After repeated brawls between students at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, teacher Connie Steinman made a decision. She wants to transfer to teach independent study.
The American sign language teacher said she no longer feels safe at the campus where she has taught for 21 years.
Her decision comes after the latest violent incident on campus where a number of students began fighting on Nov. 18, prompting a lockdown that some teachers say was not properly communicated and placed students and staff at risk.
Initial reports of the incident indicated that several staff members were injured while breaking up the fight, but district officials told The Sacramento Bee that teachers’ injuries were not directly related to the fight.
“Two teachers sustained minor injuries as they attempted to help maintain safety on the campus,” read a statement from the district. “The injuries were not related to any direct physical altercation. The two teachers were evaluated by medics on campus as a precaution, and did not require any additional medical treatment.”
Like other Hiram Johnson teachers, Steinman has seen constant fights on campus. With staff shortages across the district, region and country, teachers often are placed in the position of having to break them up.
That’s what Cassandra Drysdale tried doing on Nov. 9, when she witnessed three teens fighting on campus.
“I got involved because I am the volleyball coach and one of my (volleyball) girls was trying to break up the fight, and I wanted to make sure she didn’t get hurt,” Drysdale said. “But I got hit in the back of the head instead.”
Drysdale ended up going to the hospital for a concussion, returning the following week only to be on campus for even more brawls on Nov. 18. Some teachers counted six in total.
“I don’t always feel safe on campus,” she said. “Pre-COVID, we had so much momentum to shifting our narrative on campus. We were moving towards a positive direction , but coming back post-COVID with kids not socializing with one another as much is a lot.”
‘Chaos’ on campus
It’s unclear what caused the fights that have plagued the school since the start of the school year, but several teachers said the pandemic has likely caused stress and tension among students. Students involved in the fights face disciplinary action, according to the district, and both the school district and the Sacramento Police Department are investigating the Nov. 18 fight.
But many teachers said school officials need to do more to ensure the safety of staff and students on campus.
Rick Redding, 53, a longtime Hiram Johnson teacher, said the number of fights is unprecedented.
“It’s understated chaos,” he said.
Redding said he continues to remain concerned about students and colleagues being seriously hurt.
“I am a husband and I am a father, I have a daughter,” Redding said. “There is just something that bothers me at my core seeing my female colleague battered that way. It makes me nauseous. “
Redding said he broke up a gang fight on campus two years ago and sustained two hand injuries that required surgery.
“I live in the community, I own my home here, and I feel like I spent half of my life here as a student or a teacher,” Redding said. “But I am afraid when I walk across the parking lot, I look over my shoulder and I walk to get faster to my car.”
Retirement is on his mind everyday, he said.
“I think about it excessively.”
Five employees have left Hiram Johnson High since the school year began, according to Sacramento City Unified. Two of those positions were teaching positions; one retired and another transferred.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association filed two grievances — on Nov. 12 and on Dec. 2 — against the district for “failing to provide adequate staffing among certificated educators” and for “not responding appropriately to assaults” against staff and teachers. and repeated student violence.
“The district needs to work with teachers, rather than against us, to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff,” said SCTA President David Fisher. “That begins by addressing the staffing shortage and actually listening to teachers.”
For Steinman, who has expressed her concerns in emails to the district, “This is my 21st year, and it has been one of the hardest.”
Rumors of an adult carrying a knife on campus in mid-November during a fight between students prompted her to seriously consider leaving her job as a classroom teacher and transferring to an online program that helps students recover lost credits. In that incident, the police department said a parent was trying to break up a fight between two students on Nov. 9 and “was also possibly in possession of a knife.”
“The parent had already left campus when officers arrived on scene,” police wrote in a daily incident report log. “There were no reported injuries from the incident.” No arrests have been made, but police continue to investigate.
In a statement to The Bee, Sacramento City Unified said a parent did become involved in an altercation on Nov. 9.
“An incident of someone wielding a knife would have merited a response and communication from the school and SCUSD,” read a statement from the district. “Staff who witnessed the struggle saw the parties involved fall into mud, and a paring knife then fell from a pocket of the parent. Witnessing staff confirmed that it was never brandished. The paring knife was quickly recovered by Hiram Johnson High School staff and turned over to a campus monitor. Sacramento Police were called to respond to this incident, but determined there was no need for enforcement at that time and no further action has been taken.”
Redding said he was asked to help identify the suspect. But he said few details about the incident were publicized, raising concerns with him about the district’s and school’s transparency.
During lockdowns, a unique alarm system will sound off, alerting teachers to not only keep students in their classrooms, but to pull in any additional students from the hallways into a safe space.
Redding said the alarm sounded on Nov. 18, but only after about six fights.
“If it rang after one or two fights that’s one thing, but after six fights? They should have let us know so teachers can be more vigilant,” he said.
District officials said Hiram Johnson High did issue a “temporary, modified, school-wide lockdown” on Nov. 18.
“Once the situation was de-escalated and order was restored on campus, the lockdown was lifted and students resumed their normal school schedule.” The district also sent a message to families and staff to inform the campus community about the incident.
And while extra security was placed on campus following the several fights that took place in November, Redding and other teachers said the lockdown procedures are not communicated well to staff and families. During the day, many teachers were unaware that fights were taking place.
“It’s troubling,” Redding said. “There are a number of colleagues who have expressed fear.”
Where are Student Resource Officers?
While Redding said he hopes the district will bring back Student Resource Officers to Sacramento campuses, other teachers called it a double edged sword.
In June 2020, Sacramento City Unified board members voted to sever its ties with the Student Resource Officer program, ending a $600,000 contract that allowed for three officers and a sergeant to patrol dozens of campuses across the district. The district once had about 20 officers from the Sacramento Police Department, with one officer assigned to each of the district’s high schools. In recent years, that number dwindled to eight as the district began to shift to alternate safety and restorative practices.
But those practices have been hard to implement as the district, just like others in the state, grapples with severe teacher and staffing shortages.
With vacant teacher positions and few substitutes across the country, school administrators supervise and teach classes about 12% of the time, according to 2020 research conducted by MIT. Pulling them away from their duties, which often include observing the school, has placed additional responsibilities on teachers and campus monitors who are scattered sparsely throughout campuses.
Local police continue to answer calls from campuses. During the Nov. 18 fight, which took place just before 8 a.m., Hiram Johnson staff called police to report the brawls, said Officer Karl Chan, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman.
“I have asked my students to find another adult to help me,” Drysdale said. “But sometimes there are no other adults in that vicinity.”
When teachers see a fight break out, they continue to intervene for the safety of the students, even when they enter the crossfire.
“We have such a small percentage of our population causing a kerfuffle,” Drysdale said. “It’s more of kids trying to do right and separate people and they are getting in the middle of the crossfires.”