LAWRENCE — After the start of a school year marked by fights and arrests, students at Lawrence High will start each day talking with their teachers about the school’s “culture and climate.”
Safety measures will also include an increased police presence, shorter lunch periods, staggered dismissal time and strict enforcement of the school’s uniform policy. A task force to “review and revise” school safety issues will also be launched this week, according to Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Cynthia Paris.
Numerous students have been arrested and summonses issued to a dozen more after a spate of fights at Lawrence High this year. One school administrator was injured trying to break up a fight but has since returned to work, Paris said. The altercations have triggered protests by students, parents and teachers, as well as numerous meetings, including with the Lawrence Alliance for Education and Lawrence City Council public safety committee, which Paris attended.
The “school community is working together to take concrete steps – immediate and long-term – to ensure our campus is the place everyone expects and deserves it to be. We know our staff will be essential contributors to this work,” said Paris, in a statement released late Monday morning.
Members of the Lawrence Teachers Union held a peaceful, “walk-in” protest, just before the morning bell went off Monday at Lawrence High. Union members said significant understaffing has aggravated a challenging back-to-school transition for many students who are struggling with the aftermath of the previous school shutdowns due to COVID-19.
Union president Kimberly Barry said the district “has failed to respond to the social and emotional needs of traumatized students.”
“We can’t just ignore the problems students bring to school with them and jump right back to testing them without any effort to rebuild a school community. They’re kids and we need to invest in a staff and services that make them feel valued,” she said.
Following the teachers’ protest, Paris said it was “disappointing to see union leadership promote a more destabilizing course of action, but should at any point they choose to embrace the collaborative role repeatedly offered, we welcome them as partners.”
Mayor Kendrys Vasquez also called for a joint meeting of the Lawrence City Council and School Committee on Monday evening. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, or a designee, and Paris, were both asked to attend.
Paris, speaking Thursday night before the council’s public safety committee, said recent fights at the high school were triggered by lingering emotions after a flag football game and issues over images on a girl’s phone.
Those involved included ninth and tenth grade honor roll students, she said.
The “Positive School Climate Task Force” launching this week will include teachers, administrators, student leaders, parents and community advocates. The goal of the task force “is to strengthen our collaboration as we review and revise our current safety efforts,” Paris said.
Staff professional development will also focus on how to “best support students who have experienced trauma,” Paris said.
School Committee member Patricia Mariano, a 40-year teaching veteran, spent 12 years of her career as principal of the Leahy School in Lawrence.
Mariano believes the issues at Lawrence High are exacerbated by a lack of transition for incoming ninth graders who spent as much as 18 months in remote learning situations and may have been unsupervised.
Mental health issues for some Lawrence students are also an ongoing issue. Some also face hurdles due to their home situations and are second language learners, she noted.
“We don’t have enough mental health services,” said Mariano, noting the wait for such services for children is between six to eight months.
“And we do have some kids with some really serious mental health issues in the city,” she said.
The student fights, arrests and staff assault “just brings the issue to the forefront,” she said.
“I really believe we just weren’t ready for these kids,” she said, referring to students returning tp in-person learning and incoming freshmen who had never attended the high school before.
“There’s a lot of things we can do ... But we’ve got to get to know these kids,” she said. “No one anticipated what this would look like when these kids got back to school. Many of these kids did not get the opportunity to know what it was like at the high school. We weren’t prepared for what going back to school was going to look like.”
Mariano stressed the issue is a community one and “not just about the schools.”
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.