveraging his relationship with students is an important aspect of maintaining structure in his classroom, he said.

He also emphasized that school violence isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

“Our building in general and a lot of schools have been misrepresented,” Yang said. “We love our kids. We really do the best we (can). If you talk to any of the kids who are in our classes, they would say the same thing.”

And that’s something Marquez can agree with.

“Every school is going to come with (its) set of fights and (its) set of troubles,” he said, “but that’s just a part of being a kid. It’s just part of this high school journey.”