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'Has anyone asked the students?': RPS aims to get ahead of disruptive behavior that came in the wake of COVID

“I think by this time next year, we’ll be having a different conversation," Jeff Stilwell with the Rochester Police Department said about student violence. "We’ll be having a conversation about how we’ve started to come out of this and that we’ve put it behind us. I hope. I pray.”

Rochester Public Schools
Yaquelyn Motley and Rayshawn Motley on Friday, May 27, 2022, outside Mayo High School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Patricio Gargollo is a parent who’s very critical of the violence manifesting throughout the city’s public school system.

He isn’t just an armchair critic. His own child was assaulted in Willow Creek Middle School, he said, before the family switched schools altogether. He won’t send his other, younger, child to Willow Creek at all.

But, removing his children from the school doesn't mean he's removing himself from what he believes to be an important discussion.

“Schools where kids can’t go to the bathroom all day because they’re scared of getting ambushed have a high rate of kidney infections,” tweeted Gargollo, a physician by trade.

The issue of violence in the schools isn’t new for Rochester by any means, nor is Gargollo the first to bring attention to the issue. But, there’s substantial anecdotal evidence – and some data – suggesting in-school violence has become more severe this year in the wake of students returning to class from an extended period of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The solution is far less clear-cut. It’s a very visible problem for the district’s administration, which is already dealing with a full plate of high-priority issues.

But, this is also the first school year in a decade with a different administration at the helm. And with that comes a new initiative to address the problem. It still includes dealing with individual situations as they unravel. But, the district is also trying to get ahead of the problem before it continues to grow.

By the Numbers

Rochester Public Schools tracks data pertaining to student discipline, and the School Board reviewed it in May.

According to that data, referrals for misbehavior have actually decreased slightly, seemingly contradicting the narrative of many staff members throughout the schools.

For the three years prior to the pandemic, there were more than 3,000 incidents each year through April 1. During 2021-22 however, the number was only 2,869.

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Note: Students were in remote learning for most of the 2020-21 school year.
Contributed / Rochester Public Schools

Of course, that decrease in referrals is accompanied by a decrease, albeit a smaller decrease, in total student population in the district.

Superintendent Kent Pekel said there's a couple ways to explain to the discrepancy between what the numbers say and what he's hearing from staff members. One possibility is that although the number of incidents are roughly the same as pre-pandemic years, they're felt more deeply because of the stress associated with kids returning to school.

"We had a year with no discipline, so the felt experience of 'Oh my god, these kids are back,' was huge," Pekel said. "You compound it with kids being significantly academically behind and having increased mental health challenges and general anxiety. So, the bandwidth of teachers and administrators and others to deal with the level of disciplinary infractions (wasn't there)."

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District officials have said they plan to release building-specific data later this summer, showing how many incidents take place at any given school.

Willow Creek meeting

Willow Creek Middle School, located in southeast Rochester, has a reputation for some of the most disruption in the district. At the beginning of the school year, the Willow Creek representative for the Rochester Education Association wrote a letter to the district's administration, describing a hectic environment at the school.

“Students are running in the hallway, playing tag, and swearing at adults. Many students are having a difficult time taking responsibility for their own actions,” the letter said, in part. “Asking students to go to class becomes a battle that often ends with the student swearing and running off, while making sure the adult knows there is little that can be done. We have students and staff that are frightened and feeling overwhelmed. We are concerned about the mental and physical health of our staff, paras, and administrators.”

Although there's no easy fix, Pekel has held at least one meeting with a group of Willow Creek parents. Gargollo was among them.

“This was sort of a culmination of parents being completely fed up with the fact that our children are being literally terrorized by other students at Willow Creek — and how they’re scared,” Gargollo said about the meeting.

Rochester School Board
Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel listens during a school board meeting on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at the Edison Building in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

As critical as he is of the district, Gargollo said the meeting was the most receptive he’s seen RPS be to parental concern in his six years of experience.

Pekel said the meeting was a chance to bring everyone on the same page. There were teachers who didn’t know what the building leadership was doing for discipline. There were parents who weren’t necessarily aware of the district’s initiatives to curb the violence. In other words, the meeting, he said, was an opportunity for transparency.

Pekel clarified that Rochester isn’t the only school district dealing with an increase in school disruption.

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“We had a lot of kids who were basically last in elementary classrooms where they were self contained with the same teacher all day,” Pekel said. “They missed two years and suddenly they’re in secondary school, which is always a huge change. And that is proving in many districts to be a particularly challenging issue.”

With some parents pulling their students out of the schools because of the violence, the question remains whether that will hurt the district’s enrollment – which already took a significant hit as a result of the pandemic.

Pekel, however, said the schools haven’t seen that possibility pan out in the data.

Other Secondary Schools

Willow Creek is by no means the only school with issues. This past year, an ambulance was called to John Adams Middle School in response to a fight. Days later, a parent spoke about violence at the school with the Rochester School Board.

"The schoolyard is completely taken over with violence," the parent, Julie Mayer, said about John Adams. "Girls being dragged by their hair. Punched in the face. Kicked in the gut. Garbage cans are being thrown down the stairwell at children. We have videos of all of this ... these are 11-, 12- and 13-year-old children."

Nor is it just an issue at the middle schools. Yaquelyn Motley says she pulled her son out of Mayo High School because of the issues he was facing. Motley took to social media, describing how her son was assaulted by a “gang” of three students.

A video began circulating of her son being tackled to the ground and repeatedly punched as a crowd of teenagers stood nearby watching the confrontation at Bear Creek Park, just next to Mayo High School.

Motley said the school told her her son was being suspended in connection to the incident. A notice of suspension from the school, provided by Motley, indicates he was suspended for "a level II offense resulting in bodily or emotional harm."

“(He) went behind (the) football field and was jumped by three other students. (He) fought back against the boys in the group,” the notice of suspension reads.

Motley connected with the parents of the other students. But, she and her husband Rayshawn have taken issue with the school about the way its handled violence and bullying.

"My son has been getting bullied at school; the school has done nothing about it," Motley said. "My child was scared to even speak to anyone until one of the school staff saw that he had a bloody lip and a bloody nose and called me. ... My son has been tortured and tormented at Mayo High School to the point I had to put him in online schooling."

School Resource Officers

One of the tools the school district has is school resource officers. Although they've existed in Rochester’s schools for decades, their presence has become a complicated question in recent years.

Advocates say a permanent police presence can do more harm than good for the students they’re supposed to protect due to the trauma associated with instances like the murder of George Floyd. Maybe the money spent on SROs should go to other uses, like school counselors, they say.

The Rochester Police Department, however, has defended the presence of SROs as necessary. Capt. Jeff Stilwell said he encourages people to think of the alternative.

“Every one of these fights would be at minimum a two-officer response. The delay in response has a tendency to make things escalate. You would still have police responding to schools.” Stilwell said. “They wouldn’t know the history of the students involved. They wouldn’t know the relationships and what’s causing the conflicts. And really, they’d be reduced to one tool and that’s the traditional criminal justice system, which means arrest, ticket, go to court.”

Just because they stand by the need for SROs doesn't mean the police department isn't willing to change what that role looks like. In addition to the existing contract between the district and RPD, the two entities drafted a memorandum of understanding to better define the SROs' responsibility in the schools. The topic has garnered hours of discussion.

Since the MOU was drafted, the officers have started going into elementary schools more often to familiarize the students with the concept so they know what to expect in middle school. Stilwell said the department is putting a premium on building relationships and trust with the students.

He said the MOU helped fill in some of the gaps of the contract with the school district.

“We're looking at problems probably a lot more holistically than we did in the past,” Stilwell said. “I think by this time next year, we’ll be having a different conversation. ... We’ll be having a conversation about how we’ve started to come out of this and that we’ve put it behind us. I hope. I pray.”

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Rochester Police Capt. Jeff Stilwell. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

The Perspectives Project

The school system also is trying to become more proactive with the issue of student violence independent of the work of the school resource officers.

Pekel has made it clear that “tools” such as suspension are still being used when necessary. And the district is in the process of drafting a new contract with the police department to reflect its evolving relationship.

However, Pekel also has emphasized priorities like making sure students feel a sense of belonging, and making sure the content and coursework is engaging.

"Those are absolutely essential to get ahead of this issue. Enhancing belonging is going to be a major priority of our strategic plan," Pekel said. "One thing we've learned this year is we have to have our strategy completely together and in place before the first kid steps into school in the fall of 2022. If we don't start with great clarity about the positive stuff around belonging but also about the consequences of behavior, then we are going to be struggling to catch up."

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One of the initiatives the district began this year in an effort to curb the violence is “The Perspectives Project.” Will Ruffin II, RPS's director of diversity, equity and inclusion, is leading the effort and described it to the Rochester School Board in February. He said it includes hosting small group sessions with students who have been frequently reported for their disruptive behavior.

It began, Ruffin said, during a meeting when they were talking about how to address the issue, and someone offered up the idea:

"Has anyone asked the students?"

Like Pekel, Ruffin referred to the need to create a sense of belonging.

Both Pekel and Ruffin also have spoken about the need to create a more efficient system across the district. Instead of having a group of schools struggle with the same problems independently, they're trying to create a more collective effort — something that should benefit the district in more ways than just reducing violence.

“We’re trying to take the information that we’re learning from our students ... and then share the learning across the district,” Ruffin said during a presentation to the school board in February. “How can we get better? How can we positively respond to some of the behaviors that we’re seeing? Or how can we proactively get in front of some of these behaviors to create a more welcoming environment, or create a heightened sense of belonging so that some of those behaviors decrease in the first place?”

The district is hoping to extract information from the sessions. They will be recorded and sent to the organization Wilder Research, which the district is coordinating with. According to Ruffin, Wilder Research will pick out themes from the sessions, so that they can be compared across schools. Ruffin said having Wilder mine the audio for themes is also a way to reduce any form of bias against a particular group or school.

The project isn't just limited to students. It's also incorporating the perspectives of staff members as well.

While the work – the data gathering portion – of The Perspectives Project is done, the district is now finalizing the report that will be delivered later this summer.

Does he think the project was successful?

It was a success in the fact that students and staff were heard, Ruffin said. If they don't do anything with what they learned from the project, it will have been a failure, he added.

“If we can just slow down a little, and talk to people, and understand how different groups of people within our organization are experiencing the pandemic, then we can get ahead of it and prepare for the future,” Ruffin said. “And that goes way beyond discipline.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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