Urbana interim superintendent: 'There will be consequences'

Urbana interim superintendent: 'There will be consequences'

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URBANA — Next time, it will be different.

That was the pledge Urbana school district officials gave to the public during Tuesday night's school board meeting, where they addressed concerns stemming from a series of fights Monday at the high school that led to the arrest of several students and a parent and the short hospitalization of one teacher.

Communication to parents Monday was intermittent — initially relegated to a one-line notification that students would be dismissed early due to one of the fights, without mentioning the heavy police presence at the school or that the building had briefly gone on lockdown. Interim superintendent Preston Williams called it a"failure" on the district's part.

"I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize for the lack of communication that did occur," he said. "It was a failure on our part to do what we exist to do. It is our responsibility to fix that."

Urbana High Principal Deloris Brown told staff via email Tuesday that the fight had its roots in a July 20 incident in which a 14-year-old student was shot in the back while riding on the handlebars of bike that another teen was pedaling on Beech Street. She said issues between the groups of students involved had been ongoing since middle school.

She said the two rival groups of boys had been involved in a conflict Friday that climaxed with Monday's lunchtime fight, with seven members of one group facing off against three others.

Biology teacher Gerasimoula Kokkosis attempted to intervene but was knocked to the floor, hitting her head on a locker and losing consciousness. Kokkosis was taken the hospital and released later that day.

During the public-comment period at Tuesday's board meeting, some people urged officials to proceed with caution in doling out consequences to those involved, saying expulsions would play into the school-to-prison pipeline.

"What are we going to do to change the path they're on?" said Maurice Hayes, a Champaign resident who said he's been working at Urbana High since September. "We're throwing them away. You're waiting on the families to figure it out — sometimes we have to reach out."

Williams said no matter what consequence is decided, it won't be a flippant decision.

"What will occur with the students that are actually involved in some situations — what will occur is due process," he said.

Board members will hold hearings and gather information about what happened before deciding whether expulsions are necessary.

"We do not throw away our kids," Williams said. "(Their success) may not be in our high school. But that does not mean we are throwing them away. I will tell you this: There will be consequences. When you do things that are that heinous, there will be consequences."

Williams echoed what others had said during the public-comment period — that relationships at the high school between students and staff had experienced a breakdown.

"We will do better and we have to do better," he said. "That is what I promise you. Will everyone be satisfied? No. But we will get it done because we owe that to our students, to our staff, and to our community."

Sophomore Stephanie Kozlowski described to board members how the building culture made some students feel as though they didn't have a voice.

"When we try to speak up, we're told to sit down and that things are under control," she said. "I personally have been told I should drop out and that we should be more mature. My honest opinion is that I'm ready to give up."

Charlita Pettis said she'd heard similar things from her nephew — also a student at the school.

"I thought he was lying," she said. "I'm very frustrated at the whole ordeal and the individuals involved. I feel like the school doesn't care about these kids."

Student-engagement advocate Sherri Williamson said some students told her that a move to have faculty welcome them into school Tuesday felt "disingenuous" — that it had only happened because of Monday's fights.

"It's integral that we leverage the relationships in the building," she said. "I hope those that are concerned with the wellness of the high school find a way to support the high school. Your support of the building will reflect that."

Board members pledged that students would be given a voice going forward, something that had been missing prior to the implementation of a new discipline system that focused on restorative justice and did away with dean positions.

"I've heard that 10 to 20 students were involved" in Monday's incident, said board President John Dimit. "That means 1,180 to 1,190 of our students did the right thing. We should be congratulating our students for being some of the best around."

Williams added that though he had never seen anything like Monday's incident in his career, the fact that students came back to school the next day was its own inspiration.

"I saw students showing up after a traumatic situation that they had no part in — but they showed up anyway and they went to school," he said. "After 35 years in education, that was one of the highlights."