'This is impacting the whole city': Rochester community members try to curb school violence
Every person in the Rochester community has power and it will take an army of those powerful people to make progress as the city school district wrestles with an increase in violence inside schools.
Seanelle Hawkins, Urban League of Rochester president and CEO, facilitated a morning of discussion and reflection Saturday at Benjamin Franklin High School on Norton Street. She wanted the more than 100 people gathered to understand they had the agency and the access to school leaders in helping to devise a plan to quell violence and improve safety.
"The goal today is to bring about actions and solutions," Hawkins said. "To hear everyone's voice, to create an opportunity for that, and really bring change for tomorrow. ... This isn't just a one-off conversation."
But many who attended the forum voiced frustration and concern over the lack of action undertaken by district leaders thus far. In a letter to superintendent Lesli Myers-Small and other district leaders Friday, a coalition of parent groups complained that parents had not been sufficiently involved in the administration’s response to the uptick in violence and pressed for details on the superintendent’s plans.
They wrote that parents were in “overwhelming agreement” that more should be invested in social-emotional supports and restorative practices, and criticized Myers-Small for her “reactionary” decision to invite police onto school property.
“We are concerned that the district sees only student behaviors as the issue, and not the compounded issues that drive these behaviors,” the parents wrote.
Julie Rossette, a counselor at School of the Arts, was among a group of teachers and parents raising concerns over the lack of action taken by the district thus far.
"The social and emotional needs of our students are not being met," Rossette said. "The conversation about adding police back to buildings is just looking for a quick fix. We know from the past that having police in our buildings doesn't actually deter any violence. If anything, it just causes more issues and it's easier for students to be arrested and then be pushed into the criminal justice system. When police officers were removed from our buildings, there was no plan implemented to add additional supports like social workers. We're still waiting for that."
Myers-Small previously didn’t endorse the return of Rochester police officers to secondary schools. But she did state the importance of continuing conversations with law enforcement.
She said it was incredibly important to engage the community.
"We have school staff paired with community members, they're going to be taking copious notes," Myers-Small said. "Those plans will be funneled to me and my team for our review. I'll give an update to the board. My expectation is that we'll set additional dates so we can move forward. Time is of the essence."
Dhoretha Pass said she can't remain silent as a mother of two students in the city school district. Her sons attend Leadership Academy for Young Men, a high school on the Charlotte High School campus.
"This is impacting the whole city, it's impacting my kids," she said. She wants to see an expanded mentorship program, where students are paired with community members outside of the schools.
"We have a community with no sense of unity," Pass said. "We're here to see if we can get the community together and involve everybody, nobody left out. It's affecting everybody, no matter who you are or what you do in this city."
Officer Moses Robinson, a community engagement officer for the Rochester Police Department and longtime school resource officer (before the program was ended last year), said the healing process has started and the people seated in the school auditorium are the strategy and ultimately the solution.
While pledging RPD's support, he said, "People should not be afraid of the people who are supposed to protect them."
School safety consortium
Amid incidents at other schools throughout Monroe County, whether it be interruptions at board meetings or threats posed on social media, law enforcement and school safety personnel are working hand-in-hand to share information and strategies.
Steve Chatterton, Greece Central School District director of school safety and security, said the COVID-19 pandemic and proliferation of remote learning for more than a year created an environment where students are having difficulties transitioning back into the classroom. He added open dialogue with law enforcement is necessary to head off potential conflicts.
"A lot of issues with our fights occurred on social media," said Chatterton, a retired Greece police captain. "They've been brewing for 18 months and then all of a sudden they see this person they're having a beef with on social media and we have fights on video where there were no words exchanged.
"I would say 98% of our issues are on social media and they're outside of school hours."
That's why Chatterton and other representatives from the Monroe County Schools and Community Safety Consortium held a press conference Thursday afternoon at Gates Town Hall to voice the mission of the group and show the cooperation behind-the-scenes that they say often leads to peaceful outcomes.
The consortium started in the aftermath of the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999. But it has ramped up over the past two years under the leadership of Gary Rose, who worked for nearly 25 years in local school districts, including stints in Brockport, Rush-Henrietta, Spencerport, and BOCES II. Rose, now the chief of security at Monroe Community Hospital, said the group, which doesn't receive any public funding, is designed to encourage information sharing among participants.
The list of participating agencies and school district has risen to 70, Rose said. And the consortium communicates daily and meets quarterly to brainstorm best practices and training techniques. It's fair to think of the group as a large group chat, where information is shared constantly via email, Rose said.
"We've got a bunch of different people represented because it just makes sense," Rose said. "People need to know what happens behind the scenes. It's not just superintendents making decisions. The heart of it is the security personnel, the law enforcement agencies. You can't quantify the difference they make because (they intervened and things didn't happen."
Recognizing the importance of mental health supports, Rose said that after group members make contact, the goal is to mobilize different resources within districts and make sure students are supported.
Most recently, the consortium consulted after Gates police responded to a stolen vehicle and reported home invasion robbery that ended near Gates Chili schools. School authorities activated the district's lockout procedures until three teenage suspects were taken into custody.
Rochester Police Officer Moses Robinson and James Sheppard, RCSD's director of school security and safety, are both members of the consortium. While declining to comment on Myers-Small's safety plan, VanBrederode said that each district is different.
“That’s her school. She has to deal with her constituents," VanBrederode said. If that’s what works for them, great. Over in Gates, things are different over here. They ran into a shortage of security guards. They said, 'Hey, can you give us some police officers?' It's a a whole different environment."
Contact Will Cleveland at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @willcleveland13. Thanks to our subscribers for supporting quality local journalism. If you aren’t a subscriber, please consider a digital subscription.