Board, citizens wrestle with school violence

CAMBRIDGE – The cafeteria of Choptank Elementary School was filled to standing room only for the March 6 special meeting of the Dorchester County Board of Education. About 350 parents and concerned citizens attended to discuss fights at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, the general atmosphere of disrespect many see in local public schools, and possible solutions.

On March 1, fights broke out during lunchtime at C-SD. When teachers and staff were unable to control the situation, administrators called for assistance from Cambridge City Police and the Dorchester Sheriff’s Office. Several students were arrested.

On March 5, the sheriff’s office released a statement saying there would be a continued, increased law enforcement presence at the school until Sheriff James Phillips decides otherwise.

The reaction to the fights, much of which occurred on social media, was immediate and sustained. Some parents called for the expulsion of the students in question, while others demanded the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Diana Mitchell.

“Everybody is concerned,” Board of Education President Glenn Bramble said as he opened the meeting.

C-SD Principal Dave Bromwell spoke next, saying, “During the incident, the administrative team acted quickly and appropriately.” He also told the audience that students must and will receive due process, according to state law. When he finished his remarks, the audience responded with a round of applause.

The Board of Education proposed a Citizens’ Advisory Council as a first step to solving the issues in schools’ environments.
Mr. Bramble said board members did not believe the initial proposals would solve the problems in public schools. “They did not begin overnight,” he said.

Board Vice President Phil Rice detailed the council’s planned composition, saying there would be 12-18 members, comprised of four parents, two students, two police officers, two educators, one member from the health department, one from social services, one from juvenile services, one from the NAACP, one from pupil services, and at-large members.

The council would then report to the board. “Let’s come up with a plan and see if we can make it work,” Mr. Rice said.

The Board of Education members Mr. Bramble, Mr. Rice, LeOtha Hull, Laura Layton and Glen Payne voted unanimously to form the council. Mr. Rice was appointed chairman and Ms. Layton vice chairman.

The floor then was opened to public comment. Citizens were told the board would not answer any questions.

The first of 37 registered speakers was David Dickerson of Ministers and Citizens for Change. “We want to voice our support for Dr. Mitchell,” Mr. Dickerson said. “We’ll work with you all to make sure that our students are safe.”

Melissa Dennis spoke for Concerned Parents. She urged greater sharing of information, saying, “As a community, we are only as strong as our communication.”

Many teachers were in the audience, wearing red to indicate their membership in Dorchester Educators, a group representing teachers and support staff. President of the group Katie Holbrook, flanked by several other members, spoke to the board.

“The safety of our students and staff has been threatened,” she said. “Students are afraid to go to school.”

“It’s our duty to call for accountability from the board,” Ms. Holbrook said. “This is a systemic problem affecting all our schools.” Her remarks were met with applause.

John Cale questioned the value of a committee, saying, “Our county is known for putting things in a committee and letting them die.”
He noted that every school is supposed to have a discipline committee already. “I don’t think they’re working,” he said.

Sandy Shaw is a media specialist at C-SD. “I’m here because I’m scared,” she said. Not for her physical safety, but because, she said, schools are causing students “irreversible damage.”

If young people are not taught skills by certain ages and stages of their development, Ms. Shaw said, they will not be able to learn those skills effectively. “This year, over 40 students who failed the sixth, seventh and eighth grades were allowed to come into the ninth grade. I just don’t get it,” she said.

Ms. Shaw said there were probably fewer than 35 students at C-SD who cause disruptions, and who don’t respect any authority. While acknowledging they are entitled to an education, “We need to remove them from the mainstream classroom so those who want to learn, can learn,” she said.

The audience responded to Ms. Shaw’s remarks with a standing ovation.

At the conclusion of the meeting, board members spoke.

“We must give our teachers support and resources so they can teach,” Laura Layton said. “It is the responsibility of the parents to teach their children respect for authority.”

Dr. Mitchell spoke last. “I would like to see a school resource officer in all of our schools,” she said, adding that a recent state proposal of more money for school security could help make this happen.

“I look forward to working with you,” she said.

Mr. Bramble said there are things that can be done quickly, and would be discussed at the next regular Board of Education meeting, set for March 15.

Incidents continue at C-SD. On Monday, a deputy sheriff stationed at the school arrested and removed a 15-year-old male student who had become disruptive. The student was inititallsy confronted by school staff in an effort to calm him. However, he allegedly assaulted staff members and shoved a female teacher into a wall, according to a report from Sheriff James W. Phillips.

The deputy placed him under arrest and he is being charged with two counts of second-degree assault and disturbing school activities. He was transported away from the school and is awaiting action by juvenile authorities.

Voices from the crowd
The following are remarks citizens made during the meeting.
“You need to empower the teachers immediately.” – William Windsor
“We ask that Dr. Mitchell be formally removed from her position.” – Troi Lynn Jones
“This is not Dr. Mitchell’s doing, it was a mess long before she showed up.” – Mary Travers
“In the business world, these actions are not tolerated.” – Phil Reed
“These kids are starved for discipline, starved for structure.” – Wendell Meekins

Dave Ryan is editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at dryan@newszap.com.

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