15 October 2006

The price of a pound of cure

Tomorrow begins the 8th week of school, and I'm glad to say that in many respects, my year has settled down from where it was in my negative post of last month. I'm not really any less stressed, but I'm finally starting to feel the love for my students, and the fiasco that was class scheduling this year has fortunately abated.

However, one thing has been getting increasingly worse this year, worse than any other year I've been here at Small Town High--the violence. Every day in the teachers' lounge has become a sharing game of "who's suspended now?" as we compare notes on the students who disappear for the mandatory five-day suspension for "mutual combat", and we discuss the fights and their causes and what needs to be done to prevent them. Unfortunately, the problems this year seem to only be escalating as the weeks go on.

Much of the fighting this year has been gang-related. The town in which I live and teach is made up of two rival gangs--the Norteños and Sureños, with Surenos predominant. Sometime in the past week or so, there was a stabbing of a couple of students at the continuation high school (located mere yards off of the high school campus) and retaliation was threatened.

Thursday morning I pulled into the school parking lot at 7 AM, my usual time, and there were four police cars sitting at the curb. Since this is the bulk of our town's police force (in fact, it might have been the *entire* force) I was curious to find out what had happened. I soon found out from students about the stabbing and threatened retaliation... Unfortunately, I didn't find out from the administration until about six hours after the students had already filled me in.

At lunchtime on Thursday, there were at least a dozen cops, uniform and plainclothes, standing around campus watching the students. While we occasionally have one or two, it'd been a long time since I'd seen that many, and there was much chatter in the teachers' lounge about what was going on (the admin hadn't yet filled us in, so it was essentially speculation.)

After lunch, an administrator came classroom to classroom and handed each teacher a memo explaining the threat and what we should do if we heard anything or if something happened. It explained that the retaliation was supposed to take place either Thursday or Friday, which wouldn't have surprised me, as Friday was the 13th, and 13 is the number for the Sureños.

On Thursday night, I had several students call me at home and ask me if I thought it was safe to come to school on Friday. One student, an AP student, said that his parents didn't want him to come to school because they didn't feel it was safe, but that he didn't want the absence on his record because it would affect his grade in one of his classes. I was relieved to see him come into my classroom Friday morning before school, but I wondered how many other parents had done what his wanted to do. I was soon to find out.

My attendence in my Friday classes averaged around 50%, with my lowest being my last class, where only six students showed up. I kept my classroom door locked all day, and every time I sent a student to the restroom, I worried. The police presence around campus was even greater than the previous day--we had police from 5 cities and two counties, a weapons-detecting dog, and a mobile command center set up in the parking lot. At lunchtime, some kid thought it'd be a hilarious idea to pull the "blow up a lunchbag and pop it" trick, and the only two of us in the teachers' lounge that didn't jump were the two military veterans.

Towards the end of 7th period, the principal came on the PA system and said that he was dismissing school early due to the threat, and that all students and teachers had to be off campus within five minutes. Throughout everything since the beginning of school--the fights, students getting suspended, te cops on campus, the threats--I'd been more or less patient, but this is when I lost my temper completely.


Our school has to be one of the last ones in California without a fence around it, and I hate to say it, but I no longer feel safe here without one. There have been plans in the works for at least ten years now to fence in our campus, but there's always some excuse why there isn't one. It's not just because of violence that I want a fence. I've had students go off-campus to lunch and come back drunk or stoned. It's really easy for kids to ditch class, since there are over a dozen places where they can leave campus relatively undetected.

Outside of school hours, this place is not well-secured either. Since we're in California, land of mostly nice weather, all of our hallways are outside, and classroom doors open to the outside. People routinely drive onto our campus, tearing up lawns and cracking concrete. A couple of years ago, I came in early one morning and got chased by a pit bull, one of the many stray dogs that wanders onto campus to empty our trash cans on a fairly regular basis. I yelled at it and waved my arms and threw my keys at it, but it took a few minutes for my heart to stop racing. Taggers and vandalizers are free to wander in at will during the night time, and since the campus security lighting is shut off at 8 PM, the security cameras we have do little good to help to identify them.

Our students, conditioned as they are to their freedom, vehemently protest every time the idea of a fence is brought up. They don't want to go to school in a prison, they say, not realizing that a school where people constantly have to watch their backs isn't exactly Disneyland. Having a fence will limit the number of exit and entry points for people going on and off campus, making the campus easier to secure. I'm not even saying that students should be forbidden from going off-campus for lunch--I just want fewer options for exits. And while I believe that students should be allowed to leave campus for lunch, I think it needs to be a privilege, not a right. Let's base the privilege of leaving campus for lunch on grades, on attendence, on discipline record. These are all things that are tracked anyway, and I really think that we'd see a campuswide improvement in all three areas if we tie it to a privilege students hold as dear as they do their lunch privileges.

It'll be interesting to see if, after this most recent spate of violence and threats of violence, there is any community outcry about campus security and our lack of a fence, or if this will just fade into the collective memory until the next time there's a gang retaliation threatened. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or so the saying goes, and I worry that in this case, that pound of cure might end up costing more than just money.


At 4:37 PM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Your school needs a fence, no doubt about it. If I were teaching there, I'd be lobbying furiously for a fence--and the "prison" atmosphere be damned!


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