How safe are our public schools?

Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 8:00pm
Ralph Thompson, assistant superintendent of student services for Metro schools

One Friday afternoon just two weeks into this school year, a Whites Creek High School assistant principal walked into a bathroom to find a 15-year-old junior stashing an unloaded .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol into his book bag. He said he took the gun from home.

On Friday, Sept. 24, just before losing 38-0 to Hendersonville High School, 11 Hunters Lane High School football players were accused of smoking pot. Ten of the students were initially expelled, though two of those expulsions were later dropped, and seven are appealing.

In a separate incident at Hunters Lane on Oct. 7, police charged 12 students — ranging in age from 14 to 18 — with disorderly conduct after a fight on campus. School officials later downplayed the incident as a verbal argument (no punches thrown) between two students that led others to join in. The incident turned out to be gang-related.

On Oct. 14, school resource officers at Maplewood High School arrested a 14-year-old ninth-grader after a school employee tipped them off to .25-caliber semi-automatic later found in the freshman’s backpack, along with a magazine holding five rounds of ammunition.

That same Thursday afternoon, school officers responded to Hillsboro High School, where a 15-year-old freshman girl had run through a school hallway dispensing pepper spray and carrying what police described as a paring knife. The girl bumped into an officer as she returned inside from a courtyard; that led to a brief struggle before the officer could disarm her.

Another .380-caliber semi-automatic handgun — this one loaded with five rounds in the clip — turned up at Whites Creek on Oct. 25. A student’s tip alerted school resource officers to the gun found in the suspect student’s locker.

Guns, drugs and violence have had a more prominent presence, and earlier, in this school year than in the recent past. At least one parent of a student at a public high school has moved the kid to a private school because of the general threat posed. Police and school administrators aren’t exactly sure why this year is worse than the last two, but they’re searching for ways to combat what appears, by any standard, to be a particularly ugly start to the school year.

Last week, Ralph Thompson, in his fifth year as assistant superintendent of student services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, sat in one of six chairs around the table in the small conference room just outside his office in the Metro Nashville Public Schools central office on Bransford Avenue.

Over the next hour, as Thompson answered questions about specific incidents that have already made headlines (and one that didn’t), he pushed a philosophical — if saccharine — sentiment: It takes a village to raise a child.

Or, in this case, it takes a school district.

Gun problems

Since August, three guns have turned up at Metro public schools.

During all of last year, officials discovered six guns on public school grounds; by the end of October 2009, though, only one had been found. In the 2008-09 year, through October, two guns had been found. By the end of that school year, officials had rounded up 11.

To Kenneth Pence, a former Metro police officer who helped develop programs aimed at reducing youth violence, anything less than the 40 guns he recalls were found in schools during a year in the mid-1990s — when he was still on the force — is an improvement.

It was awful before, Pence said, but the introduction of officers in schools, the D.A.R.E. program, the state’s zero-tolerance law and other such measures have significantly reduced the number of weapons in schools.

“When you consider what it was, they’ve really kept the numbers low,” said Pence, who now teaches engineering management at Vanderbilt University.

Still, school officials are concerned about the number of guns discovered so far this year.

“One gun, in my opinion, is too many,” Thompson said. “We are very concerned, always concerned, when there are any weapons found of any nature.”

Generally, Thompson said the once-and-still-ailing district, under the direction of Superintendent Jesse Register, is headed in the right direction. He cited a 10 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions and a 19 percent reduction in truancy last school year.

But the rocky start this year has sparked discussions at the central office. One idea is to beef up the number of searches of school grounds. Another is a different approach to school security work, which the district has already started. School security officers are working more directly with students — and parents, teachers and principals — to, the hope is, create an environment where officers receive tips on things like gun possession, rather than the old-school search-and-discover way of operating.

Thompson said it’s working: Staff and other students reported all three guns found at schools this year, and it hasn’t happened that way before.

Yet one concern coming from the Metro Nashville Educators Association, according to president Erick Huth, is a lack of support in student discipline from school administrators. Thompson said they’ve heard the criticism.

“We’ve been in conversations about that,” Thompson said. “It is the responsibility of the entire school district to ensure the safety and academic progress of children. It is better for us to join hands than to point fingers.”

The district looks into specific cases when needed, Thompson said, to analyze how an administrator responded to a situation and what should have been done differently.

“I cannot sit here and say it’s a teacher’s fault. I can’t sit here and say it’s a principal’s fault,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, I think that we’ve all dropped the ball — the central office even — from time to time. And so what we need to do better is work together and realize that it is the responsibility of everyone.”

Empowering teachers

When it comes to principals’ involvement in discipline, or “positive reinforcement” as it’s known at principal Aimee Wyatt’s Antioch High School, the key is to know when to step in, she said.

“We know — [speaking] as a parent — children push us to our limit. They’re going to try us at every turn,” Wyatt said.

“What I try to remind teachers is that’s their classroom, that’s their realm, they are in charge.”

Principals should respond to serious situations, such as fights, to support their teachers, she said. But sweeping in at every incidence of bad behavior undermines teachers’ authority in the eyes of students.

“You have to allow the teacher to be in control,” Wyatt said. “It’s not about not supporting the teacher but, in fact, being very supportive of the teacher and not taking their power away from them.”

Donald Brian Wood’s power as a teacher left him, at least temporarily, on Oct. 8. Raw cell phone video captured by McGavock High School students showed the 11th-grade algebra teacher reach the end of his rope as students — juveniles — laughed and mocked him.

In the video, Wood tells the kids they can shut their mouths and listen “ ’cause I have the— ”

“Power,” a kid shouts from off camera.

“I’ve got it,” Wood said, “and I know it.”

The end result was Wood’s nervous breakdown: He threw a chair, trashcan and other items as students fled into the hallway. An ambulance later took him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for a psychiatric evaluation.

Wood’s boiling point opened some eyes at the central office to the weight riding on educators’ shoulders, not only to reach this benchmark or that higher standard, but to keep order of the oft-riled bunches. Those expectations, Thompson said, entangle with a drive-through society composed of young people who want everything now and will not be bothered to look up from their portable cellular devices.

“We cannot approach education, including safety and the whole bit, today like we did a few years ago,” Thompson acknowledged.

Society has attention deficit disorder, and educators are scrambling to keep up.

Truancy still a problem

Simply keeping kids in school has a lot to do with the general safety of an institution.

Following the reported gun incidents, The City Paper received a tip from a Metro schools employee who asked not to be identified, saying someone who wasn’t a student came onto school grounds on Oct. 7 and stabbed (or as the Metro schools’ communications office dubiously decried, “punctured”) a Stratford High School student.

Not surprisingly, no mention of the incident came from the Metro Nashville Police Department or Metro schools. But as of early last week, the police investigation remained open, and what could be the most serious incident at schools so far this year is still a mystery.

The stabbing occurred after a 17-year-old Stratford student cut class. He returned to school with another 17-year-old, and as the pair parted ways, standing on the edge of school property, the boy jabbed what Metro police later identified as a box cutter into the student’s side.

“All we have to date is the two were talking,” Thompson said. “As one left the other, the alleged perpetrator, who was a non-student, actually said to the other student, ‘I’ll see you later’ and just reached out and” — Thompson motioned with his fist wrapped around an imaginary sharp object — “in the side area. The student just felt a little something, went in the building and then noticed he was bleeding.”

A teacher found the victim bleeding in a bathroom. But the student offered few details to authorities, saying he’d only gone outside to smoke a cigarette, and that he “can’t believe my boy did this to me.” Student resource officers called for an ambulance, which transported the boy to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where he was treated and later released. The resulting investigation partially identified a suspect but has stalled because the victim is refusing to cooperate.

“Once again, the school [or] district did not invite that child to go off of campus,” Thompson said. “We need community … and parental … support.”

Metro police have their own gripes about truancy issues, particularly in the South and Hermitage precincts, where detectives have been busy trying to track down home burglary suspects whom they believe are students cutting class to catch a haul and returning unnoticed. At least one police commander at a recent weekly meeting wondered whether Metro teachers were taking roll call seriously or if students were too easily manipulating the process. With public school enrollment at approximately 78,000, keeping every child in school when they’re supposed to be is daunting.

“We do monitor. We can go right into a school or teacher’s classroom and monitor whether or not the roll was taken appropriately or not,” Thompson said, adding that his office works with principals to monitor attendance.

Since July, Thompson’s office has sent out some 3,000 letters to parents of students with truancy problems. School support teams meet with a student, a parent, teachers, a counselor and the principal to draw up an intervention or behavior plan for the troublesome student. Support teams have sat down in more than 900 homes, he said, to try to sort out problems that might lead to truancy.

Youth crimes are more severe

While searches and support groups serve as preemptive measures inside schools, principals and administrators are looking at the larger problem of youth violence, which isn’t limited to school: It’s in the neighborhoods, the streets … the community at-large.

This summer in Salemtown, a 14-year-old kid shot Vincent Lewis, also 14. And over the Labor Day weekend, 17-year-old Lamar Hughes was shot and killed on his family’s front porch in the Edgehill public housing complex.

The increase in juvenile crime and violence is not staggering based strictly on Metro police statistics. But young people are committing more severe crimes: Through September, police had charged five juveniles with homicide and 10 more with attempted homicide.

That has the Rev. Michael Joyner and others concerned. Joyner, a member of the Pastors’ Intervention Program, a group of pastors who work with police and respond to crimes involving youth to counsel the families of both victims and suspects, said kids are committing more serious adult crimes than in the past.

Bringing that element to schools increases the danger for students. Any issues or altercations that may flare up outside of school, even over a holiday, a weekend or a summer, can refresh when those involved run into each other at school.

“Basically, something will come to head at school because [the students] are all in one location,” Antioch High’s Wyatt said. “It doesn’t mean that started in school … it’s not necessarily the school’s fault. It’s a community responsibility.”

So, according to Wyatt, Metro educators are discussing how to raise the concerns about youth violence to the city at large.

“I do think the increase in the issues at some of those schools has brought an urgency about meeting on this topic,” Wyatt said.

Incidents such as the Hunters Lane pot circle draw pointed fingers at the school district. While incidents occur at schools, it’s not like Metro is providing students with weapons or drugs, or intentionally setting up an environment for violence to flourish. Part of it, as Wyatt said, is the nature of the beast.

“What occurred with those students on school grounds,” Thompson said, slowing for emphasis, “is not just a school problem.”

It’s a syrupy sentiment, to be sure. But Thompson didn’t back off the all-in-this-together-approach.

“It’s easier to point the finger,” Thompson said, “but it would be much better if we joined hands to work on it.”  

11 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 11/7/10 at 9:18

Considering what makes up the student bodies of public schools I hardly think that you could call public schools safe by the standards that warrant the status called "safe". I am referring to the Metro Nashville Public Schools.

By: wgmckelvey3 on 11/7/10 at 10:41

I think it is extremly hard for the MNPS system to make the schools "safe" or as safe as most parents, teachers and students want them to be. In my opinion, there is an element of students and parents that don't care what the rules are, know what the rules are or have any interest in learining what the rules are. When people don't care, it doesn't really make any dfference what the rules are or what the punish may be if the rules are broken.

The school system is overburdened with trying to be all things to all people and by trying to do this the system has maxed out in it's ability to be effective in accomplishing anything. People need to understand and accept the fact that not everyone will complete school, no matter how hard the system tries to make it happen. With that in mind, it's time to permently remove the trouble makers. Give the students who want to learn and progress the chance to thrive and survive. Too many resources are being expendened trying to make people who don't care, care.

By: Trumpetman on 11/8/10 at 10:40

I was just looking at the 1979-1980 McGavock High School year book and they had a news from the time section in it. There was an article in it that was very similar to this talking about how school violence was at an all tiime high for that time period. They realated the increase to children maturing earlier and doing more adult like crimes. It listed some of the offenses that had been occuring across the city and they are very similar to what this artical is stating. It compared how the schools were just as rough as some of the worst neighborhoods in Nashville. That was 31 years ago, nothing has changed, it probally just gets reported more and more people are willing to tell, vs. 31 years ago.

By: dmason48 on 11/8/10 at 1:12

My granddaughter attended the new Rockvale school for one semester at the time that it opened. She was in danger every day. She finally told us about it and we removed her from the school. The teachers watched as she was prevented from accessing her locker and many, many other things. Knives were common.
The teachers were obviously afraid of the students and would not say a word or lift a finger to stop bullying, physical altercations, etc.
One teacher spent the entire classtime on a computer and did no teaching.

By: on 11/8/10 at 2:25

The problem is that the Government, I mean Public, Schools are so terribly underfunded. We need to throw more money at the problem, then it will go away.

By: GUARDIAN on 11/8/10 at 4:02

GUARDIAN="The problem is that the Government, I mean Public, Schools are so terribly underfunded. We need to throw more money at the problem, then it will go away." Give us a break because this is a joke. Turn the schools back over to "The people", get rid of the gangs in and around Nashville ad bring GOD back to the schools. The federal government is a big part of the problem as well as the teacher's unions.

By: TeachTN on 11/9/10 at 1:19

Obviously something is awry with Nashville's education system because the responses themselves from "Guardian" and McKelvey 3 contain SPELLING ERRORS..

The teacher's association is not a "union"; every one gets the benefits: salary increases , working condition minimum standards : duty free 30 minute lunch, etc, wether they join withthe $$$ or not, they even call for representation when they have difficulty with principals, but won't spend the price of a daily cup of coffee ($2.00) to help increase staff members . . So many people freeload on the MNEA.

Secondly, kids from poorer neighborhoods often see more violence. They bring that violence to school. If we gave those children after school programs, and community centers (which were CUT during the Reagan and Bush-Cheney adminstrations) the kids may have a way better cope with the stresses of living in the inner city.

The guns don't show up as much in suburban schools, but the drugs and bullying do. THe kids are "quieter" with their criminal activity. Their parents threaten lawsuits if the rules are followed to the letter of the law. They easily get medical professionals to say that the child's misbehavior is the result of "depression, anxiety or something else."
Then no consequences are given. Let's channel some of our money back to the poor and working class commuities so that kids have healthy ways to spend their time. Let's TEACH the parents of wealthier kids letting those kids actually experience the consequences of their actions will save them lots of grief in the long-run. It will also make them better more compassionate, morally centered citizens.
Criminal behavior should be PUNISHED as criminal behavior wether one is rich, middle income or poor.

By: NewYorker1 on 11/9/10 at 11:23

Wow... I'm speechless. Thank GOD my dad is a doctor and could afford to send me to private schools. My heart goes out to the students that really want to learn and get an education.

By: NewYorker1 on 11/9/10 at 11:28

I'm glad I live in a gated community with security. When these kids are out of school and into the real world, their crimes are going to get worst. It's time to go to the firing range people.

By: Maynard Landsdowne on 11/10/10 at 11:26

This comment might make some people mad, but what if we got the blacks out of our schools? I wonder what the crime situation would be like then. Does anyone have race-based statistics for crimes committed by students in Nashville public schools? BTW I know the answer already, that's why my daughters are in private school.

By: courier37027 on 11/10/10 at 12:18

Where are our usual public school supporters' comments? We have seen them on these comments boards before, "I volunteer at (school name) school and make a difference. You would be amazed how well behaved these kids are." Our children...., it takes a village blather..., more money needed... .