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“My daughter doesn’t feel safe at times when she goes to school, and that is alarming to me as a parent,” Sara Ribnicky told Board of Education members at a meeting in November. 

Parents Caught in Fighting at Middletown Schools Ask School Officials for Help

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MIDDLETOWN — A small but active group of parents is pressing the Board of Education to take stronger action against fighting at the middle and high school, but local school officials say that the number of fights is no greater than in any other year. They acknowledge that fighting is a problem, but also voiced concerns that a disproportionate number of Black and brown students have been disciplined for incidents in the schools. 

Last year, Maria Amato’s niece was an honor student at Middletown High School. This year, Amato said, things have changed – her niece, a junior, has skipped over 60 classes and has been involved in fights at the high school.

Amato told CT Examiner that her niece, who she refers to as her older daughter, has been involved in three altercations this year. She said her niece received a five-day suspension after the first incident and a four-day, in-school suspension after the second. In the third case, which involved both her niece and her daughter, a freshman, she said her daughter was punched twice in the face. 

“My youngest is not a fighter. This was her first fight ever. My oldest has just become a fighter because she’s had to learn to defend herself at school,” said Amato. 

Amato is one of several parents to attend Board of Education meetings this fall and ask that school administrators do more to address the fighting at the middle school and the high school.

“My youngest is not a fighter. This was her first fight ever. My oldest has just become a fighter because she’s had to learn to defend herself at school,” said Amato. 

Student fights in the Middletown public schools have been widely publicized through videos shared on social media. In September, two Republican candidates for Board of Education posted videos on Facebook of three fights

In late October, police were called to intervene in a fight at the high school. And within two days, three more students were suspended for involvement in two additional fights.

On Dec. 10, CT Examiner received a copy of a 30-second video of two separate altercations in a hallway at the high school.  

And while school administrators and members of the Middletown Board of Education say the fighting is not anything new, they, too, say they are concerned. 

Data from Middletown Public Schools show that the district issued 183 in- and out-of-school suspensions and bus suspensions since the start of the school year through December 8. Sixty-five of these suspensions were at Beman Middle School, and 118 at Middletown High School. 

In the same time period in the 2018-19 school year, the two schools issued 235 suspensions, and in 2019-20, the district issued 187.  

Descriptions of these incidents range from an “argument over a barrette from home turned into a fight on the bus,” to a “verbal altercation that turned into a student hitting the other student in the head” to a “[student] made a “gun” figure with his fingers and stood in front of the classroom and “motioned” to shoot each student,” according to a document that CT Examiner obtained through a Freedom of Information request.  

And Middletown is far from the only school district in Connecticut with well-publicized incidents in its schools this fall. In Manacher schools, three fights at Illing Middle School in early December, led to several suspensions. In Hamden, a ninth grader was arrested in late November after stabbing another 9th grader with a knife. 

“My daughter doesn’t feel safe at times when she goes to school, and that is alarming to me as a parent,” Ribnicky told Board of Education members at a meeting in November. 

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported an increase in student fighting in schools across the nation, a change that many attribute to the pandemic. 

But rather than focusing on the raw number of incidents, at a Dec. 14 meeting of the Board of Education, administrators focused especially on data they say demonstrate a disproportionate use of suspension on students of color, and questioned whether current policies in the schools are “culturally responsive” to the needs of the student population.  

For the parents who attended board meetings and raised concerns – most but not all identifying as white, and some with multi-racial children – the issue in Middletown schools is primarily a lack of response on the part of administrators to the fighting

After the first incident with her niece in the early fall, Amato said she reached out to the principal, Colleen Weiner. According to Amato, it took four weeks before she was finally able to speak with Weiner by phone. Eventually, Amato met with Weiner in person in early December, where she said that the two had a productive conversation. Since participating in a restorative justice circle, she said, her daughters have not had any further incidents. 

Jessie Lavorgna, director of communications at Middletown Public Schools, confirmed that Weiner had spoken to Amato on the phone and met with her in person in December. She could not confirm when the phone conversation took place.

Amato said there are still changes that need to be made in the district. In particular, she pointed to what she sees as a lack of accountability for students and not enough adults present to supervise.  

“They want to say, fighting has always been in the schools,” said Amato. “Yes it has always been in the school system, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay.” 

Nor is Amato the only parent who feels this way. Four other Middletown parents who spoke with CT Examiner said that they felt the district needed more staff, increased behavioral and mental health services and stricter consequences for students who break the rules. 

“If you’re going to throw rocks about the fighting, which has been going on for many years, maybe you need to come to the school and take part in the school, instead of being at home. Like me and other people who volunteer,” said Owens, who also ran as a Democratic candidate for the Board of Education in November. 

Apryl DesJardins, who initially ran for Board of Education in the fall as a Republican, but was not on the ballot, said that her stepdaughter, a senior at the high school, was assaulted in a stairwell in late October by another student who punched her stepdaughter repeatedly in the head. 

Now, DesJardins said, her stepdaughter leaves lunch and one of her classes five minutes early  to avoid contact with the girl who punched her. The other student, she said, was suspended for three days. The district did not comment on her case. 

DesJardins said that she felt the student who assaulted her daughter should receive mandatory counseling, like people who are arrested, if she repeatedly broke school rules.. DesJardins likened suspensions to “vacations.” 

“They just give them a slap on the wrist. It’s horrible. They need to do something about it,” said DesJardins.

“It’s really not happening all day”

Susan Owens, who runs a mentoring program for girls in the high school, said at a board of education meeting in November that she had heard about fighting in the schools ever since she started volunteering there 12 years ago. 

“If you’re going to throw rocks about the fighting, which has been going on for many years, maybe you need to come to the school and take part in the school, instead of being at home. Like me and other people who volunteer,” said Owens, who also ran as a Democratic candidate for the Board of Education in November. 

“I really am a little upset that I’m hearing all of this about the school,” Owens added. “You know, these kids are just getting over the COVID, where they were stuck in the house.

At the Dec. 14 meeting, Acting Superintendent Alberto Vazquez Matos said that it was impossible to separate incidents in the schools from events in the outside world, including the social unrest after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, the January 6 events at the Capitol, and the pandemic. 

Jennifer Cannata, director of performance management and strategic processes for Middletown Public Schools, pointed out that the pandemic was still affecting day-to-day life at school. Students were still wearing masks in the halls, she said, and there was always the chance that students would be exposed to COVID and have to quarantine. 

“The reality is that we are far from what the world in school was like prior to March 2020,” she said. 

Weiner also said that social media has played a huge role in these altercations. According to Weiner, the incidents are often sparked by a text or a social media message at a speed which leaves administrators scrambling to keep up. 

“It looks to everyone around us, that’s not in the trenches with me, that it’s happening all day. And it’s really not happening all day,” he said.  

“In prior years, we were able to see different interactions and kind of feel that buzz and say, oh, let’s go intervene and unravel,” she said. “But unfortunately there’s really no time to unravel when it’s happening that quickly.”

While acknowledging the incidents, data presented at the Dec. 14 meeting suggest that the number of fights hasn’t increased from prior years.

Board of Education member Anita Dempsey-White said that she felt sharing fight videos on Facebook had created a misconception of the prevalence and severity of the fights in the schools. 

Joshua Cofield, a campus security officer at the high school, said that students always seemed to have their phones out when fights occurred, which gives a mistaken impression of the problem.

“It looks to everyone around us, that’s not in the trenches with me, that it’s happening all day. And it’s really not happening all day,” he said.  

Board member DeLita Rose-Daniels, who also has children in the Middletown Public Schools and who said she had experience both with restorative justice circles and the Youth Service Bureau, agreed that the events in the world were having an effect on the students. She said she felt that the “myths” about the fighting being amplified by social media needed to be dispelled.  

“Parents just really want to know  — what is happening in the schools? Are their children safe? What are we doing to address the fighting that is happening?” she said.

“Parents just really want to know  — what is happening in the schools? Are their children safe? What are we doing to address the fighting that is happening?” she said.

Weiner said that when fights or other incidents occur, the schools use a specific protocol that begins with notifying the caregiver, gathering facts about what happened and hearing the students’ side of the story. She said that, depending on the situation, the district may involve a school resource officer or the youth service bureau, create a safety plan for a student or provide a student with mentoring and counseling services. She said the school also facilitates restorative justice circles that include students and their caregivers.  

But a presentation by school administrators to the board on Dec. 14 highlighted that Black and African American students make up nearly half of the suspensions issued at the high school, despite comprising just under a quarter of the student population. White students, by contrast, represent nearly half of the high school population, but only 17 percent of suspensions. The data showed a similar disparity at the middle school level.

Dr. Jada Waters, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the district, said she was working to provide  teachers and support staff with training on diversity, equity and inclusion and to design a “multi-tiered system of support” for the district to address the discipline issue. 

Lavorgna told CT Examiner that the district prioritized social-emotional learning in the schools through a multi-tiered framework based on the needs of individual students. 

“The social and emotional well-being and physical safety of our students is our top priority. When children feel safe, seen, and supported, they are better able to learn. To that end, we have an entire framework and a robust team of professionals to work with all of our students in all of our schools,” she said. 

“My daughter doesn’t feel safe”

Amy Webster, the parent of a sixth grader at Beman Middle School, said that in October her son was accosted by another student during a mask break. Webster said the incident frightened her son, who has been diagnosed with Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome, a condition that causes him to be hyper-sensitive to pain. 

Webster said that she was satisfied with the administration’s handling of the situation, but she said that her son still regularly witnessed fights at the school.

“I’m trusting that these schools are taking care of my kids,” Webster said. “This is supposed to be a safe place for them and it’s not feeling safe.” 

“I’m trusting that these schools are taking care of my kids,” Webster said. “This is supposed to be a safe place for them and it’s not feeling safe.” 

Sara Ribnicky, the parent of a 6th grader at Beman, said that even though her daughter hadn’t been involved in any altercations, she, too, has witnessed several fistfights at school. Ribnicky said her daughter came home after school upset about the incidents.

“My daughter doesn’t feel safe at times when she goes to school, and that is alarming to me as a parent,” Ribnicky told Board of Education members at a meeting in November. 

Another parent, Bill Perkins, echoed this point at the board meeting on Tuesday.

“I have a student at Beman. She’s scared to death to go to school,” said Perkins, who was a Republican candidate for the Board of Education this fall, and posted videos of the fighting on social media.   

Asked about fighting in the middle school, Lavorgna told CT Examiner that the incidents at Beman involved a relatively small number of students. 

Ribnicky told CT Examiner that she had emailed the acting principal at Beman, who she said was very responsive,  but she said she wished the administration would do more to address the fighting. Ribnicky said she wanted clear disciplinary consequences for students and more programs that teach children how to manage anger and frustration. 

Parents and administrators alike spoke of staffing shortages in the district. Amato said she believed the high school needed to hire more security guards, duty aides, lunch and hallway monitors and Webster said the district needed more paraeducators. 

Amato said that some parents were willing to volunteer as duty aides monitoring the hallways, but that the district told her  it wasn’t allowed. Asked about the offer, Lavorgna said she believed that parents were allowed to volunteer in the schools as long as there were no restrictions in place due to COVID. 

According to the district website, the district is currently hiring for 36 open positions, including math and literacy interventionists, a duty aide, a home visitor and building substitutes. 

“I want to move forward, because the reason we are here are the children. We have to help them. These kids have lost 18 months plus of school.” she said. “I don’t want the negative to outweigh the good that is happening in this district.” 

At the Tuesday meeting, Vazquez Matos said the district was working with the paraeducators union to renegotiate salaries. He said the district had recently hired 32 paraprofessionals, and that the vacancies had dropped to 15 this month. 

At meetings and in conversations with CT Examiner, a number of parents criticized the district’s lack of communication. 

Despite protocols outlined at the Dec. 14 meeting, Amato, DesJardins, and the parent of a middle schooler, all told CT Examiner that parents, not administrators, initiated contact after incidents. Amato and DesJardins said that their children were instructed not to call their parents after the incidents occurred. 

DesJardins, whose daughter was punched in the stairwell, said that none of the school staff or administrators witnessed the incident, and that the SRO was not informed. 

“The administrators try to handle these fights before they get the police involved. But the police are there for a reason,” said DesJardins. 

Lavorgna told CT Examiner that the district couldn’t comment on specific cases, but she reiterated the district’s protocol that “a parent or guardian is always contacted.” She also said that the SRO will assist the administration “upon request” in cases of “acts of violence or acts resulting in crimes on campus.” 

“There are consequences” 

“Microaggressions. Trauma. How are we delivering curriculum … is it culturally responsive? What are the conversations looking like between student to student, adult to adult?” Matos asked. 

At the Dec. 14 board meeting, Vazquez Matos emphasized the need to revisit the district policies in response to the disproportionate suspensions of students of color. He said the district needed policies that would both create consequences for poor behavior and be sensitive to cultural differences.

“If there is a behavior that we cannot accept or tolerate, there are consequences, regardless of race. Students do get suspended regardless of race,” said Vazquez Matos. But, Matos also suggested that school administrators should consider other factors when disciplining students.

“Microaggressions. Trauma. How are we delivering curriculum … is it culturally responsive? What are the conversations looking like between student to student, adult to adult?” he said. 

As the district’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Waters said that she had spoken with students who wanted to create a leadership program to encourage more students to come forward and engage with the community — particularly the students who wouldn’t normally represent the school. 

Board Chair Deborah Cain said that the board and the district are doing their best to address the fighting, and that parents needed to give them time to address it. She said this was the second meeting of the board that addressed fighting in the schools. 

Cain also said that she didn’t want the negative incidents to take the focus away from the positive aspects of the schools.

“I’m afraid, as other parents are afraid, that somebody’s going to get seriously hurt before something’s going to happen,” she said.

“I want to move forward, because the reason we are here are the children. We have to help them. These kids have lost 18 months plus of school.” she said. “I don’t want the negative to outweigh the good that is happening in this district.” 

But DesJardins told CT Examiner that she was concerned about what might happen if the district didn’t address the situation. 

“I’m afraid, as other parents are afraid, that somebody’s going to get seriously hurt before something’s going to happen,” she said.

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