METAIRIE, La. — This is Part 2 of "How Safe is Your School?" an Eyewitness Investigation by Katie Moore. Click here to see Part 1.
Morning drop-offs at Stella Worley Middle School in Westwego are a little different than at some other schools. Not for the students necessarily, but for the teachers and administrators who greet them.
“It usually tells in their faces as they're getting off the bus, and that's why we greet them in the mornings. We want to see their faces. We want to see their eyes. We want to see if they're smiling or if their fists are clenched,” said Worley Principal Michelle Biagas-Cojoe.
Teachers are looking to see if the kids are either calm coming onto campus, or agitated, to stop fights from happening before they start.
“More often than not, this is either a neighborhood issue that flows into the school or early the next morning. And that is when most of our issues happen or it's a social media issue where students are engaged in whether it's Instagram or Snapchat or some outlet on social media where they're communicating inappropriately with each other. And then that leads to an altercation at the school,” said Jefferson Parish Public Schools Superintendent Cade Brumley.
Data from the Louisiana Department of Education show Worley reported 42 incidents of violence last year, the second highest number of any school in the state. The school is one of seven JP middle schools that ranked in the top ten Louisiana schools reporting the most incidents of violence.
“What our students tell us, and I know because they've told me, is that they know that school is a safer place to fight. And I know that's odd,” Brumley continued, “But what they mean is if they fight on the street, they're not sure that there may be a weapon involved. And they're fairly certain at school that that's not going to be the case. They also tell me that if they fight at school, that they feel like someone's going to break that fight up and that fight will stop.”
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Riverdale Middle School reported the most violence in the state, 72 incidents, compared with Worley’s 42.
We asked to interview the principal and students at Riverdale. School district officials denied that request, instead Principal Biagas-Cojoe at Worley sat down with us and selected three 8th Grade students for us to speak with about the school: Kaylyn Sosnowski, Donjanae Mansion and Ciara Lee.
“The drama turns into violence. Or people will feel left out. And it's just it's horrible to see that people can be so cruel like that sometimes,” Lee said.
“I feel like there is a conflict at Worley, because every now and then you'll see people shouting at a teacher or people yelling at their parents,” Sosnowski said.
So far this year, Principal Biagas-Cojoe says the violence has improved.
“I think we had two major [fights] this year and one was coming off of the bus in the morning at 7:30 in the morning. You don't have time to do anything at school at that point. And then we had one that was, it was an off-campus issue, two different neighborhoods that didn't mix,” Biagas-Cojoe said.
Brumley announced last week he wants to realign a number of JP schools with a push to keep kids at the same schools from pre-Kindergarten through 8th Grade. He said studies have shown greater student retention and achievement when they remain in elementary schools, not to mention a decrease in the violence.
Worley is not on the list of changing schools.
“Our suspension rate with the ones we inherited when we came in was 36.4. Last year, we got it down to 24 and this year we're at 16 with our goal is to get it below 20,” Biagas-Cojoe said about the rates of discipline at the school.
The students we spoke with seem to agree the school is making progress.
“Sixth and seventh grade year was when it happened a lot. Eighth grade, I feel like people matured over time and they just figured out how to resolve their solutions better,” Sosnowski said, “Although we have seen a couple of fights here and there. You can't stop them from happening.”
Mansion said she feels like there has been a change in how the students deal with conflict.
“I feel like we have consequences, like the consequences that we get paid. When we have fights, we get a consequence. Like we had a dance and they had a lot of fights, so they canceled it,” she said.
While Worley’s ranking last year for the number of violent incidents at the school is troubling for those in the school community, Biagas-Cojoe said transparency about the school’s problems has helped to make a change.
“You can't hide things if you need resources. From us doing the things that we've done, where we were able to secure the Leader in Me program, you know, from us being transparent about what's going on here at Worley,” she said.
"The Leader in Me" is a program developed, in part, by Stephen Covey, author of best-selling book the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."
The students describe it as motivational messages and strategies they get as part of the curriculum daily.
“The Leader in Me program is about how we are going to plan our lives,” Sosnowski said.
“It makes us think about what choices we have to make and what do we have to go through life to get somewhere,” Mansion said.
“They tell you how to be a better person in general, how to put things first. Being able to be in the mind, be proactive, all types of things like that,” Lee said.
The vast majority of Worley students qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is based on the family’s income. Biagas-Cojoe also secured a grant to let all of the students have free breakfast and lunch every day, part of their focus on the whole child.
“I think that Worley is like, people judge Worley based on all the bad things that kids do, but they don't judge it off all the good things that we do.” Lee went on to describe some of those good things, “Like there's kids in the honors program who have such potential and bright minds, the drama program. It helps a lot of kids like me, you know, express our ways.”
While the students are hopeful at Worley that the violence will at least slow down, some teachers and parents we spoke with off camera are concerned the district overall needs to ramp up discipline at the schools, beyond adding counseling and new programming.
“It is a district-wide issue, so much it is almost a policy, that the 'discipline' system has no real consequences. The district doesn’t want to inconvenience nor anger the families of students by giving them out of school suspensions or expelling them/recommending for alternative school. Therefore, students and their families have learned by the many examples set forth that they can get away with just about anything,” one teacher, who asked not to be named, said in response to our first report on the issue.
When asked whether Jefferson Parish Public Schools have a problem with violence, former middle school disciplinarian and School Board Member Billy North said, “I think Jefferson Parish community has a large problem. All right? I think, you know, we do not teach fighting and we don't teach kids how to carry guns. We don't teach bullying in our curriculum. That's learned behavior that kids come to our schools with. Now, we have to take care of that and every day we work hard to change that behavior.”
The district has also been adding additional counselors and social workers to the schools to help with students who are struggling.
Brumley said one of other factors adding to students’ desire to fight on school campuses instead of in their neighborhoods is a greater chance someone will be around to catch the fight on video.
Those videos are then being shared on social media. It’s one of many new challenges in an age when almost every student, including those in middle schools has a phone in their pocket.