A physical altercation between two students at East Lansing High School in early October resulted in a teacher sustaining injuries that required treatment in a hospital emergency department, according to several ELi sources and statements made during public comment at the Oct. 11 East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education meeting.
According to parents, administrators, and teachers at East Lansing Public Schools – many of whom spoke to ELi on the condition that we not use their names, for fear of reprisal – aggressive and sometimes violent behavior and failure to follow rules have become more common since almost all ELPS students returned to in-person learning this fall.
While teachers and administrators agree that the problem of increased misconduct exists and seems to be caused at least in part by pandemic-related stressors, there seem to be differences in what various parties view as appropriate responses, according to several teachers at ELHS.
Has aggressive behavior actually increased in the district?
According to teachers’, administrators’, and families’ anecdotal reports, yes, it has.
As of now, we have no data to confirm or refute the impression. But several parents wrote to ELi expressing concern about violent and aggressive behavior among students. Those concerns came in after a Facebook post about an alleged uptick in aggressive behavior and violence at MacDonald Middle School led to 95 comments being posted.
Days later, several teachers at ELHS reached out to ELi about the altercation that left a physical education teacher injured, and they referred to other incidents as well. The teachers recounted multiple students using obscenities to disparage teachers and members of one class taunting a teacher to the point where an assistant principal had to sit in the classroom the next day to monitor the situation.
Teachers also expressed frustration that many students wear their masks improperly – either below the nose or even just around the chin. When asked to wear their masks properly, some students comply while others ignore or respond with derogatory language, according to teachers.
Superintendent Dori Leyko agrees that the district is seeing an increase in “both the quantity and intensity” of students needing behavioral and other forms of support.
Speaking to ELi during a recording of our East Lansing Insider podcast, Leyko said it is hard to know if Covid alone is responsible for these behavioral issues, but she believes that prolonged isolation, coupled with ongoing anxiety and stress, is playing a role.
One ELHS teacher stated that “without question” behavioral issues are worse this year than in previous years. They pointed out that only the current senior class remembers a full year of high school in-person. The juniors and sophomores have known only disrupted high school years, and many freshman students, according to the teacher, are socially underdeveloped compared to years past.
Another teacher agreed, telling ELi that students “haven’t really re-socialized to the school environment” and “aren’t used to stress of being a teenager face-to-face” given the pandemic shut-downs.
The teacher also said that some of their colleagues were beginning to feel unsafe in the building.
All this has informed how teachers, students, families, and administrators have understood the altercation that injured a teacher at ELHS.
Based on multiple sources, in early October, two male high school students were engaged in an altercation when a female physical education teacher intervened. One student went to strike the other but wound up striking the teacher instead. The teacher was taken to a hospital emergency department, according to two teachers at ELHS.
Both students involved in the altercation received suspensions.
ELi cannot independently verify what exactly took place. Federal law prohibits teachers and administrators from speaking about specific students and their records in almost all instances.
ELi filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to view the security footage of the altercation, but our request was denied. In a follow up email, we asked if security footage counted as being part of a student record. The district responded by sending us guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education that say security camera footage that shows students fighting is considered part of a student record.
The father of one of the students involved in the altercation spoke at the Oct. 11 School Board meeting, stating he wanted to express his concerns about the incident involving his son.
Terry Woods said that his son, who did not strike the teacher, received an eight-day suspension.
“Our son is a good person and a leader in the high school, who I feel did wrong,” said Woods. According to Woods, his son felt badly and made amends on his own by sending an apologetic email to the injured teacher.
Woods told the School Board that he and the boy’s mother, Woods’ ex-wife, were not initially made aware of the district’s suspension appeals process. Woods said that his son had already missed four days of school because the appeals process “dragged across several days.”
Woods said that he hoped restorative justice would be used to make amends and to work with the students involved. Speaking to ELi the day after the School Board meeting, Woods said that while he never saw racism as an issue at ELPS, he was now concerned that race could be a factor since his son is Black.
Mark Pontoni, an ELHS teacher and vice president of the East Lansing Education Association (the union that represents teachers in the district), spoke to the school board after Woods, calling on the district to uphold the suspension.
“I am here today to speak, strongly opposed to any reductions of the suspensions of the students involved in the assault on one of our teachers last week,” said Pontoni, speaking on behalf of the ELEA.
Pontoni said that ELEA advocates for safe working conditions for both members and non-members. He argued that Michigan law protects teachers by calling for expulsion if a teacher is assaulted.
“To think that a reduction of that suspension is even on the table is unacceptable, and we strongly urge this Board to uphold the suspension as a statement of support for teacher safety,” concluded Pontoni.
ELi does not know the identity of the other student involved or the consequences that he faced. With the identity of the other student and his parents or guardians unknown, ELi was unable to contact them to see if they wished to offer comment.
How can the district handle aggressive and violent behavior?
State law in Michigan calls for expulsion if a teacher, staff member, or other representative of a school or district is physically assaulted. Notably, however, the law defines physical assault as “intentionally causing or attempting to cause physical harm to another through force or violence.”
In this case, according to multiple sources, the intent of the student who struck the teacher was actually to strike another student. The teacher who intervened was struck by accident.
Speaking on ELi’s podcast about general issues regarding student behavior, Superintendent Dori Leyko said, “I know folks would like to see ‘an if x, then y’ situation for behavior and discipline, but that’s not how we operate. Every case is really individualized.”
Leyko pointed out that guidelines, including those put forth by the Michigan Department of Education, inform the district’s approaches. MDE specifies that teachers and administrators consider seven factors:
- the pupil’s age;
- the pupil’s disciplinary history;
- whether the student has a disability;
- the seriousness of the violation or behavior committed by the pupil;
- whether the violation or behavior committed by the pupil threatened the safety of any other pupil or staff member;
- whether restorative practices will be used to address the violation or behavior committed by the pupil; and
- whether a lesser intervention would properly address the violation or behavior committed by the pupil.
Two teachers who spoke to ELi on the condition of anonymity said they believe that administrators are overwhelmed but would like to see some stronger disciplinary measures at ELHS.
Both said they are sensitive to the fact that Black students and students of color have historically received harsher punishments for poor behavior than their white counterparts.
One stated that they supported the district’s decision to no longer have a resource officer from the East Lansing Police Department or security guards present in the building, actions taken in an attempt to foster more racial equity.
But, they said, a new approach to handle disciplinary infractions must be developed. They pointed out that student advocates might be able to assist and that, with the hiring of a new school nurse, an assistant principal (who had been handling issues related to Covid) might be able to assist more in addressing student behavior.
The other educator said they wanted stricter disciplinary consequences to send a message to students that aggressive or violent behavior will not be tolerated.
As for masking, ELHS teachers are advocating for a three-step process for better enforcement. At the first instance, the teacher will try to insist on immediate corrective behavior. After that, the teacher will contact parents or guardians about the issue. If that does not work, the teacher will inform parents or guardians that the student may be removed from class for improper mask wearing.
In the case of the teacher who was punched, ELPS administrators shortened the suspension, leaving neither Woods nor ELHS teachers happy.
Speaking to ELi after meeting with Superintendent Leyko and Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham on Tuesday, Oct. 12, Woods said that his son would be able to return to school the next day but would be barred from participating in Trojan football through Friday evening. His son was also required to participate in several restorative justice meetings.
Woods told ELi that he did not see this as fair, arguing that if the suspension was lifted and his son was participating in restorative justice, then why bar him from football? Woods said his son is currently being scouted for college football and that this situation could seriously adversely affect his educational and economic future.
Woods expressed frustration with the entire process, from not immediately receiving information on the appeals process to repetitive meetings with administrators.
Meanwhile, Pontoni (of the teachers’ union) reached out to ELi to say that he learned after the meeting that some misunderstood his comments as a call for expulsion.
“My mention of expulsion in my statement was only to point out what punishment was possible under state law,” wrote Pontoni.
Speaking to his personal views, he said, “Everyone who knows me understands that I oppose expulsion and suspension of students except in the most extreme cases. This has been true my entire teaching career.”
ELi filed two other FOIA requests – one with MacDonald Middle School and one with ELHS – to compare disciplinary issues this year with previous years. Because the material search would be substantial, the district informed us yesterday that the anticipated cost to ELi for obtaining this information would be $535.76. ELi’s editorial team is discussing whether this use of ELi funds is appropriate, as the data obtained would also require substantial staff resources for processing and reporting.
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