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As Schools Reopen, Safety Dominates Conversation  | #schoolsaftey

After what has been a violent summer, thousands of District public school students returned to school this week. 

On Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) made the rounds at a couple of public schools to kick off the school year and make note of school renovations and incremental post-pandemic academic improvement. 

Even amid some teachers’ concerns about school safety, Bowser maintained a positive outlook. 

“We spoke to a number of teachers who are excited about teaching,” Bowser said. “Staff [members] have the skills to get students back to pre-pandemic levels of achievement and they know how serious we are about safety.” 

Another Set of Contract Negotiations on the Horizon

On Monday, Bowser and D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee visited Raymond Education Campus in Northwest. They later joined President Joe Biden (D) and first lady Dr. Jill Biden at Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast where the commander in chief greeted students during lunch time and shadowed an eighth grade math class alongside Bowser and Ferebee. 

Biden’s visit to Eliot-Hine Middle School, the latest of several made by a sitting U.S. president to a D.C. school in recent years, happened as the clock continues to wind down on the expiration of a contract the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) solidified with DCPS. 

In November, the WTU, which had been in the midst of negotiations with Bowser and Ferebee since 2019, finalized its retroactive contract. During the negotiations, WTU unsuccessfully attempted to get the contract extended out of deference for the lengthy process. 

Elements of the contract, which expires on Sept. 30, include a 12% pay raise over four years, a 4% retention bonus, an increase in an administration premium and the inclusion of vision, dental and legal benefits. Toward the end of last school year, teachers started receiving portions of their back pay. However, WTU leaders said some teachers are still waiting for money owed to them. 

WTU President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons said the collective bargaining team consists of nearly 30 educators from every aspect of the teaching profession. Earlier this summer, they compiled 17 recommendations about school safety — including Safe Passage and emergency preparedness. 

Pogue Lyons expressed her hope that those recommendations would be compiled into a memorandum of agreement that would become part of the finalized teachers’  contract for 2023-2027. She told The Informer that Ferebee didn’t initially respond to the 17 recommendations, which had been inspired, in part, by a WTU survey of 750 teachers. 

That survey highlighted apprehension among teachers about safety conditions in D.C. schools. Pogue Lyons said that 45% of respondents have considered leaving the profession. For her, solidifying the 2023-2027 contract has become a matter of retaining a solid educator workforce in underserved communities. 

“Last year, we had a lot of teachers who had a number of incidents in their schools that gave them pause,” Pogue Lyons said. “They’ve never seen the levels of fights and students talking back. Even veteran teachers found that it would be hard to de-escalate situations. They felt more worried about student-on-student violence.” 

At Eliot-Hine Middle School on Monday, Ferebee said 98% of teaching positions have been filled in the school system. Pogue Lyons said WTU is currently working on calculating the net change in the teacher workforce, telling the Informer that the office received the names of newly hired teachers shortly before teacher orientation.  

Education Leaders Brainstorm Response to Safety Concerns 

In the weeks leading up to the school year, education officials have gelled together plans to curb violence in and around schools. 

On Aug. 17, Bowser revealed recommendations that the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) made in response to her public safety order earlier this year — including the development of conflict resolution coursework, increasing accountability and preventing bigger conflicts, and the availability of out-of-school options for the most severe disciplinary infractions. 

In a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), the author of legislation that launches conflict resolution programs in D.C. schools, lauded the DME’s recommendations. 

Days earlier, at a school safety community forum hosted by the William O. Lockridge Community Foundation at Ballou High School in Southeast, principals from Ballou, Eastern High School, H.D. Woodson High School, and KIPP DC Legacy Preparatory cited strong Safe Passage programs, consistent accountability measures, collaboration with parents and students, and an inviting environment as elements that better ensure safety on and around school grounds. 

William Haith, principal of Ballou Senior High School, recently walked around Congress Heights in Southeast to get a sense of what community members and business owners wanted to see during the school year. On the Aug. 18 edition of The Washington Informer’s WIN-TV, Haith said that community members, and particularly students, desire more staff visibility. 

To that point, Haith alluded to ongoing efforts to fulfill Ballou’s curriculum redesign so teachers become more equipped to help students feel safe at school. 

“We’re targeting adults and training them to welcome and receive students,” Haith said. “We should be able to identify signs of stress being put on them. It’s important to create an environment with a sense of belonging.  We want to build up our teachers, security personnel and [other] workers so that students are welcome and [the adults] can identify signs of need.” 

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