Students roaming the hallways during class. Brawls in the common areas. Intruders let onto school premises. Teachers afraid for their own safety. Administrators unwilling or unable to discipline.
Things are not OK at Charlottesville High School.
On Friday, classes were abruptly canceled when teachers did not show up to work. The decision by so many school employees to call out appears to have been prompted by a series of wild student brawls that occurred the day before.
At least one of those fights included an 18-year-old intruder who does not even attend CHS and who was let into the school by a student for the sole purpose of perpetrating violence.
Charlottesville police received two calls from the school within minutes of each other Thursday, according to Charlottesville police spokesman Kyle Ervins.
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Officers were first dispatched to a report of “physical disorder” at the school.
“The caller also advised that an adult who was not to be in the school was involved,” reads the incident report.
Eleven minutes after the first call, a second incident was reported.
“CPD officers on scene assisted CHS staff in separating the involved parties and restoring order,” that report reads.
Charges have been filed against the 18-year-old intruder.
That’s according to Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley, who spoke with the press Friday afternoon to address the crisis at CHS. Gurley said that things are going to be changing at Charlottesville High.
“On Monday, we’re going to ensure consistent personnel is at the entrance of the school, in terms of how people get buzzed in and out of the building,” he said. He also said adults will be assigned to cover a “wider footprint” of the building during the day to ensure nothing like the two fights witnessed Thursday happen again.
But one CHS staffer told The Daily Progress there were more than two fights, and also more than one intruder.
The CHS staffer, who agreed to speak to The Daily Progress on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the school district, claims to have overheard an administrator telling police there was also a 20-year-old intruder in the school. Neither Gurley nor the police backed up those claims.
According to the staffer, things are far worse at CHS than administrators are letting on. There has been one fight every week since the beginning of the school year, they said.
And those fights have been “larger and more ferocious” than in previous years.
“That’s because there are more kids in the hall with more accessibility and more opportunity,” the staffer said. “And I think this is a really important point to make: There’s about 30 kids that never go to class and have not gone to class from the first day. They’ve never intended to go to class and do nothing but walk the halls and avoid adults.”
“If an adult approaches them, they swear at them, keep walking and there are no consequences,” the staffer continued. “Those 30 kids set the tone for the rest of the 1,400 kids in the school.”
Gurley also stressed that the fights are being instigated by a small group of students. Ninety-nine percent of CHS students are well-behaved and focused pupils, he said Friday.
But he disagreed that students feel free to disregard administrators.
“I don’t think students don’t think there are consequences,” Gurley said.
That directly contradicts not only the anonymous staffer that spoke with The Daily Progress but Charlottesville City Schools employees who took to social media on Friday, their names and job titles on display.
CHS counselor David Wilkerson took to Facebook on Thursday, hinting that employees would likely not be showing up to work the next day and explaining that Charlottesville City Schools employees have their hands tied.
Leaning on data from the Virginia Department of Education reflecting a correlation between punishment and dropouts, Charlottesville City Schools has opted for less severe punishments in a bid to boost graduation rates.
“The VDOE would prefer that the data shows that no kids are being punished due to the correlation between punishing kids and a poor graduation rate,” Wilkerson wrote online. “Administrators keep asking kids to do things that they do not wish to do and in the absence of consequences, the kids expand their misbehavior.”
Although Gurley maintained on Friday that there are already consequences, he hinted more serious disciplinary measures are incoming.
The band of students, which the anonymous staffer said often walks the halls in groups of five, have at worst received suspensions of five or 10 days. Gurley suggested Friday that longer suspensions or other repercussions could be implemented to discipline bad actors.
“We’re not going to allow students to compromise safety,” Gurley said.
Safety has become a pressing issue not just for students at the school but teachers and administrators.
According to the anonymous staffer, a librarian hurt his hand while caught in the middle of a recent brawl in the school library.
Gurley said Friday he was not aware of any librarian being injured.
Some teachers have been inadvertently punched while trying to break up fights, according to the staffer, and many more have real fears that they could one day be hurt intentionally.
“When kids are using profanity to explain to the teacher why they’re not going to go to class, they often include verbal threats,” the staffer said. “There are just so many kids that are willing to be physical very quickly. I’m sure there are some teachers that fear they can be the next target.”
It took hours to restore order after just one of the fights on Thursday, the staffers said.
The Daily Progress viewed a video of one of the brawls taken by a student. It shows two girls grabbing each other’s hair and throwing punches as a large crowd watches, cheering them on. It’s a chaotic scene with students laughing and yelling, reveling in the disorder.
“Hundreds of students showed up, observing and filming and dancing and celebrating,” the staffer said. “From there, they refused to return to class during the lockdown.”
It’s not just administrators the students don’t respect, the staffer said.
“Even when the police showed up, there were kids mocking the police and not responding to administration directives.”
Much like Wilkerson, the anonymous staffer said the dysfunction has been the result of a lack of consequences.
That starts with the school’s “off and away” cell phone policy. Charlottesville students are not supposed to use cell phones during the school day. The sheer number of fights filmed on mobile devices and posted online, however, is evidence that rule has not been fully enforced.
Gurley said that while teachers say cell phone use in class is down, the devices are still widely used in hallways between classes.
It has been an issue since the beginning of the school year.
“On the very first day of school, kids were told, ‘Off and away.’ The phones did not go off and away. The next thing you know, we have a revolution on our hands, because they realized that there’s no enforcement of that rule,” the staffer said. “And then they discover there’s no enforcement of the rule of having to go to class. And if you mess with the principal, there’s no punishment.”
That’s if there is a principal. Charlottesville High School Principal Rashaad Pitt announced his resignation earlier this month after a little more than a year at the school, citing “his family and health.”
It was only a matter of time before teachers reached a breaking point, the staffer continued, going through the same motions every day without anything changing.
“Telling the same kids every day to go to class and being told to f–k off every time, it’s exhausting. But they keep doing it,” the staffer said.
That is, they kept doing it until Friday.
Gurley said when he went to bed Thursday night there were 24 teachers already expected to be absent the next day. Eighteen of those were not related to illness. By the time he woke up, there were 27 expected teacher absences. It was too much for CHS to handle.
Finding substitute teachers on a Friday is particularly difficult, Gurley said.
Shortly after 6 a.m., Charlottesville City Schools sent a message to parents.
“Due to an unusual number of staff absences & limited available substitutes, classes at Charlottesville High School are canceled today,” the school district said.
The city’s teachers’ union, the Charlottesville Education Association, said in a statement Friday that while it did not have a role in the teachers’ decision to not come in, it supported the Charlottesville staff.
And it went even further. The statement called for a “hard reset” on Monday and Tuesday before the Thanksgiving holiday, asking that there be no students present so that staff could “address the climate and the culture at CHS.”
Gurley said Friday that’s not happening: School will be in session Monday and Tuesday.
Instead, the school district has floated a “hard reset” for December.
In the meantime, parents, teachers and administrators who were sharing their thoughts online and with The Daily Progress said they hope the school district is able to retore order at CHS for the majority of students who want to learn without the distraction and danger of violence on school grounds.
To do that, the anonymous staffer said there will need to be consequences for misbehavior.
“It’d be like if we had a speed limit that was 35 and everybody was going 60 but nobody ever got pulled over,” they said. “Then they started seeing what else they could do.”
Jason Armesto (717) 599-8470
@rmest0 on Twitter