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Lawrence middle school community voices concerns about safety, spate of resignations

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A rough start to the year has left many in the Liberty Memorial Central Middle School community reeling and parents worrying.

Three teachers resigned in October, Lawrence school district spokesperson Julie Boyle has confirmed. In early September, a staff member was knocked down and hit their head on the floor during a fight at the school, 1400 Massachusetts St. Paramedics evaluated the staff member as a precaution but did not transport them, Boyle said in an email.

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Across the district, eight teachers have left their jobs midyear. It’s not common for teachers to break contract, but it happens, and for a variety of reasons. Although some school districts have penalty clauses for resigning midyear, there is no monetary penalty in the Lawrence school district.

During the 2020-2021 school year, 19 teachers resigned from the district. By comparison, six teachers left their jobs during the 2019-2020 school year, Boyle said. “Teachers resign for a variety of personal reasons, such as family needs, moves, health, other professional opportunities, etc. The district has seen an increase in the number of teacher resignations since the pandemic began.”

Administrative carousel

At the four district middle schools, people new to that building or position filled six of eight leadership roles this school year — all four assistant principals/athletic directors and the head principals at Southwest and West.

Head principals at Billy Mills and LMCMS started their jobs in the 2020-2021 school year — the first full school year of the pandemic — rounding out a 100% turnover rate during a two-year period at the four district middle schools. That type of turnover can wreak havoc on building consistency, communication and morale.

Parents have shared that they’re worried about their students’ safety, and for the future of the school. A parent who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons said they held a number of concerns about happenings at LMCMS during their child’s last two years there. During their child’s first year at LMCMS, they said, they were surprised at the end of the school day to learn — from their child — they had lost a tooth in a collision with a staff member. Citing the accident as “no fault of the staff member’s,” they said they held no animus toward the educator but felt concerned that no one in administration reached out to the child’s guardians after the event.

Communication challenges have persisted, they said, including the family’s wait for several months last school year, despite repeated requests, to receive a copy of a 504 plan that addressed their student’s disability.

A teacher’s perspective

Mandana Ershadi-Hurt, eighth grade science teacher at LMCMS, said the school often receives “a bad rap” despite its tradition of excellence and community. She said the school’s performances throughout the years at Science Olympiad prove it can compete on the state level with the likes of Blue Valley and private schools.

During the 2019-2020 school year, LMCMS took 28 Model United Nations delegates to competition, where Maebelle Hamlin took home Best Overall Middle School Delegate honors. Excalibur, the school’s choir, was selected to perform at the Kansas Music Educators’ Association conference. And right now, the school’s annual Fun Run fundraiser — a 40-year tradition — is underway with a goal of raising $25,000. 

“Nobody talks about the good stuff Central does,” she said. “Whenever there’s something not positive about Central, it gets glorified. It’s unfair.”

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After a career in microbiology, Ershadi-Hurt found a second one in teaching. And after 16 years at LMCMS, Ershadi-Hurt will retire in May. If her hopes pan out, she will help again at LMCMS on a part-time or volunteer basis. 

The LMCMS family, she said, is a tight-knit community that gives back, even years after leaving. Although Ersadi-Hurt raised her family within another Lawrence middle school’s boundaries, she requested and received approval from the district for all three of her children to attend LMCMS. One of them aspires to be a high school teacher and hopes to perform her student teaching there.

Ershadi-Hurt said she understands others’ concerns about safety, but she doesn’t feel scared at work. She mentioned a recent TikTok challenge to slap a teacher: “Central kids are not the type of kids who go around purposely abusing teachers.” 

She described her fellow teachers as “truly great” colleagues. “We’re excited to be there and to do what we can for the school and the kids. I truly like the job, and I truly like the kids.”

But, Ershadi-Hurt emphasized, that’s just her own perspective; she doesn’t want to underestimate issues the school and its educators face.

Behavior stats

The school district launched restorative practices at LMCMS and BMMS two years ago, with a rollout at WMS and SWMS in 2020-21 and high schools this fall. Similar to restorative justice, the philosophy centers on creating a culture where incidents that might otherwise result in exclusionary or punitive consequences — such as an out-of-school suspension — are treated as opportunities to help students recognize the impact of their actions while promoting responsibility and community with a commitment to repair relationships and make things right going forward.

Along with restorative practices data, behavior incidents district educators keep electronic records of in PowerSchool include academic misconduct, attendance issues, bullying, discrimination, fighting, theft, vandalism, misuse of technology, weapons, sexual harassment, physical violence against peers or staff, threats, and possession or sale of alcohol, tobacco or drugs. 

District behavior statistics shared with the school board at its Oct. 25 meeting shows the highest number of behavior incidents across the district recorded per student at LMCMS and BMMS.

Screenshot/USD 497 Behavior data for the first quarter of the 2021-2022 school year in Lawrence Public Schools

LMCMS enrolls 497 students and came in slightly ahead with behavior data recorded for 55 individuals, or 11.1% of students. And with 547 students, 60 students accounted for the behavior data at BMMS — or about 11% of its student body. 

By comparison, at WMS, there were 39 behavior incidents recorded for 29 students of the 611 enrolled, or 4.7% of students; and at SWMS, there were 21 behavior incidents recorded for 28 students of the 630 enrolled, or 3.3% of students. What the data doesn’t break down, however, is how many incidents any individual student contributed to the stats.

Stakeholders at both middle and high schools said they had witnessed “higher than normal” numbers of fights — even daily — this fall. At the two high schools, Lawrence High had reported eight fights this school year, and Free State High reported six, Boyle said.

When asked about the number of police and ambulance calls made to district schools this fall and how it compared to previous years, Boyle said the district does not track them. “We have a strong partnership with the Lawrence Police Department, which has assigned two school resource officers to each of our high schools. The SROs also assist the elementary and middle schools as needed.”

“None of our schools has reported any serious injuries this school year,” Boyle said.

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Cracks in a system

From a teacher’s perspective, Ershadi-Hurt said social isolation and lack of structure during the pandemic has proved difficult for youth.

“All the middle schools are having issues, as are elementary and high schools, from what I hear,” she said. “The 16 months of isolation has been difficult on the kids and obviously it’s been harder on kids whose parents weren’t able to stay home with them and give them the structure that school gives them. A large population of those kids go to Central.”

Kansas State Department of Education data shows 43.9% of the student population at LMCMS in 2021 qualified as economically disadvantaged — the highest rate among district secondary schools — with BMMS following second at 41.6%; SWMS had the lowest rate, at 15.3%.

Ershadi-Hurt acknowledged she had noticed more behavioral challenges this fall than before COVID-19. “Out of 110 students, maybe 20 to 25 have behavior challenges.”

But, she said, discipline and behavior only make up a portion of the challenges. Many students already showed a noticeable regression in learning skills pre-pandemic, she said. Ershadi-Hurt called for changes across the fragile American education system. 

“We’ve fragmented education too much and we have lost some of the essential skills,” she said. “We need to go back to teaching more basic problem-solving skills, research … they’re very small skills, but when you add them together and a bunch of kids are missing those skills, it becomes an issue.”

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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