EVERETT — Around December, Andraya Bustad’s teen daughter couldn’t quite put what was happening at school into words.
Throughout the year, the seventh grader would start to open up to her mom about fights at Evergreen Middle School — during lunch, passing periods and especially recess. The violence became so frequent, the middle schooler was worried for her safety.
“She would tell me there was one to two fights a day at school,” Bustad said. “I almost kind of thought it was a pre-teen exaggeration in a way.”
In May, with five weeks of school left, Bustad decided to file a public records request to see how many fights had been documented at the middle school.
The district responded with numbers not only from Evergreeen, but from four other district middle schools as well.
What Bustad found shocked her.
Evergreen proved the most violent middle school in the district, recording the most fights, 168 from September to May, and the most fights resulting in serious injuries, 12.
That was dozens more fights than the next worst school.
“This is unacceptable to me to have one to two fights a day,” Bustad said. “The number of fights have exceeded the days in the school year already.”
She is among a growing number of parents bringing their concerns about school violence to Cathy Woods, the district’s regional superintendent who oversees Evergreen and several other schools.
Under the state’s system for tracking school violence, fights are divided into three general categories: Assaults with major injury, assaults without injury and physical aggression without injury.
Below is the number of fights each middle school reported, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
• Evergreen Middle School: 168
• North Middle School: 106
• Eisenhower Middle School: 70
• Heatherwood Middle School: 42
• Gateway Middle School: 24
Those numbers do not include about 50 cases involving students who egged on fights.
In the 2021-2022 school year, Evergreen Middle School saw 202 fights, according to the state’s data.
A district spokesperson cautioned the numbers could be “misleading” and used to make broad, inaccurate generalizations about the school.
The focus on school violence comes as a former Evergreen family filed a $20 million damage claim against the district earlier this month. The complaint alleges students beat their gay son throughout the school year, often targeting him with homophobic and racist slurs.
“This mob mentality is being allowed to grow and fester in a middle school and that is beyond belief,” the family’s attorney, Sim Osborne, said.
The mother, who asked not to be identified, said she called the school about three or four times a week to urge they intervene.
“We had to call and harass them to get them to have a conversation with us on how their going to keep him safe in school,” she said.
After an alleged beating in May was posted to social media, the boy’s parents decided to remove their son from school and take legal action. The videos of their son have since been taken down.
Everett Public Schools spokesperson Kathy Reeves said the district can’t “make any further comment” due to the pending litigation.
‘It goes viral’
In May, Bustad’s daughter went to recess late one day and a crowd of students “immediately” surrounded her and pulled out their phones. A boy handed his friend his backpack, and went into “fight mode,” Bustad’s daughter told her mother. The girl escaped without injury. Administrators arranged for the boy and the girl to have a mediation session, Bustad said.
A week later, Bustad’s daughter found herself again surrounded by a crowd, this time in the back of the school with no adults around, the mother said. After some girls shoved her, the same boy from the week before began beating her. Several bystanders recorded the attack.
The video circulated around the school, Bustad said
“We watched the video, and I said out loud, ‘Oh my God, that was planned. That was a completely planned, targeted attack,’” Bustad said. “They didn’t get the fight they felt like they were essentially ‘owed’ the week before. So I feel like they set it up.”
Videos posted to Instagram and TikTok show dozens of such fights in Evergreen Middle School. In the hallways, the cafeteria and the asphalt of the covered basketball courts. The videos often show two students grabbing and punching each other. Peers surround them. A security guard or staff member breaks up the altercation. Students disperse.
Some accounts post scores of who seemed to win the fight and how many blows each person landed.
“It goes viral within a peer group,” Evergreen mom Aleas Aeschleman said. “So even if you don’t want the video, it doesn’t matter. You’re getting spammed with videos of fights.”
An ‘overall lack of control’
Some Evergreen students have strategies to protect themselves, parents said, like avoiding certain hallways, making friends with kids who could defend them and creating “fight pacts” with other students to have backup if one of them gets beat up.
Parents blame a range of factors for the uptick in violence: excessive cell phone use, understaffing and troubles adjusting to in-person school after two years online. Parents believe their kids missed critical time where they learn social skills and have now been thrown into unprecedented circumstances.
“There’s an overall lack of control of the environment, I think by the administration,” Aeschleman said. “This has nothing to do with the staff or the education, it’s just more resources.”
Some parents feel hopeless. They feel the schools are doing little or nothing to protect their kids. Even getting a response has proved difficult.
Evergreen mom Courtney Harp moved her two kids from the Northshore School District to Everett last year.
In December, Harp’s daughter began receiving threats from another girl. Since March, Harp has reached out to the school nearly every week to make sure her daughter is safe. Harp said the school deployed three “in-school restraining orders” this year to keep the two girls away from each other.
Weeks later, a video of the alleged bully attacking another girl went viral.
“There’s a systematic issue at Evergreen Middle School,” Harp said. “I have to send my 12-year-old to school every day and hope she doesn’t get the (expletive) beat out of her.”
Harp said school officials reportedly suggested her daughter wait for an escort during passing time, recess and other free periods to prevent her from being attacked.
“The administration is trying. I do think they’re understaffed significantly,” Harp said. “Not only are they understaffed, they’re staffed with people that have very little experience.”
Evergreen has 90 staff members, one security guard and one school resource officer on campus, Reeves said.
She said the district is focused on providing a learning environment that is safe and productive for students and staff.
“When inevitable conflicts occur among students our staff trained in and implement de-escalation practices and trauma-sensitive practices,” Reeves said. ” We continue to address issues as necessary.”
In a letter sent to parents May 26, school Principal Sara Idle wrote staff had worked with small groups of “students who have been in physical altercations” and set aside time in their schedule to teach “conflict resolution and self-regulation.”
Aeschleman, Bustad and other Evergreen parents have expressed concerns with the district at community meetings in the past month.
In an email, Bustad said she’d recently sat down with Idle, Woods and an assistant principal. They “appeared to share my concerns as well but appear to be somewhat limited with their abilities to begin a process of change at this school in spite of their best efforts.”
On June 13, Woods, the regional superintendent, reportedly told parents in a meeting that more money will be allocated to Evergreen to improve staffing needs next year. Reeves did not confirm if that was said.
Everett’s school year ended Friday.
Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mayatizon.