Riverside Academy students speak about safety needs | #schoolsaftey

Calls for “decorum, decorum!” by Buffalo School Board members rang out loudly from the stage at Buffalo Academy for Visual & Performing Arts on Wednesday, as they tried to bring order to a group of angry teachers from Riverside Academy, the site of a face-slashing incident two weeks ago outside the high school.

A 19-year-old nonstudent was accused of cutting a Riverside student with a boxcutter, sending him to the hospital. 

It was not just the well-publicized Oct. 4 incident that drew two students and four teachers to publicly address the board and Superintendent Tonja M. Williams. It was also the “escalating violence” that has come since – including a mental health incident that prompted a shelter-in-place order – as well as what teachers said was long-term indifference by the district toward their school. 

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Veteran Riverside teacher and Buffalo Teachers Federation delegate chair Marc Bruno was the loudest voice. The meeting also marked the first time students spoke about issues at the school. One touched on the ripple effects her classmates experienced as a result of regular violence.

Violence in and around Buffalo Schools this school year has prompted questions from parents, teachers and board members about whether district administration is fulfilling its duty to keep students safe.

“Many feel vulnerable and are anxious to attend school due to the fear they may be injured,” said Tommy Clabeaux, senior class vice president.

About 60% of Riverside’s students are absent at least 20% of the time, the third-worst rate in the district. 

Patience Howie, Riverside’s senior class president, urged specific safety changes, including placing a full-time school resource officer at the school and having a “zero-tolerance” policy for violent behavior.

The district shares 11 school resource officers – employed by the Buffalo Police Department – with all schools in the city, including charter and private schools. The Buffalo Schools’ code of conduct has a clear policy for violent incidents.

Clabeaux also reiterated the frustrations of her teachers regarding students with disciplinary records transferred last spring to Riverside.

The district and Bruno earlier this month were at odds over the number of McKinley students transferred to Riverside, but Williams was adamant that struggling students and their parents are given a choice what school to attend for a “fresh start,” and that no former McKinley students were part of the Oct. 4 incident. 

After slashing arrest, Riverside teachers contend school unrest, fighting have been enduring concerns

The slashing incident outside Riverside Academy on Wednesday that sent a 19-year-old into custody on a felony assault charge is a microcosm of long-term unrest in a school where fights occur almost daily, teachers said.

The senior vice president explained how the “disruptive” transfers were received by existing Riverside students. The district “still must help students who were here first,” Clabeaux said.

Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman encouraged new student school board member Daijha Mims to arrange a meeting between the district’s Inter-High Student Council and the two Riverside student leaders. 

Riverside attendance teacher Lydia Moore and special education teacher Michelle O’Connell made the distinction clear that not all students are disruptive, but stressed disruptions interfere with teaching and hamper learning for well-behaving students.

“I’m here for the students who are making good choices, who do come from homes with parents that I speak to on a regular basis,” Moore said. She suggested monthly stakeholder meetings to discuss the crisis. She also urged the board and superintendent to “filter through” the “raw emotion” of teachers to understand their pleas for help.

19-year-old charged with assault in Riverside Academy slashing incident

Makai Cook was charged with second-degree assault, a felony; second-degree menacing and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, both misdemeanors; and a trespassing violation, the DA’s Office said. Cook is not a student of Riverside Academy, outside of which Wednesday’s slashing incident occurred.

O’Connell criticized the district Crisis Prevention and Response team, which stayed on-site for two days after the slashing. She said that wasn’t long enough. Her requests for improvement included a regular school resource officer and more mental health professionals.

The approach by the two students and Moore and O’Connell differed with that of Bruno and Kelly Best, who raised their voices, called out individual School Board members and the superintendent, and delivered ominous warnings.   

“I fear the next time we come before you, there will be a body or bodies in our building,” Best said.

The two teachers’ demeanor sparked a stern rebuttal from Belton-Cottman.

“None of us will be disrespected today,” she said. “We are not perfect, nor are you, and you have fallen short just as we have. If there’s a problem that we can’t work together on as a family, this display is not going to continue at this present level. I’m letting you know – there will be proper decorum in this auditorium tonight.”

Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at [email protected], at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.

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