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Learning from students: Rochester Public Schools looks to the youth for a new approach in reducing violence

"This is the moment, right here," said Will Ruffin II, RPS director of diversity, equity and inclusion. "How we respond will let us know who we are as a district."

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Sara-Louise Henry, an equity coordinator with Rochester Public Schools, speaks about the Perspectives Project at a study session on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in Rochester.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — At the conclusion of a new strategy session, the leaders of Rochester Public Schools sat down and tried to learn from the students. It was all about getting a new perspective.

The School Board on Tuesday gathered to discuss the results of the initiative that has been dubbed the Perspectives Project. The school district began the project this year as a way to confront the issues of student disruption and violence manifesting throughout its secondary schools.

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It included hosting small group sessions with students cited for their negative behavior. The idea of the project was to get ahead of some of the issues rather than dealing with them in a reactive manner.

"How are we going to respond to the needs of our students?" said Will Ruffin II, director of diversity, equity and inclusion. "This is the moment, right here. How we respond will let us know who we are as a district. Are we going to be the district that people run to because we are the provider of choice? Or, are we going to have the opposite effect?"

The school board reviewed some of the themes from the discussions with the students. The school district worked with Wilder Research to help anonymize the students' responses into themes.

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Although most of the discussion focused on the results of the project, the board members briefly discussed the need to create actionable steps based on the data.

According to Ruffin, the project included interviewing approximately 100 students in various groups. The project also included getting the perspective of staff members. Ruffin said there were about 70 staff members who participated.

Some of the student responses referenced issues the district was already aware of: the need for more mental health services, the problem of feeling disconnected, and the issue of not feeling academically prepared for the content in the classroom.

"Our kids have spoken; they're waiting on us to respond," Ruffin said. "It's time for us to open our arms, hug our kids, love on our kids, show them they belong here with us, and do what needs to be done for their safety. I believe once we do that, they will go to class. They will be more engaged. But it starts with us."

Although the students pinpointed some of the problems driving the disruptive behavior, they may not have easy solutions.

One of the teachers who participated in the Perspectives Project highlighted the difficulty of reaching students who need extra support.

"The right answer is you want to get to the why, but I'm a quarterly teacher," said a staff member anonymously quoted in the report. "I have 165 kids a quarter. I got a class of 32 and seven that need me to have that conversation with them, and it's hard to make the time and find the time. I value that relationship investment, you want to have those positive communications ... but it is getting harder and harder."

Nonetheless, several school board members and administrators highlighted the importance of the effort during Tuesday's meeting.

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School board member Jess Garcia, who's also a professional mental health worker, emphasized the importance of addressing student behavior by referencing recent school shootings.

Garcia indicated that increasing a sense of belonging and validation helps prevent students from searching for them in the the wrong places.

"When these kids are bringing up these things, rather than a punative response, we need to be caring. We need to help them understand that when you come to us with this information, we're going to do something about it," Garcia said. "One hundred percent of behavior is communication. They may not know what they're trying to communicate, but they're trying to say something."


What happened: The Rochester School Board reviewed the results of the Perspectives Project, an initiative aimed at reducing issues of student misbehavior.

Why does this matter: Student disruption and violence was a frequent topic throughout the school year as students returned to traditional classrooms after a period of distance learning.

What's next: The School Board plans to make actionable steps based on the information it gleaned from the project.


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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