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Schenectady parents voice concerns over school safety

Schenectady parents voice concerns over school safety

A tide of parent concerns about student safey and school disruptions has grown this fall and winter at Schenectady school board meetings
Schenectady parents voice concerns over school safety
Multiple parents addressed the Schenectady school board about concerns over student safety at its Dec. 18 meeting.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY -- When Teresa Garcia asked a Schenectady High School student to hand over a gun, she didn’t know it was an air pistol. She was scared for her safety and the safety of the school’s students, including her own children.

A paraprofessional at the high school and the parent of three Schenectady City School District students, including two at the high school, Garcia at a recent school board meeting described the nerves and anxiety she felt as she sought to disarm a student who flashed what to her looked like a firearm in his backpack.

“Honestly, when I was handed the gun I couldn’t tell the difference,” Garcia told the Schenectady school board in public comments at an emotional Dec. 18 meeting.

“My concern at that moment was to not let the student in the school,” Garcia continued, describing the incident she said happened earlier this school year. “The first thing that came to mind was my daughters are in this building. This happened on school property. That’s my incident. I hear that there are many more.”

She said she waited for police to come and ask for a statement, but they were never called. She said administrators did little to take down her testimony, ease her fears or assuage her concerns.

“All day I waited, nerves crazy. I just wanted to take my kids and go home,” she continued. “I’m here every day, I love my job, I love these kids and this building, but now I’m traumatized. I walk the halls and get a little nervous, just a little more. I’m just asking for something, anything.”

From the high school to the district’s middle schools and elementary schools, Schenectady parents this fall and winter have echoed those concerns about the safety of students and the district’s handling of sometimes serious student behavior. Schenectady parents in growing numbers have raised those concerns and fears at recent school board meetings, as what began as a smattering of concerned parents this fall erupted into a surge of parents at the last board meeting before the long winter break.

At that Dec. 18 meeting, a few days after video of a serious fight in a Schenectady High School hallway circulated on social media, the fears of a dozen or more parents spilled into public view.

Multiple parents said their kids come home and share accounts of fights at the high school and the district’s middle schools on a regular basis, citing videos their kids bring home on their phones, while some said their kids thought the high school was facing more disruptions than in recent years. The parents broadly urged the school board and district leaders to prioritize student safety above all other issues.

“We need to stop focusing on other issues right now, because this is the most serious issue,” Megan Linyear said at the meeting. “Where is law enforcement? Where is the staff? What are we doing to stop the violence in the schools? Because all I hear tonight are parents who are desperate for help, and we are looking to the board and superintendent to do something about it now.”

But the crowd of parents was not in agreement about how to best advance safe and stable learning environments. Some parents called for an alternative school – “for anyone who wants to disrupt education,” as one parent put it – and the imposition of metal detectors and school-based police officers at the high school. Other parents and a high school student who addressed the board at the meeting, however, outright rejected the idea that school resource officers and metal detectors would bring stability to the high school.

“If we tell our children they are criminals when they walk through the door, why would we expect them to act any differently?” said Jamaica Miles, a Schenectady parent and activist on state policy issues. “If you tell our children day in and day out that it is dangerous here [at school], then they are going to show up for danger. If you teach our children that they are valued and that they are people, they are human beings and we love them, they will show up to be loved.”

After returning from the two-week holiday break, schools Superintendent Larry Spring said he and other district officials planned to invite the parents who have raised concerns at public meetings to join school committees focused on addressing the issues they have raised. 

"Folks who have said we have a problem, we are reaching out to give them a seat at the table for planning solutions to that," Spring said Wednesday, following the district's most recent school board meeting. "You don't solve problems for people; you solve problems with people."

Spring said it was also important to include people who suggested ideas like sending disruptive students to a different school to help them understand why that is not an option district leaders think will work. 

"We want to have them at the table, because the way we change that perception is through discourse," Spring said. "We want them to really understand what they are saying when they say send those kids away."  

Not just a kid fight’

Theresa Doty, the parent of a Schenectady high school student and Mont Pleasant Middle School student, at the Nov. 20 school board meeting shared her frustration over how the district handled an assault by another student against her son.

Doty, who further detailed her concerns with the district in an interview with The Gazette over the holiday break, said her eighth-grade son was assaulted by a fellow middle school student in November. The student attacked her son from behind and repeatedly hit him in the head, Doty said.

“What I’ve heard is students had to try and get him off of me,” Doty’s son said, recalling the assault. “I had my eyes closed.”

Doty got a call shortly after the incident and rushed to the school, calling the police on her way and wondering whether her son would need to go to the hospital. She said she has subsequently talked with people from the juvenile justice system who have told her the other child was charged with assault.

“I’m driving, I’m terrified, I had all kinds of thoughts going through my head, so I called the police,” Doty said.

Her son was left with scrapes, bruises and a partly swollen face, and she took him to his pediatrician the day of the assault to ensure he didn’t get a concussion.

“This was not just a kid fight, just a schoolyard fight,” Doty said. “He really beat him.”

Doty’s son returned to school, but she still feels that she hasn’t received an answer to her overriding question for school and district leaders: How will you ensure this doesn’t happen again? She said she hasn’t received answers to questions about how much security the building has on staff and when staff can and cannot intervene in a student altercation. (Doty claimed an assistant principal witnessed her son’s attack but couldn’t break it up because the administrator had previously been injured dealing with a student.)

Doty, who reiterated her concerns at the Dec. 18 board meeting, said she does not have confidence that the district can ensure the safety of her son, and said they are exploring other options for him to spend his high school years.

“They don’t have a plan to stop this or prevent it,” she said. “I want them to say this is what the plan is going to be if this happens again.”

The stories stretch to the elementary level as well.

Rachel Bradt, who has not made public comments to the board, said her son was cornered in a bathroom at Paige Elementary earlier this year by two other students who threatened to pee on her son. Her son pushed his way out of the bathroom and reported the incident to an adult. When Bradt received a call from the school’s assistant principal, she told him that she trusted they would handle the situation and “make sure there are extreme consequences.”

But the following day, she said, one of the students who had cornered her son in the bathroom approached her son while he was sitting in class and threatened him. The student made his way through a closet that connected his class to her son’s class. Soon after that, Bradt continued, that same student again threatened her son in the school’s cafeteria.

“My question to the principal was why does he have access to my son,” she said. "The school is failing him by not guarding him appropriately.”

Shortly after the incidents involving her son, Bradt went to a panel discussion about the district’s efforts to create “trauma-informed” schools and practices. During the event, Bradt said, Spring discussed new positions the district has established in recent years such as a psychiatric nurse practitioner who deals with some of the district’s most serious student mental health needs.

Bradt, though, said she thinks there are not enough “boots on the ground” at each school working directly with students to ensure that disruptions aren’t getting in the way of education and that students who should be kept apart from one another – like her son and the students who threatened him – are kept, in fact, kept apart.

“Why are we funding specialized positions when we don’t have enough hands at the very basic level of support?” Bradt said.

Mixed signs in the data

A look at Schenectady’s disciplinary data shows a mixed picture: The overall number of code-of-conduct infractions and students involved in such incidents has declined in recent years, but the most serious incidents at the high school reached at least a four-year high in the first quarter of the year.

Moreover, multiple educators within the district, along with students and parents, have said many violations of the student code of conduct – such as unexcused absences from class and disruptive behavior in the halls – are not enforced as actual code-of-conduct infractions.

A plan to “reboot” expectations around attendance at the high school starting when kids returned to school last week detailed procedures teachers should take in monitoring student absences and tardiness, and ensuring students with multiple absences received conduct referrals. Before the reboot, those absences, which like the disciplinary data reached at least a four-year high in the first quarter of the year, could have been considered violations of the code of conduct.

But district officials insist the district’s buildings have grown increasingly stable in recent years, referring to earlier years when police were needed to contain large groups of unruly students and highlighting various positive indicators of student behavior. The district has also established initiatives to respond to student behavior with so-called “restorative practices” that aim to handle incidents with constructive rather than punitive measures. And a new diversion program allows students to opt for therapeutic treatments for anger management and other challenges in lieu of an extended suspension.

Being their voice’

The stories parents have shared publicly in recent months have brought to light accounts of serious bullying and student violence. Parents have called for more transparency from the district when a violent incident occurs or a weapon is found; parents said they don’t want to find out about stuff like that on social media.

But among the parents who have addressed the board, there appear to be deep divisions over how best to ensure student safety while also ensuring students feel they go to school in a comforting and supportive environment.

Miles, who as a parent is suing the state over claims Schenectady receives inadequate state funding to provide students in the district a “sound, basic education,” at the Dec. 18 board meeting pushed back against the safety concerns voiced by parents. She argued that perpetuating a narrative that Schenectady’s schools are unsafe can itself cause harm to students. She said the broader issues at play are the ways that black and brown students have long been harmed by disproportionate disciplinary actions, and a mentality that they cannot succeed like other students.

“We fail our students, all students, when we don’t address systemic and institutional racism,” Miles said at the December meeting. “We help our students, our children, when all of us are seen, heard, supported and represented together.”

She urged the board to remain steadfast in its initiatives and policies aimed at minimizing academic disparities along racial lines, and focused on addressing student behavior with supportive and constructive measures.

She called on the board to reject what she said was the “fear mongering” of some parents present.

“Do not be swayed by the fear that is being perpetuated. Keep making positive changes. Support the teachers, administrators and staff inside of this district doing important work,” Miles said.

The parents largely agreed that they shared as much responsibility in working toward solutions as school board members and district leaders.

“I keep hearing how you are asking for help from the board, but at the same time we have to help the board, we have to help the district,” Tabitha Lawrence said at the December board meeting. “I’m just gonna say it how it is: What do they [school board members] really know about how to deal with what’s best for our kids, you understand, if we are not there being their voice?”

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