Increase in violence, disruption at Rochester middle schools prompt administrators to release response plan
“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,” read a letter from the Rochester Education Association at Willow Creek Middle School.
Violence and other forms of inappropriate behavior have become an increasingly common struggle for Rochester school officials, as well as for exasperated and concerned parents.
The Rochester School Board discussed the issue at its Tuesday night meeting, during which Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel outlined a response plan.
Several officials, including Pekel, have characterized the situation as students having to relearn how to behave in a school setting.
On Monday, an ambulance was called to John Adams Middle School after a fight resulted in a “medical situation,” prompting students to be held in their classrooms for 30 minutes. The district would not release any information about the nature of the incident.
During the public comment section of Tuesday's meeting, a parent, Julie Mayer, described the situation at John Adams.
"The schoolyard is completely taken over with violence," she said. "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."
Mayer went on to describe a seventh-grader who stood up for himself after having items thrown at him. She said the other student "picked him up, slammed him on his head three times until he went unconscious and began to have seizures."
"And we get an email saying there was a minor schedule adjustment in our child's school day," she said.
Prior to the ambulance being called to John Adams, a letter from a building-level representative of the Rochester Education Association invited both the Rochester School Board and Pekel to Willow Creek Middle School to witness similar issues.
“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. 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,” the letter reads. “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.”
The letter, which was forwarded to the Post Bulletin, also describes vandalism in the bathrooms, two assaults on staff members, fights among students, and students “randomly entering classrooms and displaying intimidating and bullying behaviors.”
“Many of us lock our doors during class to minimize the sudden interruption from students that are not attending class,” the letter states.
Despite the statement in the letter, both Willow Creek Principal Andrew Kappel and Rochester Police Department Capt. Jeff Stilwell said there have not been any official reports of assaults or violence against staff members.
Pekel referenced the alleged assaults in a memo to the School Board, a draft of which he provided to the Post Bulletin ahead of Tuesday's board meeting.
“While we have not received a formal report from a staff member that they have been physically assaulted by a student, there has been a physical aspect to some of the episodes of defiance that suggests that we need to take proactive steps to ensure that does not occur,” he wrote.
According to Pekel’s memo, administration has laid out several steps, including “The Perspectives Project,” in which staff will create focus groups and speak with students who have been exhibiting problematic behavior.
The district will also use some of its COVID-19-relief funding to hire more equity specialists. Pekel said part of equity specialists’ work is student engagement, which can be both proactive and reactive. The equity specialists also work with the rest of the staff to ensure the “kids that need the most support are getting the support.”
The administration’s plan includes approaches for students receiving special services, as well as other efforts that will be implemented.
Although the need to address students' academic progress is not officially part of the response plan, Pekel said that is a necessary component.
“If those kids don’t have the level of knowledge and skill they need to understand the content that’s happening in their classes, none of the stuff that we’re going to do around behavior is going to work,” he said. “To tell a kid who can’t understand anything that’s happening in class to go to class is almost cruel and unusual punishment."
"That doesn’t mean they get to roam the halls and be disruptive,” he added.
Pekel said the School District will make it clear that suspension is on the table if other interventions fail.
“Defiance of adult direction is a suspendable offense,” he said. “It’s a suspendable offense following dialogue with the kid and outreach to the parent. But this is not a (case where they can) just keep walking the halls with no consequence.”