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Council takes up school violence

Henderson incident sparks introspection

Anna Lamb

The Boston City Council is taking a hard look at school safety after incidents of violence by students in recent weeks have caused concern over the mental well-being of children and teenagers returning to educational institutions following more than a year of COVID shutdowns.

Most recently, on Nov. 3 at the Dr. William W. Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in Dorchester, a 16-year-old female student was arrested after assaulting Principal Patricia Lampron during dismissal. Lampron, who was punched with a closed fist by the student, was hospitalized following the incident, having sustained injuries that included a concussion. Another staffer was also pushed during the altercation.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius, in a robocall to parents announcing the school would close for the remainder of the week, denounced the behavior, saying it “will not be tolerated.” In a letter to the school community later that week, Cassellius announced plans for new arrival and dismissal procedures at the school and plans for “family engagement strategies.”

The violence at the Henderson School is not an isolated incident. At a School Committee meeting just last week, Cassellius told those present that there have been multiple incidents reported in several city schools, despite an increase in mental and emotional health supports provided by the city even before the assault, an increase planned in anticipation of difficulties returning to in-person learning.

“We have tapped into some of our city partners and our operational team and our counseling team and our psychologist to engage in supporting practices and supporting our school leaders across our system to problem-solve, to apply our code of conduct and to intervene with the additional supports as necessary,” Cassellius said during the meeting.

Over the last year, Boston’s education budget has increased by more than $60 million as part of a three-year, $100 million commitment to BPS laid out in 2020. Included in the budget are social workers and family liaisons.

However, even with the added support, something isn’t working, say both city officials and activists.

Ruby Reyes, Director of Boston Education Justice Alliance, said that one of the problems is an inability, due to staffing or other institutional problems, to actually take advantage of measures aimed at helping.

For example, according to Reyes, the addition of the social workers over the last year has now put a strain on school psychologists to whom they report.

“Most of the school psychologists have caseloads of over 1,000 students apiece,” she said. “So while having social workers is wonderful, there’s also the need for licensed mental health clinicians to provide services for the referrals made by those social workers.”

Additionally, Reyes points to the existing citywide school Trauma Response Team and the Code of Conduct as tools available to leaders.

“There are so many pieces that are missing that already exist and just need to be put into place,” Reyes said.

Edith Bazile, former president of Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, and a former teacher, echoed this point, telling the Banner that there is even an administrative position — Superintendent for Social Emotional Learning — that hasn’t been filled. Bazile added her concern for creating an inclusive environment for students as a crucial move for preventing further violence.

“Clearly the pandemic has impacted everyone — students, families and staff. Everyone has been impacted, traumatized by this pandemic, and so the district really needs to stop, pause, and reflect on what is necessary as students transition and how can there be holistic support so that there are not trauma triggers and schools can work in prevention and intervention,” she said.

Bazile said having added staff and increased community engagement from trusted adults within neighborhoods, should be the focus for BPS moving forward.

“Children do not just lash out. Behind behavior is some sort of unfulfilled need for safety, need for acknowledgment, need for respect, need for a caring — we don’t know. But I think it’s not helpful to students when schools wait until a situation becomes a crisis, because no one is safe then,” she said.

City Councilor Frank Baker, supported by his colleagues, has filed a 17F — basically a public records request — for school incident reports since the beginning of the current school year. He told fellow councilors at their last meeting that he wants to know how many of those incidents required 911 to be called.

“I filed the 17F to get a clear understanding of what’s happening across all the school districts,” Baker said.

In contrast to advocates’ calls for increased mental health support as a response to the incident at the Henderson school, multiple city councilors, including Baker, spoke to the need for more law enforcement as well.

“We need to figure out the mental health response that kids and teachers need now coming out of COVID, and we also need some sort of presence there,” Baker told the chamber.

Former East Boston teacher and former mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George was another pro-police-in-schools voice last Wednesday, saying, “There’s been a significant attack against school resource officers in our school buildings and it has created this dynamic in which our schools are very much unsettled.”

She went on to say, “We know that there’s a great deal of need as it relates to our students, a great deal of support required by our school staff and faculty and instructors and administrators, and then certainly those that are charged with protecting us and protecting our kids and making sure that school is a safe environment in which to learn.”

A response to Councilor Baker’s request should come later this week, and the City Council will reconvene the first week of December. In the short term, staff from the district’s Social Emotional Learning and Wellness teams have been working with students at the Henderson School, and Principal Lampron continues her recovery.

BPS, Henderson school, school police