Saturday, February 3, 2018

The World Got Inside

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering or my musings. Although if you do, I’m happy to hear them-I could use all the help I can get. My purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. 

Thank you for reading.

There are two competing interests at our school.

First-many of our students will be the first person to graduate from high school in their family, and most will be the first to attend college. We need to find as many ways as possible to connect our students with interesting, and dynamic people outside of the school. The more we can connect out in the larger Cleveland community, the better it is for students. They need to see what Cleveland has to offer if you’re educated and have choices.

Second-Our students live in dangerous neighborhoods. They hear gunshots at night. They cannot travel alone. Most of my students know someone who has died as a result of violence. And the neighborhoods are more often than not, controlled by gangs. Plenty of students at our school aren’t in gangs. But there are also lots of students who have to be gang affiliated, whether they want to be or not. In some neighborhoods, if you aren’t affiliated, you aren’t safe. If you aren’t affiliated, you can’t go outside. If you aren’t affiliated, you aren’t protected. Students have codes, and rules, and expectations that are required in the neighborhood, and my students must abide by them.

I have to juggle these competing interests all the time; Connect our students with the larger Cleveland community and keep the communities our students come from, out of anything connected with our school. We don’t always talk about it, but I’m always aware of these two competing interests. To finish setting the stage, we haven’t had any gang-related issues inside our school, for years. Everyone coexists, regardless of what neighborhood they come from, inside our school walls. There’s lots of reasons for this, ranging from specific things we’ve done to create a safe school environment, to the reality that everyone just needs a break from the violence of their neighborhoods, and school is an agreed upon safe zone. Three or four years, ago, I don’t remember which, a dangerous gang member enrolled in our school after his release from jail. He made it until lunch time on his first day, before he tried to intimidate other students, and make it known that our school would be his territory. His actions led to a brawl in the cafeteria, which led to a whole lot of police racing into our school to help me break up the melee. That student ended up violating his parole shortly thereafter, and I’m pretty sure he’s still in jail. Although we continue to take a hit on our state school report card because even though he only attended our school for about a week, and he was suspended for most of it, ours is the last school he attended, so he counts against our graduation rate. But that’s another post entirely. All that is to say, I can’t think of another gang-related issue that occurred at school, in forever. Until last Thursday.

There was a fight at the bus stop at dismissal. I was working with my math department-we were talking about instructional practices-so I missed the fight. But six boys, and one girl fought. Believe it or not, boys never fight at our school. Girls fight more than I want-but it’s never an issue with boys. This time there was an issue, and after the police helped me to clear the area, I had to determine what happened and why. The short version is the following. Two boys, fought over a girl, two boys fought because they don’t like each other, and the other kids jumped in to support their friends. Unfortunately, all the kids are either in rival gangs, or affiliated with rival gangs. That night, one of the fighters posted a video on Instagram (the bane of my existence). In the video, which we now have, he clearly says a bunch of stuff that I can’t write in this blog post and feel comfortable with it existing on the internet. So I’ll take just a bit of creative license and say he said, “Fuck the dudes from (this neighborhood.)” This very brief video reached gang members with no connection to our school, from both neighborhoods. Then, a second fighter, from the other gang, posted a video naming people who were going to get hurt on the first gangs’ side. But by Friday morning, I was still putting together the reasons for the fight, and I didn’t know about the videos yet.

10:00 AM Friday

A student brought a third video to our attention. I knew about the other two at this point, but we hadn’t seen them yet. In this third video, a student I didn’t know, from another school, was saying he was coming to our school on Friday afternoon to fight. We made a police officer we know aware of this video, and together we figured out what school he attended. The police officer agreed to talk to the student at the other school.

10:45 AM Friday

The police officer reports that he’s handled the other student, and he won’t be coming to our school to fight. I think I have the situation under control.

11:00 AM Friday

My boss arrives at school for a scheduled data meeting. We’ll be going through our individual student data to discuss who’s on and off track to pass the required graduation exams.

11:30 AM Friday
Students start telling adults at school that a whole bunch of dangerous people are descending on our school that afternoon.

12:20 PM Friday

Students report, during our second of two lunches, that two guys were trying to sneak into our school building. We end the data meeting, so I can address safety issues.

12:30 PM Friday

We confirm that multiple students and teachers saw two people trying to sneak into our building. I put the school into a Code Blue Lockdown. Code Blue means that no one can enter or exit the building, all staff and students have to remain in place, but teaching and learning can still continue.

12:31 PM Friday

My security officer and I search the building from top to bottom to ensure no one got into the building and to make sure there’s no way into the building. As we finished our search, the School District Police arrive.

For the next thirty minutes or so, we tried to figure out what we know and what we don’t know. We’ve got great relationships with our students, so we called in students who we knew would talk with us, who were also gang affiliated. They confirmed for us that gang members from both gangs were descending on our school. A couple of words of explanation here-My team and I have great relationships with our students and I rely on those relationships everyday, all the time. But when gang members from the neighborhoods descend on our school, those relationships don’t matter, because I don’t know anyone that’s coming. These are guys who are loyal to their gang above anything and everything, and they don’t know me, and don’t care about our school. My best tool is rendered useless under these circumstances. We asked our students to try and call off the masses from showing up at school, and they tried for sure. But it didn’t work.

1:30 PM Friday

I took the school out of lockdown. We were safe inside the building, so no need to stay in a lockdown, but I know it’s going to be dangerous outside of the building, so I need a plan to dismiss teachers and students safely. I don’t have one yet.

1:50 PM Friday

My security officer recognizes the two guys who tried to get into the building. They are about a hundred yards away, at the bus stop outside of school. The police head out to talk to them, and they say they are just waiting for the bus. We know they are lying, so we watch. I’m still working out the plan to get everyone out safely.

2:15 PM Friday

The bus comes and goes and the guys don’t get on. A jeep that we hadn’t noticed pulls up outside the school, and a whole group of guys step out. Two more guys appear from beyond my line of site. They are all talking with the bus stop boys together. We don’t know which gang this is yet, but they are clearly there waiting for dismissal.

2:16 PM Friday

Our 9th grade team all has off last period, so they can plan together. I decide to use a trick I learned in New York City to take advantage of the idea of safety in numbers. I ask the 9th grade teachers to station themselves at all doors at dismissal to ensure that every student has to exit via the front doors. I have my Campus Coordinator and my Security Officer stationed at the front doors. The plan: Funnel all students to the front doors, but don’t let them out of the building. Keep the front doors closed until everyone is gathered at the doors, then open them, so the whole school walks out in one big mass at the same time. It’s harder to attack any individual when such a large group is on the move together. I decided to use the same plan for the teachers. I called on a teacher-leader to spread the word to all the teachers. They would meet in the underground garage at dismissal, and wait until everyone was ready to leave, and then leave as one group. The garage door would open and close just once.

2:18 PM Friday
My wife calls to ask me to pick up pull ups. I prefer to tell my wife about these incidents once they are over. No good can come from talking about it as it’s happening. Telling too soon will just cause unnecessary fear. So we discuss pull ups. And the weekend plans. Sometimes my suburban middle class life collides with my inner city experiences, and it’s either absurd, insane, or both. This is one of those times.

Dismissal is at 2:30. And between 2:16-2:30, more police arrived to help outside the school. I didn’t tell the students what we were doing and why, and I didn’t tell the parents who pick up each day outside the school. I didn’t want to cause a panic.

2:30 PM Friday

We gathered the students at the front doors and they left en-masse at about 2:34 PM. The teachers drove off a few minutes later, and the inside of the building was empty and secure. But the outside was another story.

I escorted students to cars and chatted with parents, while always keeping my eyes open for the danger that was around us. But I stayed close to the school doors. For years, I used to jump into these dangerous situations. I went into the fray, always, because I felt like I needed to be there to keep my students safe, to help keep the calm, and to be level-headed. But I have two young sons, and I’ve learned that I can keep everyone else self, and also keep myself safe. I didn’t always know that truth, but I do now.

The police handcuffed detained the two guys from the bus stop to be safe. Other officers found the other gang waiting a block away, at an alternate bus stop that my students use. In total, we had between 10-15 gang members outside our school. Some had guns. And those are just the guys I know about.

2:40 PM Friday

I headed to the bus stop near the school to ensure everyone gets on the bus safely. I’m there, but I’m also there with the police.

2:45 PM Friday

My wife is running an event that evening so I need to pick up my kids. I realize I’m not making it to my son’s elementary school for pick up, so I begin leaving messages with friends to help me out. “Hi, it’s Eric, I’m not going to make it to dismissal on time. I’m dealing with a police issue. Can you pick up my son, and I’ll get him at your house?” (See comments about worlds colliding above.)

3:00 PM Friday
Everyone is safe and I thank the police for their support. We discuss how we haven’t solved anything, only delayed it and we agree to meet again on Monday to figure out how to actually solve the problem. I race to my car to head to get my kids. There’s no traffic and I’m able to get to them fairly quickly. But the ride is too short. I need traffic to decompress, but there isn’t any.

I don’t know how to describe how hard it is to switch from inner city principal managing a dangerous situation to suburban dad in way too short a time. Maybe it’s like riding a race car at over 100 miles per hour and then switching to precision needlepoint without a break in between? I don’t know. I picked up my kids, they hugged me and asked me how my day was. I lied and told them it was good and switched the discussion to another topic.

I wish I could say the incident ended there. But it’s a week later, and I’ve spent virtually every minute of every day since then working on this issue. I’ve spent more time with the police this week, than I’ve spent with my wife. I haven’t been in classes, and I haven’t been much of an instructional leader. But I’ve learned the ins and outs of gang affiliations, addressed a dozen kids loosely, directly, and indirectly involved in this. I’ve yelled, been scary, been supportive, and been angry-sometimes all at the same time. I also made time to read with R from last weeks’ post. Fortunately for me, he was out with the flu on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It’s fortunate because I couldn’t have made more time to help him, and that would have set back our very tenuous positive relationship.

Yesterday, the original fighters returned to school. I spent the day threatening, yelling, cajoling, and threatening some more. I ended the day with the police, clearing the neighborhood to make sure no one fought. To be clear, I’m not proud of myself when I have to yell and threaten teenagers. I see all these wonderful tweets about how we ought to talk to kids, and how to be inspirational in school to get the best out of students. It hurts me every time I have to talk to students this way-but no one can learn if they don’t feel safe. And both learning and safety were in short supply this week. And sadly, sometimes inspiration, goodness, and hope isn't enough. Needless to say, all the yelling meant it wasn’t my best day as a principal. These gang issues took up an entire week. And I mean almost every minute of an entire week. Letting the world sneak into our school, led to the dam breaking, and I couldn’t stop the world as it swept into our building. And now I need to rest, so I can get back here on Monday to keep the world out and get back to us having some semblance of a school with teaching and learning as the focus.

In order to help these students to grow and cultivate dreams that can be achieved, I have to connect them with great people and ideas in the larger community. To have the life they deserve, they must connect with the community. But to have the life they deserve, I also need to keep the community out of the school. It’s the community that creates danger, and teaches us that hopes and dreams can never become a reality. Connect with the community; and keep the community out. Both. Always. At the same time. Striking this balance is an unbelievable challenge. How do I do it better than this past week? Sometimes I think I know. And sometimes I’m positive I don’t.

Until next week...

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