Education

C.R. Washington High moves to address 'chronic' violent incidents

Police have made 58 arrests at Washington this school year, double last year's numbers

Signatures of Cedar Rapids Washington students in Sarah Dollmeyer’s iJAG class is seen on a banner as they make the National Stop the Violence Alliance nonviolence pledge at Washington High School in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Signatures of Cedar Rapids Washington students in Sarah Dollmeyer’s iJAG class is seen on a banner as they make the National Stop the Violence Alliance nonviolence pledge at Washington High School in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A 17-year-old boy was arrested at his high school Wednesday for carrying a large knife in his pocket.

The arrest on March 6 was the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s 58th at Washington High School since July, and the fifth arrest on a weapons-related charge. Others at the school have been booked for disorderly conduct, possession of a controlled substance and assault.

According to arrest data from the police department, the number of arrests at the school are double what they were for all of the 2017-2018 school year. Last year, only one arrest was made at the school for carrying a concealed weapon.

District and Washington High administrators are working to address “behavior incidents that have been disruptive to our learning environment,” Principal John Cline said in an email to families sent last week.

His three-pronged approach includes hiring three new staff members to address behavioral issues and improve safety, a plan to minimize incidents in the hallways between classes and removing students with “severe or chronic violent” behaviors from the school. Those few students could be moved into an alternative setting or enrolled in online coursework.

Most incidents at Washington High this year have been between “specific students,” District Deputy Superintendent Noreen Bush said, and conflicts typically begin outside school walls.

“It’s usually not school-related but brought into the school environment because it’s where they attend together. I would say all of our other high schools have those same experiences,” Bush said. “There seems to be a hyper-focus on the east side, and I would say that there might be more frequency this year — only due to the intensity of these community situations happening between some relationships, and they just seem to surface at school.”

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Students this school year have launched anti-gang and anti-violence movements as class projects at Washington High.

“Sometimes we even have adults who come on campus who are causing these (incidents),” district Equity Director Rod Dooley added. “It’s not just our students who are being disruptive or who have been disrupted in that environment.”

The district is allocating funds to hire three new staff members at Washington: an engagement specialist, with an expected salary of $43,792 to $48,390; and two paraprofessionals with specialized security training, with pay ranging from $12 to $15.30 an hour, district spokeswoman Akwi Nji said.

Washington High also will soon contract with UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital to have a full-time social worker at the school, Cline said in the email, and ask two existing school staff members to join its Mentors in Violence Prevention program as advisers. Advisors do not receive an additional stipend.

LEARNING FROM JEFFERSON, KENNEDY

The Mentors in Violence Prevention program at Washington has learned from Kennedy High School’s iteration, Bush said.

Kennedy launched Mentors in Violence Prevention in fall 2017, said advisor Jenny Wagner, who works as an interventionist focused on family engagement at the northeast quadrant high school. The program is student-driven, with high school upperclassmen visiting freshman homerooms twice a month to talk about bystander intervention, how to identify unhealthy behaviors and options to defuse tense situations.

“Juniors and seniors have really already experienced a lot of this stuff and are willing to set the tone in the classroom for honest and authentic conversation,” Wagner said. “ … It gives ninth-graders, who are just so young, permission to really talk about what they’ve seen and felt.”

The decision by Washington to hire additional staff focused on student safety and well-being was inspired by Jefferson High, on the city’s west side.

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There, Principal Chuck McDonnell reallocated staff to address the number of tardies and absences caused by students loitering in the hallways or skipping class throughout the day. Changes made this school year have reduced absences, and students are now on time to class 98.5 percent of the time, according to a Feb. 25 board presentation.

Jefferson’s methods are “not just about getting students to be on-time,” Bush said. “It’s finding out why they weren’t being on-time. … They’re finding out that there are real causes to students’ tardies and absence.”

Staff now escort late students to class and learn that some have an academic need or have an interruption in their personal life, Bush said, information that allows them to address the issue.

The effort has also helped students feel connected and safe at school, she said, feelings the district hopes new staffing priorities will promote at Washington.

STABILIZING

While disruptions have not affected every student’s ability to focus during a class period, they have had an effect on the culture of the building, district spokeswoman Akwi Nji said.

“I think that’s the level that Mr. Cline is at,” Nji said, noting the Washington principal has worked to be transparent about how he is addressing chronic issues. “He wants to stabilize a sense of culture.”

Public schools are often the conduit for a variety of social issues, and district administrators said they always are searching for community partnerships to help address the issues and needs students bring with them to class.

“This is where there’s connections made with students and families and with each other,” Dooley said. “They do look to the schools for support that might be beyond our scope. But we’re such an integral part of the success of the community, which why we’ve been on this new vision of getting out into the community and helping them understand we all have to do this together.”

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“The future is living beyond the four walls of our school district,” Bush added. “Knowing what our children need — I need help. We need help from the community to let us know what is it that they really need, too.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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