Slater Middle School teachers: We’ve had enough after violent middle-school melee

In the latest instance of fights and unruly behavior on local campuses, a Slater Middle School teacher and administrator were knocked to the ground during what was described as “absolute chaos.”|

Why we posted the Slater video

The video of violence at Santa Rosa’s Slater Middle School is shocking and disturbing. It is also a real-time representation of what happened that captured the chaotic scene much better than words could describe. After much deliberation Press Democrat editors felt it was important to allow readers to see and hear exactly what the teachers at Slater experienced during the May 4 melee.

What teachers described as “absolute chaos” erupted May 4 during the Slater Middle School lunch period, the latest in what teachers and staff in Sonoma County’s largest school district say is an ongoing problem with safety and discipline across campuses.

During the Slater melee, a teacher and an administrator were knocked to the ground as dozens of students — possibly 150 or more — swarmed between fights and refused commands to break up, teachers said.

Watch: Video from the May 4 fight at Slater Middle School

The altercation followed similar unrest during the morning brunch break, teachers said.

In the wake of those incidents, a team of veteran staffers who regularly volunteer to supervise students during brunch and lunch told Slater Principal Mitch Tucker on May 15 they refuse to continue until the district offers more adult support on campus.

Their ultimatum comes amid a wave of school violence and behavior issues that have engulfed Santa Rosa City Schools campuses even as the district has tried to quell disruptions in the wake of a fatal stabbing of a student in a Montgomery High School classroom on March 1.

‘Listening session’ postponed

Superintendent Anna Trunnell was to meet with Slater staff members on May 12, but that “listening session” was rescheduled after reports of a student being seen with a handgun at Montgomery on the day of the meeting.

No gun was recovered during the hourslong lockdown, but a knife wrapped in a T-shirt was found hidden in a classroom.

The listening session was rescheduled for Monday.

"Students and staff safety is very important to us,“ Trunnell said.

"It's not something that we're just planning for the future. It's something that we are managing every single day on our school campuses.”

After the events at Slater, Trunnell said she deployed three or four additional district workers to be stationed on campus. A district administrator will stay for the remainder of the year to support the principal, she said.

A teacher called the Santa Rosa Police Department about a fight involving hundreds of students around 12:40 p.m. and after the fighting had ended, said Lt. Christopher Mahurin, a spokesperson for the department.

He said the teacher asked about how to go about requesting a resource officer on campus, which is a district-level decision, according to Trunnell.

Police did not respond to the scene or take a report, but nearby officers were alerted in case fights broke out after school off-campus, Mahurin said.

Increased criticism

Tucker, principal at the school since 2018, declined to comment and referred questions to Trunnell, who has faced increased criticism over the district’s discipline policies, which critics contend allow students who chronically misbehave to remain on campus.

“The first thing that I typically share with people is that we have to remember that they are children,” Trunnell said.

“It is the law that we provide them a free and appropriate education. And it is also our duty to help our students understand and learn from decisions that they are making so that we can keep them in school.”

When a student’s actions have risen to the need for discipline, Trunnell said, the district carries out consequences following state policy and couples that with restorative justice practices. Many of those consequences fall under privacy protections, she added.

Restorative justice relies less on punishment, like suspension and expulsion, while encouraging reconciliation through dialogue between offenders and victims of harm.

When it was launched 10 years ago, the district’s restorative justice program represented a radical shift in discipline policy after it was found that Santa Rosa City Schools suspended middle and high school students at a rate exceeded by only three other large districts in California.

And it was students of color who were being disciplined the most, according to data collected by the state Department of Education.

Nearly three times as many Latinos were suspended than whites, even though the groups made up roughly equal portions of the student population in middle and high schools. Black students, who represented just 3% of the secondary enrollment, represented 7% of the overall suspensions that year, according to the state figures.

District teachers have said restorative programs are deeply meaningful, but that more discipline and consequences are needed for the small number of students they call “chronic offenders.”

“It’s 15-20 (students) in a school of 700 kids, holding us hostage,” said Meaghan King, an 11-year veteran teacher at Slater and a representative of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association.

“They know they can get away with anything.”

Safety concerns documented

Two days after the March 1 fatal Montgomery stabbing, Santa Rosa High School’s safety committee released an internal report and survey outlining safety concerns there. The report included scores of comments about increasing student defiance and chronic, sometimes violent, misbehavior.

The report cites at least three assaults of teachers at Santa Rosa.

In the wake of its release, one member of the committee said school administrators have improved communication and visibility related to safety concerns.

Teachers from district elementary schools say they, too, are facing disciplinary issues that are increasing in both regularity and intensity. And they, too, say campus staff and administrators are left with few options to deal with chronic offenders.

Trunnell said the district is working on better understanding the catalysts of student behavior and also what the district itself can do differently.

“I think that what we can't control is when there are social media challenges, or other things that are really a part of human culture right now for many students,” she said. “By continuing to connect with kids and have them share with us what's going on, that is one way that we can get in front of these kinds of behaviors.“

But teachers say they need support now.

Additionally, they say, the educational experiences of students who are not involved in violent behavior, but are increasingly bearing witness to it, are at stake.

And teachers say they are deeply affected, too.

“I was scared that day and have never, ever been scared. Ever,” said Nikki Kumasaka, a 17-year veteran teacher at Slater.

‘We need help’

In one video recorded at Slater on May 4, interim assistant principal Tom Fierro can be seen trying to break up a fight between two girls, as a large crowd gathers. He is pulled to the ground as he radios for backup.

About five seconds later, Kumasaka can be seen pulling one student off another, and in the process, falls backward on the concrete.

"We need help,” she said.

Supervisors typically work to keep groups any larger than 8-10 students from forming during any break period. That was impossible on this day, they said.

“It was 30 minutes of chaos,” said Tami Axthelm, a 12-year veteran teacher at Slater. “It was kids running the show.

“It was probably a rumor that there was going to be another fight, that’s probably what got the large groups out on the black top — waiting to see another fight,” she said. “The kids were feeding off each other, feeding off that negative behavior, that defiant behavior.”

So unnerved were Axthelm, Kumasaka and other members of the regular team of teachers and staffers who sign on to supervise during breaks, that they penned a letter to Tucker saying they were done.

“It’s not required of us,” Axthelm said. “We are doing our part to keep our school safe, but now we are not safe.

“I don’t feel like I should put myself out there to possibly be hurt. We need other resources. We need other campus supervisors.”

Teachers acknowledge Tucker and other staffers are doing what they can to keep the campus safe, but a lack of support and additional resources from district officials are becoming untenable.

“It’s the district’s fault ultimately,” said King, the 11-year veteran teacher. “Administrators are held to a higher power. Their jobs are in jeopardy if they rock the boat or don’t follow the party line.”

In interviews with The Press Democrat, teachers expressed dismay that their school was suffering.

“Slater is not a bad school and I don’t want it to have a bad rap,” Kumasaka said. “It’s these 10-15 kids that are out of control and there is not discipline, they just keep coming back and coming back and we have these problems.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler. You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Why we posted the Slater video

The video of violence at Santa Rosa’s Slater Middle School is shocking and disturbing. It is also a real-time representation of what happened that captured the chaotic scene much better than words could describe. After much deliberation Press Democrat editors felt it was important to allow readers to see and hear exactly what the teachers at Slater experienced during the May 4 melee.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.