The problems at Mont Pleasant are partly due to the school having too many students, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
Students from Mont Pleasant and Oneida Middle School were merged into one building last year. There are more than 730 students there now, up from 550 two years ago.
Spring briefed the Board of Education on the situation at Wednesday’s board meeting. It highlights the need for several smaller middle schools, he said.
Residents will be asked to vote in January on a referendum to renovate Oneida as a middle school. It was closed at the end of the 2011-12 school year to save money, but when those children were moved to Mont Pleasant, problems began, Spring said.
Spring has increased staffing at the school now, and those administrators will remain until at least December, he said.
At that point, school officials will re-evaluate the school and determine what staffing is needed.
He has also called in experts to help him understand why groups of 100 students are flocking to street fights.
“Why is it these kids are congregating and enjoying something that seems a little out of the gladiator age?” he said. “Why would adults choose those activities themselves or encourage their children to choose those activities?”
He will meet with experts, parents and others at “a neutral site” to discuss the deeper issues.
He’s also holding one-on-one meetings with parents who “need a little assistance” in teaching their children to follow school rules. Some of those parents also may need to be persuaded that “these rules are a good idea,” he added.
But the district may not have the money to resolve one of the underlying issues: the fact that more than 730 students attend the school.
“It’s probably too big of a school,” Spring said. “We know last year we had some difficulties.”
Spring had hoped to avoid problems this year with better organization and teacher training. Teachers enforced the same rules with the same punishments, and at first it looked like it was working.
“In the month of September, we had a much-improved climate,” he said.
But police Chief Brian Kilcullen said police were called to the area “every day” since school began. Children organized fights after school that were attended by 100 or more students. At least two parents also got into a fight with each other.
Then children began misbehaving in school. Spring said it went far beyond back-talk.
“They’re going to walk down the hallway when they’re supposed to be in class and not stop when an adult says stop,” he said.
They told teachers, in essence, “If you’re going to stop me, it’s going to have to be physical,” Spring said.
Last week he suspended about 18 students, none of whom will be allowed back to Mont Pleasant. Spring said each student will need an individualized education plan, including mental health intervention.
Board President Cathy Lewis praised Spring and the school administrators for taking action immediately, “before this became so widely known.”
Board member Andrew Chestnut added that he’s pleased Spring wants to figure out the underlying problems.
“What I’m encouraged about is that we have somehow managed to resist the ‘hang ’em high’ strategy,” Chestnut said. “If we want behaviors to shift, it’s important we understand them.”
But he said the situation must be fixed.
“The creative energy around education can’t happen when people are afraid,” he said.
In other news, Spring announced that the district is nearly finished with a complaint against the state, which will be filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights.
“We’re filing a civil rights complaint against the state because we get $62 million less than the aid New York State’s own formula prescribes,” he said.
The paperwork is essentially complete, and soon Spring will look for residents to sign it as complainants. He wants to find parents with children who are not getting the services they need because the district can’t afford them. He also wants to find residents who are overburdened by school taxes.
In addition to needing more money for mental health services and reading programs, he said the district needs to reduce taxes.
The issue affects the city’s entire economy, he said, citing foreclosures and costs to businesses.
“It is not just a school issue,” he said.