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Schenectady teachers, students call for focus on safety

Schenectady teachers, students call for focus on safety

'I think things have improved, but they’re not where we want them'
Schenectady teachers, students call for focus on safety
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

When a fight broke out between students in the hall outside Michael Silvestri’s classroom at Schenectady High School two Fridays ago, he stepped in to help break it up. Then, a student pulled a box cutter from his pocket.

“We don’t know [how to handle fights]; we aren’t trained in this. We are educators,” Silvestri said during a school board meeting last week. “I know I hear more and more teachers concerned about safety.”

Silvestri, who also serves as vice president of the Schenectady Teachers Union, told the school board he didn’t intend to make an issue of a single fight, but he wanted them to focus attention on safety and the overall climate inside the district’s schools.

He called on the board and administrators to take up a “more public and direct problem-solving process” to address concerns over student behavior – something on par with how district leaders approached a major redistricting effort or a series of recent capital projects, Silvestri said.

“The safety of your students and your employees deserve the same level of attention,” Silvestri said.

He suggested an outside consultant be brought in to observe schools and that district officials establish committees or workgroups to explore how to improve safety.

District spokeswoman Karen Corona said two students were fighting in the hall March 23 when school staff intervened. One student continued resisting, pulling a box cutter from his pocket. Corona said the student did not threaten or attack anyone with the blade, but police were called after the fight was broken up.

Silvestri and union president Juliet Benaquisto said after the Wednesday board meeting that teachers across the district share similar concerns about safety and behavior. They said most teachers aren’t trained or given basic guidance on how to respond to fights or other potentially violent student outbursts, and that they advise teachers to not step in to break up fights. Last school year, dozens of teachers described similar issues at schools throughout the district.

Students in recent months and weeks have also raised concerns about safety and disruptive student behavior.

In a letter to The Daily Gazette, high school senior Elizabeth Canavan wrote that fights are regular – if not daily – occurrences at the school. Students roam the hallways playing music and play fighting, and teachers feel a need to lock classroom doors. She recently addressed the school board, calling for an increase in school security staff and the addition of metal detectors on school grounds.

“If adults are not safe in the building, how can students possibly feel and be safe at [Schenectady High School]?” Canavan wrote in the letter, referencing injuries she said a school administrator suffered after intervening in a student fight in January.

As they’ve organized walkouts and tried to call attention to gun violence, Schenectady High School students have also pointed to classroom windows they feel are insufficiently protective. Students have also offered differing views on safety, with some drawing a red line against the use of armed guards or police in schools.

The day before the March 23 fight at the high school, Schenectady police were called to Steinmetz school to respond to a fight there. A Steinmetz student had opened a door to let in non-students, who joined the fight.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Board President John Foley said safety has always been a top priority.

“I think the safety issue has been in front of us the entire time I’ve been on the board,” Foley said. “I think there has been a constant effort to improve things. I think things have improved, but they’re not where we want them.”

Board member Dharam Hitlall said he wanted to again discuss whether it was appropriate to employ metal detectors at schools. Board member Bernice Rivera has requested district officials make a presentation on efforts to strengthen school safety.

“No one should be working in an environment where people feel unsafe, whether it’s students or staff,” she said at Wednesday’s meeting.

High school and district officials point to data showing that the number of physical altercations and the most serious code of conduct infractions have fallen off in recent years as evidence that their efforts are paying off. The high school in recent years has focused on programs that seek to treat behavioral issues and student conflicts in ways that are constructive, rather than punitive.

From September through February this school year, the high school counted fewer than 75 physical altercations, the lowest in at least four years. During the same time period of the 2014-15 school year, the high school counted nearly 125 physical altercations among students.

The high school has also reported a major drop in the number of the most serious student violations of the code of conduct – infractions that include using physical force against another person, engaging in threatening behavior toward others, distributing drugs and the use or sale of weapons. From September to February, the school registered around 125 of those infractions, down from nearly 250 in the same period of the previous school year.

“We know there are still some things that can happen; even if they are happening less frequently, happening once is too many times,” Superintendent Larry Spring said during Wednesday’s board meeting.

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