Cheltenham High School parents, teachers ask that something be done about recent violence

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More than 300 parents, residents, teachers and students packed Cheltenham High School’s auditorium Monday night to press for answers on the recent school violence that has rocked the school district — but a student body president stole the show with her penetrating questions for administrators.

Paige Kytzidis drew several standing ovations during an impassioned speech in which she charged that students have been begging leaders at Cheltenham High School for more aggressive action on unruly conditions in the school’s corridors going back to 2014.

 “Why now?” she asked, referring to Monday’s meeting and promises by district officials to finally address the problems that exploded last Wednesday with a student brawl that injured 10 adults and led to the arrest of four students. She asked why it took injured teachers and TV news reports to get action.

“Why not before? Why wasn’t anything done when clearly students  have needed services or interventions in our schools?”

Kytzidis’ pleas were backed up a steady stream of angry parents who criticized the district for not taking action sooner, including several who said they no longer plan to send their children to Cheltenham schools.

“Students are failing because of adult failures,” said one of several parents who complained that violence and unruliness had been a problem long before Wednesday’s melee.

 The overflow community meeting capped a wild week that started with Wednesday’s early-morning outbreak of violence and led to a push for solutions.  As attendees entered, they passed a table with a floral arrangement and a get well card for the injured staffers, including a substitute teacher who suffered a concussion and was hospitalized after the fight.

The racially diverse suburb on Philadelphia’s northern border has been roiled over the past week by reports of unruly behavior and violence at the 1,500-student high school, punctuated by a wild hallway brawl Wednesday that injured seven teachers and three security officers trying to break it up.

Teachers and their union leaders say the fracas — which drew wide coverage in local media — showcased an out-of-control climate at the school that has been festering for years.

After the brawl, the teachers’ union released a 16-page school-climate report from February in which faculty members described a culture of violence and disrespect in which students constantly fought, jostled and kicked each other, cursed at teachers and occasionally slammed them into walls, and barged into classrooms during instruction.

Even before Monday night’s meeting, scores of parents had been debating the school-violence issue on Facebook and other social media. Some said the news reports were painting an unfairly harsh picture of Cheltenham schools and giving the district a bad name, but others pledged support for teachers’ calls for stepped-up security.

Superintendent Wagner Marseille and other school leaders met with union representatives late last week to discuss stationing trained teachers and staff in the hallways between classes, a possible cell phone ban, and other measures that would address faculty members’ concerns. Teachers have also asked the district to look at establishing a disciplinary school to divert troublesome students.

On Monday night, Marseilles said the district is taking a number of immediate steps to tackle the problem, including sending an assistant superintendent to work out of the high school full-time, increasing staff in hallways and the cafeteria, and fast-tracking a joint program with the University of Pennsylvania to assist in reducing tensions. He said next year the district plans to shorten lunch breaks by 17 minutes, increase training for staffers in de-escalating confrontations, and develop action plans for students with the worst disciplinary problems.

Marseilles won light applause when he said he wants “to limit the risk of teachers having to put themselves selflessly in harm’s way to protect students.”

He added: “My heart truly, truly goes out to the staff members who intervened in last week’s altercation.”

But many parents voiced anger at Marseilles and other district officials, saying they were too slow to respond to complaints about fighting and other bad behavior.

Senior Isabel DuBois told the meeting that administrators had initially ignored her complaints that a student was sexually harassing and bullying her. Then, they put him in her class the following year after promising not to. She also complained that teachers are hampered in their efforts to control the hallways.

“If they can’t do their jobs and try to protect us without getting into trouble, what are we supposed to do?” she asked.

One parent who said she was a graduate of Cheltenham schools and now has a child about to enter kindergarten, said she’ll likely send her child elsewhere. She said relatives have warned her about constant fights in school, and she also questioned why Cheltenham doesn’t have many non-white teachers.

Marseilles agreed with several speakers that the district has to address issues surrounding race, including a gap in student achievement. He told the crowd he takes “personal responsibility” for the problems at the high school.

Beforehand, community members expressed their hopes that the event would bring some healing to a suburban community where emotions had been raw as the viral video of the brawl was aired repeatedly on TV news for days.

Indeed, the night began with a Philadelphia psychologist who specializes in mindfulness, Louis Alloro, who called the meeting “a beautiful showing of caring” and urged attendees to “take a deep breath, pause, listen and understand.”

 “I just hope we can all come together and come up with solutions,” Danielle Ross of Wyncote, the mother of three Cheltenham students, said before the meeting. She came with her 15-year-old daughter Camille, a 10th grader taking advanced placement and honors courses at the high school, who agreed the school doesn’t do enough to address nagging safety issues.

She said some violators “are slapped on the wrist. I can wander the halls and nobody says anything.”

 Some long-time residents said they were troubled by reports and came to find out what was going on.

“If the reports are accurate, then people have been asleep the whole time,” said 74-year-old Joe Looby of Glenside, whose son had attended district schools. “The teachers have been saying this has been going on for years.”

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