Not ready to learn

District 186 teachers cite increase in violence and threats from students

“I've been hit, struck, kicked, spit on and scratched,” Brian Daugherty said as he explained the challenges he and other teachers face at Grant Middle School.

In response to what they perceive as escalating violence, Daugherty, a music teacher, and more than 30 other teachers and staff refused to go to work May 10. The walk-out happened despite a last-minute, in-person plea from Superintendent Jennifer Gill for the educators at the west-side school to stay on the job.

“The most fundamental need in order to learn is to feel safe,” Daugherty said. “And if we have people in the school – teachers and students or staff – that don't feel safe, then they're operating in fright – chaos. When there's chaos, no one benefits, especially the kids. Ninety percent of kids are ready to learn, and we have 10% that I feel aren't ready to learn. They are messing it up for the rest,” he said.

click to enlarge Not ready to learn
Faith Coalition for the Common Good and the Springfield Education Association held a prayer walk and focus group, “Community Safety: Together We Can Transform Our Community,” on Saturday, May 11, at a church near Southeast High School.

A few students ruining things for everyone is hardly a new lament among educators. But Daugherty and his colleagues say what they are dealing with is far different than what teachers faced in yesteryears. According to Daugherty, threats today are specific and the violence is calculated.

As an example, Daugherty shared a copy of an email that was recently sent to one of his female colleagues from a student’s account. The student was unhappy with a grade he had received.

The email read: “I'm not gonna get mad but change my grade now. Or I will come in and kill you. I know where you live, ho. And I'm not playing. OK? Matter of fact, I'm gonna rape you. I'm gonna eat your ass. And I'm gonna have my brother put his dick inside you, ho.”

The student believed to have emailed this note to his instructor faced no consequences, said Aaron Graves, president of the Springfield Education Association, the labor organization representing teachers. He added that these types of threats have become increasingly common.

Teachers at Grant say they are fearful when they walk hallways filled with students.

“The problem is, I have to be on high alert all the time. When I see four or five kids get together in the hallway, we all tense up immediately, said Heather Archey, a Grant English teacher. “It's almost like we play zone defense.  Who's going to move forward to pull the crowd away (if there is a fight)? It's almost like a battle strategy. That's exhausting. I didn't sign up for that. I signed up to come in and teach children and nurture children and give them a foundation.”

Larresa Kleinertz, a Grant history teacher, said her ankle was injured during one hallway melee.

click to enlarge Not ready to learn
District 186 staff, administrators and community members walked through the neighborhood near Southeast High School as part of a prayer walk and focus group held May 11 to address concerns about violence in schools.

“I was trying to break up a fight that was going to happen. They were exchanging words and getting closer and closer. I was trying to get them away from each other and talk to them,” Kleinhertz said. “And the next thing I know, I was surrounded by a group of more than 50 students, and I was right there in the middle of them fighting. I was getting stepped on, trampled. It was ridiculous. … This is in the building outside of my classroom,” she said. 

Teachers respond to threats and acts of violence by sending the offending students to the principal’s office.

“More often than not, he is back in the classroom 20 minutes later,” Archey said of misbehaving students. She said it’s not that the building administrators don’t want to do anything, it is that there are few alternatives available to them.

“The discipline structure and the consequences that are in place are no longer adequate,” Archey said. “At one point in time, they worked, and that was enough to deter student behavior.  Right now, it is not working. We have students who violently assault other students or have attacked a teacher.

“We're talking (about a) teacher punched in the face repeatedly, and the student is off for 10 days,” Archey said. “Then they come back into the school because we're told that the alternative location is full, and we're told that they have no other option. (When) students come back in, they're bold.  It's a 10-day vacation and they are back.”

Superintendent Gill acknowledged in an interview with Illinois Times that Douglas Prep Academy, the alternative school for junior high students, is at capacity. The Springfield Learning Academy at White Oaks Mall for high school students is also at capacity.

“We can't just kick kids out to the street either, because then they're out in the streets,” Gill said. “And that's not something that our community needs or wants. So, we're going to have to be creative and really think with our community partners about how we can educate kids in an alternative setting for even the shortest amount of time, if they're going to act like that during the school day.”

One option Springfield Public Schools may consider is rehabilitating the building on East Laurel Avenue that once housed the Lawrence Education Center and making it a learning venue for recalcitrant youths.

“Our old Lawrence building is getting renovated right now – just some health and safety touch-ups, a heavy paint job and repairing some things,” said Gill. “That building's pretty old. It's got some old bones and needs some updates. … When we can expand (alternative programs), we may want to look at how we can utilize that space differently.”

However, Gill said she does not believe Grant Middle School is any more violent than it has been in previous years.

“I don't think it's just fights,” she said. “I think sometimes it's the verbal threats and just the language that's being utilized. But it's a small number of students out of that total population.”

School board member Erica Austin said one reason for the vociferous complaints of violence at Grant is that the school’s demographics are changing, and its white faculty members lack the “cultural competency” to deal with a student body that is increasingly Black.

“Grant has changed over the last couple of years. And so, you're seeing more Black and brown children at that school,” Austin said. “Washington and Jefferson (middle schools have) the bulk of the (minority) students, and they understood and knew how to deal with those students,” she said. “I just think that Grant doesn't have all the tools needed to understand and know how to work with those kind of kids.”

Graves, of the teachers’ union, called Austin’s statement “gaslighting at its worst.”

He added that both Black and white teachers are speaking out about the problem of violence in Springfield schools.

Graves added, “It’s happening at Lanphier (High School), Jefferson, Washington, Harvard Park Elementary School and Franklin Middle School. It’s not just happening at Grant.”

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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