Suspensions Skyrocket at San Francisco School Struggling with Violence

By Trey Bundy / Bay Citizen
|  Tuesday, Sep 11, 2012  |  Updated 3:15 PM PDT
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Struggling SF School Sees Suspension Spike

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School is standing out for not only its violence, but also the managerial response to students.

While every school has its problems, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco stands out.

Former school security guard Tobias Cain said he underwent surgeries for a knee injury and a hernia that he blamed on trying to physically restrain a student last year. Then there was the student who “threw a phone at my head and got a two-day suspension. He came back and resumed his normal tactics and nothing else happened.”

“Fights, play fights, threatening behaviors are daily occurrences,” Cain said. “We call the police about two or three times a week.”

That description reflects a pattern of violence and disarray at the school, which has seen skyrocketing student suspension rates and several staff injuries, including two security guards who wound up on extended medical leave, according to teachers and other employees.

Amid the chaos, school administrators have faced allegations from teachers union officials that the school targeted its members by unfairly downgrading performance reviews and dismissing more than a dozen employees – about a third of its staff.

Principal Natalie Eberhard declined to comment on the personnel moves. About the school’s violent history, she said she was working to transform Martin Luther King so that it is “safe for everyone.”

Known for high suspension rates and low test scores, the school also has garnered unwanted headlines related to student safety. In 2011, several children ingested cubes of rat poison they found in their classroom and had mistaken for candy. Three years ago, two boys raped a female student in the gym during school hours.

Teacher Judy Gerber, who has taught at the school for eight years, said concerns over violence and unruliness at Martin Luther King are not overblown.

“Last year was the first year in my teaching career that fights broke out in my classroom,” she said. “I think that says something about the level of chaos in the school.”

Police records show that officers at the Bayview station responded to 149 calls at Martin Luther King last school year. Thirteen calls were for battery and 12 were for fights. An additional 18 calls were for burglary, theft, weapons, threats, aggravated assault, missing juveniles and students who caused disturbances or were “beyond control.”

Roughly 525 students attend Martin Luther King, which occupies a block in the city’s southeastern Portola neighborhood. African American and Latino students each make up about 20 percent of the school’s population, Asian students about half. Eighty percent of the school’s students qualify for meal subsidies.

Eberhard, who was a first-time principal last year, said she could not discuss complaints from personnel or incidents involving students and parents. She acknowledged that the school deals with many children coping with trauma.

“Most of our kids do great behaviorally,” she said. “Those who struggle have a lot of issues – not all of them, but many of them.”

The school’s counseling team – Lonetta Spears, David Kaplan, Laura Hurley and Karen Green – described more widespread problems on the campus in an October letter to the union: “At M.L.K., the students are in constant crisis mode. As soon as one crisis is over another one begins. There are (so) many students in turmoil that we constantly have to do crisis counseling.”

Two months into last school year, the letter stated, Eberhard and Assistant Principal Anthony Braxton had signed off on 80 student suspensions – most related to physical altercations – rivaling the 82 suspensions issued during the entire previous school year.

In February, James Galgano, one of the dismissed teachers, told the Board of Education that the number of suspensions had reached 164. The increase at Martin Luther King contrasted sharply with a four-year trend toward fewer suspensions in the school district. San Francisco public schools issued 2,082 suspensions during the 2010-11 school year, down from 4,341 three years earlier. The district refused to release the total number of suspensions at Martin Luther King last year. The teachers union, the United Educators of San Francisco, says administrators retaliated against staff members who spoke out about safety problems and site mismanagement at Martin Luther King by forcing them out of the school. The charges are aimed at Eberhard and Braxton, who both joined the school last fall. Since then, union officials said, the pair has removed 13 of 38 employees who worked at the school last year – five teachers, three counselors, two teachers’ aides, two security guards and a secretary who had been with the school since it opened – leaving a staff of largely new faces to cope with one of the most challenging schools in the district. “Nobody wants to see it go the way it did last year,” Gerber said as fall classes were beginning last month. “Some of the teachers that were let go were fine teachers, respected by the students, doing the best they could without administrative support.” The union filed an unfair practice charge against the district with the California Public Employment Relations Board in May. A response is still pending. Several of the ousted employees were members of the school’s union-building committee. At a meeting of the Board of Education in February, union representative Allan Brill argued that Eberhard and Braxton had issued negative teacher evaluations and involuntary transfers in an effort to weaken the union and silence dissent over conditions at the school. Eberhard dismissed the four counselors last spring. The principal replaced them with district social workers. She said they were better trained to serve students who require “intense socio-emotional and mental health support.” One of them, Spears, was called back to work at Martin Luther King the week before school started last month. She declined to comment for this story. Groups of up to 20 school employees, parents and students have attended seven board meetings this year to complain about the school’s “abusive” administration. Sandy Thompson, whose son attended sixth grade at Martin Luther King last year, told the board in May that Braxton had threatened to call the police if she came to the school again, after she repeatedly complained that the boy had been assaulted on campus. “I’ve been getting bullied; I’ve been getting hurt,” the boy told the board. “I had a knife pulled on me at my own school.” Board members declined to comment on the complaints, which they said were being addressed by district administrators. “The board is aware of the allegations and takes allegations like these very seriously,” said Rachel Norton, vice president of the board. When Braxton and Eberhard arrived at Martin Luther King last fall, the school had been through five administrations in the previous five years. “We know that this school has a history, and it’s not a very positive one in the past four or five years,” Eberhard said in an interview. “Mr. Braxton and I came with the purpose of making this a school that is safe for everyone, that people want to attend and that’s a highly sought-after school.” Jeannie Pon, assistant superintendent of middle schools, declined interview requests, but she dismissed complaints about the school in an email statement to The Bay Citizen. Pon wrote that Eberhard had made great strides to improve student learning last year, including increased teacher accountability. “Some MLK Middle School staff members,” the statement read, “have had a history of challenging administrators and enlisting disgruntled parents in those challenges.” This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee. The Bay Citizen is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit www.baycitizen.org. Bundy can be reached at tbundy@cironline.org.

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