PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A line in the proverbial sand has been drawn when it comes to school violence.
Superintendent Jason McCandless released a video message a little over a week ago saying violence in the city's school system will not be tolerated.
The message came on the heels of increased violence in schools not only in Pittsfield but throughout the nation. On Wednesday, the School Committee joined in, backing McCandless' message that the city is not willing to accept it.
"Fighting and putting hands on one another is never ever going to be an acceptable answer in this school," McCandless said on Wednesday when discussing his message with the School Committee. "We are simply not going to have it."
McCandless said the district is now deploying tools that it had previously "loathed" to use, including removing students from the school.
The district is also looking to add an additional dean at Taconic High School and two new academic vice principals in the middle schools -- the latter two being paid for through a grant - to free up staff to spend more time monitoring hallways to common areas to reduce issues. He added the district is putting more emphasis on "re-establishing norms around civility and non-violent."
"We can't in good conscience sit by and see some of the behaviors we are seeing," McCandless said.
McCandless' message references that in some cases criminal charges will be pressed. He said schools should be treated as "almost holy" places where professionals focus on doing "the most important work in the community."
"We believe school is a special place that is set aside for special people to do the most important work in a community every day, which is educating children," he said.
It isn't just one school in the district, though much notoriety was placed on a large fight that had broken out at Taconic High School earlier this year. McCandless said there have been physical altercations at eight of the city's 12 schools, including adults getting into fights in the parking lots or at school events.
Following the Taconic fight, McCandless said another act of violence between two students, who attend a different school, led him to take his message public.
"Anybody who is considering this as a 'Taconic thing,' this is a misconception," McCandless said.
McCandless said much of it stems from changing social norms throughout the nation. He said no school in the country is immune from the increased levels of violence but that in Pittsfield, "we are simply not afraid to talk about it."
And he hopes that parents and children throughout the city start to discuss what is happening and the community rallies around the efforts.
School Committee member William Cameron questioned McCandless about being more aggressive in using criminal charges, saying in many of the cases the behavior is criminal and would be treated as such if it was off school grounds.
"There are legal means available for dealing with some of this," he said.
McCandless responded saying there is a reluctance to involve the court system because he doesn't want the schools to be complacent in the "school to prison pipeline." He believes that the issues are with only a small minority of the students and can be worked through with the proper relationships, education, and resources.
"We believe most issues can be solved in an educational setting without the need of that," McCandless said.
He said while the district will have "zero tolerance for the act, we do not have zero tolerance for the actor." He said a teenager's brain has not fully developed to fully understand cause and effect in a timely manner and he believes the students can learn and develop without having a criminal record that will haunt them in the future.
"We always assume it is not just a desire to engage in anti-social behavior. There is something causing it and we work hard to get to the cause and find a solution," McCandless said.
But that doesn't mean students won't be charged in instances. He said have been six or seven incidents in which students faced criminal charges for their actions.
"There is no hesitation to move forward with criminal charges," he said.
Getting the number of instances under control has become one of McCandless' top goals. He said it is important because the action of a few in a school "lessens the experience for hundreds."
That line in the sand, however, is only a start for School Committee member Dennis Powell. He referenced incidents in which a student was bullied and it seemed like the district looked the other way until something happened. In one case, Powell said one student was making racial remarks to others and after bringing it to school staff nothing happened.
"It was brought to everyone's attention, the students who were being harassed complained about it and nothing happened. On the way home they decided to deal with the kid themselves and then they ended up getting suspended," Powell said.
"We need to really look at this whole bullying and what are we doing about it."
Powell isn't the first to publicly raise questions about bullying. He pushed for mentoring programs to guide the young individuals and to dig into finding the root causes to solve conflicts ahead of time.
"We've got to find out what is causing it and how can we prevent it," Powell said.
A student representative for Taconic encouraged the staff to do more to keep problematic people away from each other. She was told the Taconic fight started after two people with a lengthy history of not getting along ended up in the same class together. She urged the committee to get ahead of conflicts before they erupt into violence.
McCandless' approach to bringing the conversation front and center was praised by School Committee members Cynthia Taylor and Daniel Elias, who both said they appreciate the honesty.
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