WXXI Local Stories
9:18 am
Tue December 22, 2009

Students at Risk: Learning in Danger

Rochester, NY – Violence has long been a problem in Rochester city schools. A new push to reduce violent incidents came two years ago and early returns show some significant improvement.

Many Rochester children come from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Many of their homes are single-family homes and some of their parents are in jail. Nearly three-in-ten incoming kindergartners have experienced the death of someone close often due to violence. It is not the sort of environment where "turn the other cheek" or "just say no" messages resonate for very long.

Leaving that world behind for the classroom is a monumental challenge for a lot of city students. High school principal Pamela Rutland sees the tension every day. Students using hallways, like those at Wilson Magnet, not just to chat or grab books between classes, but make a statement, "If I'm a child and I have a problem with a peer that lives in my neighborhood or that goes to my community center..I'd much rather confront you in the hallway or at lunchtime in a school where there's eight school safety officers, eight admnistrators and 110 teachers who are going to intercede, intervene and try and stop it before it escalates."

Changing the way kids behave does more than promote safety it supports the district's primary objective. Public Safety Director Jim Sheppard says it's good for education, "One, I think in terms of a student feeling safe in school, means a students' going to come to school. And if a student is feeling safe in school, he's going to be able to focus on his academic work as opposed to worrying about a conflict that may catch up wtih him in the halls."

Tamara Jones is a senior at Wilson. In eighth or ninth grade, Jones started hanging around with the "tough girls" which she likens to a gang. When one of the girls got into a fight, everyone fought, "When some is...provoking you, or somebody says somethng to you that everybody else sees as disrespectful, then, either, one, you can walk away from the situation and say 'I'm a better person than you' but that also makes you look like a punk, basically, in school. So, either you're going to walk away and look like a punk or you're going to fight just to make yourself known as the baddest person or, you know, the strongest person, not weak."

A couple of years ago, there were 77-hundred violent and disruptive incidents reported in city schools. That includes things like assaults, robberies, and rape. But when Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard came on board, two years ago, he made safety a priority. And last year, the number of incidents started to drop a lot.

"I think he came in with a focus on safety," says Safety Director Sheppard. "I think he came in with some vision in terms of what he wanted the schools to be. I think he came in with the intenstinal fortitude to make those changes."

One of the first things the Brizard did was eliminate out-of-school suspensions; sending disruptive students home for a few days was no longer an option. That meant principals were much more likely to call the police during the school day. Arrests were more than double last year compared to the year before. At that point, Sheppard says new policies for intervention and discipline were adopted. The emphasis shifted to correcting behaviors without relying so heavily on punishment.

"I think an example would be two units that have a conflict, a longstandnig conflict, where everyday or once a week they're getting into a physical confrontation," says Sheppard. "In the past, the response was call the police; they go to jail, then they get longterm suspended--sent home. Now what you're seeing is that they're doing conflict resolution. They're using peer mediation to resolve the conflict, so it's not something that is ongoing."

The training of district staff also became a priority. Sheppard says staff can sometimes make things worse because of the way they respond. District personnel were taught how to engage students, when to leave them alone, and when to send them to guidance counselors.

Being safer often means making sacrifices. And students are learning that includes giving up some freedoms.

Sarah Delaus is a senior at Wilson Magnet Commencement Academy. She's also the student representative on the board of education. Delaus admits to feeling safer in school because of measures taken by administrators, "Implementing, like, x-ray scanners. I have to say I wasn't as fond of them being in the buildings and [I felt] what is this going to become? The airport...the strip-search kind of thing? But I have to say, it's very important that they're taking safety seriously because our young people are so important. We are tomorrow, and, quite frankly, if there's none of us then what will tomorrow have?"

Tamara Jones agrees that schools are a little safer, but she says that's because of the police presence. While the number of incidents is down, Jones points out there are a lot of things that administrators don't see, "It's a lot of stuff that they're missing until the actual fight occurs. So it might be a situation where these people are arguing, but they're not doing it to the point where authority figures have to come in and cease it, cease the situation."

Whatever success the district saw last year is only the beginning. As Public Safety Director Sheppard sees it, continued improvement largely means more of the same. Staff training will be an ongoing process. And Work must continue to change the existing culture that finds students reacting violently to slights. While improved graduation rates are the key, Sheppard says helping students react better to minor situations will help prepare them for life.