Tensions high among MCPS students

Mecklenburg County Public Schools has seen an increase in disciplinary issues over the past couple of weeks. Incidents occurring at both Park View and Bluestone Middle and High Schools have many parents and students concerned about safety.

School Superintendent Paul Nichols released a statement earlier in the week explaining what had been going on and how the school intends to move forward.

“There are a greater number of issues creating tensions than ever before. COVID has created significant frustration throughout our society. There is dramatic tension between liberal and conservative views in our national and state politics that plays out 24 hours a day on every form of media. Everything that is or isn’t happening in our homes is coming to school with the students,” said Nichols.

The issues currently being dealt with include:

Increased academic remediation to make up for last year’s lost work

Racial tension.

LGBQT inclusion and non-discrimination

COVID health issues and impact on families

COVID Vaccination / Mask mandates

Local gang influence

“These tensions are exacerbated by three particular possessions that every student has direct access to; cell phone technology, social media, and drugs. We have procedures in place for our administration and teachers that should minimize the use of these, but the prevalence of each of them and the multiple ways that students are able to hide their use makes it practically impossible for our staff or the sheriff’s deputies to detect and stop determined use.”

Two weeks ago a fight broke out between four male students at Bluestone High School at the end of the day. Deputies were called in to assist the School Resource Officer in breaking up the fight. A police investigation determined that the issue was gang related. Seven students who were “directly or indirectly involved” have been charged and removed from school. According to Nichols, removing these particular students has relieved the tension at BHS.

Nichols said that there have also been fights at Park View High School. Though he did not specify how many fights have occurred, he did say that they do not seem to be related to each other.

“We acknowledge that there are gang wanna-be’s on the eastern end of the county as well, but the fights we have seen at Park View seem to be of the kind that high schools have always had, just with a bit more underlying emotion due to more tension among the students.”

On Thursday, November 11, two students ingested THC and required medical attention. Anytime an emergency situation requires an ambulance, the school is put on a Code Yellow lockdown.

“Our school administrators and SRO’s are aware that students have access to it in school. However, the most common ingestion of it now is through vaping and food. The vaping mechanisms are so small they are practically undetectable. THC can be purchased locally and baked into cookies, brownies, etc., and even purchased directly at local stores in food products.”

The Superintendent pointed out that medical issues are very private and would not go into detail except to say “the information about them that circulated on social media was significantly and inappropriately overblown at the least and false in most cases”.

Nichols acknowledged an increase in social media bullying at the middle school level and said that staff and faculty was working to “curb these activities”.

“Social media exacerbates bullying issues and promulgates drama. Students know how to use this technology to create illusions of reality that will prompt the response that they desire from other students, and even from parents. This is occasionally at a level that can be perceived as a direct threat, and therefore requires disciplinary action. More frequently it creates drama that causes classroom interruptions without crossing the direct threat line. The reality is that social media exists outside the boundary of the school itself. It goes on 24 hours a day, amplifying the impact on those being targeted, and is usually undetected by school staff because students will not report it. New technologies are continually created to hide evidence. There is little that the school administrators can do without evidence.”

In the past week many students sent messages from within the school to their parent or guardian requesting to be picked up because there was danger in the school.

“Some messages stated that there were guns and weapons. Others said that they heard gunshots. None of this was happening. Yes, we had some fights, but we have always had fights in school,” said Nichols.

Tensions between students at Park View High School were escalated last week between members of the Gay/Straight Alliance Club members and other students who are “equally proud of their traditional heritage” while others feel pressured to join one side or the other.

“Let me remind everyone that the mantra of our current society is “free speech” and the right to be “who I am.” Schools are not allowed to discriminate on the lifestyle choices of individuals. Our primary responsibility is to educate students to be prepared for good jobs and careers so that they can provide for themselves and be productive members of society. We work hard to provide a safe and supportive environment for each child to learn. Student discipline is expected. The rules of student behavior are clearly given, and we work hard to be sure that they are followed without discrimination.”

Rumors of a school wide walk out on Friday, November 12 began circulating on social media following the events earlier in the week. While Nichols acknowledged that the anxiety is very real for some students, he feels that many students took advantage of the opportunity to get out of school for the day.

PVHS Principal Dominique Sturdifen and other staff members met with students class by class to reinforce the school’s behavioral policy.

A social media post aimed at the Gay/Straight Alliance Club stated, “We’ve been told we cannot wear our confederate flag, but they allow the gay students to wear their rainbow flags. This stops today” caused much concern among students and soon rumors began to swirl of possible gun violence.

“Mrs. Sturdifen has informed students that all flags are not apparel, and cannot be worn at school. Let me be clear, that social media post may not meet the definition of a direct threat, but given the nature of the tension and the fact that it had such a dramatic impact on the school day, we will investigate and treat this as one.”

Nichols said that they have been working with local law enforcement to provide more coverage in the schools while tension remains high, including additional drug searches and harsher discipline for verbal threats. Students choosing to fight will be subject to the possibility of facing criminal charges.

“Many freedoms that the students have enjoyed for bathroom breaks and mask wearing breaks will now have to be curtailed. There will be more police presence. Stronger disciplinary actions will be given for rules infractions that don’t require the Resource Officer’s interaction. These disciplinary issues must be contained. Mecklenburg County is better than this. We have suffered significant trials over the past year with the COVID pandemic. Many students have become used to having fewer academic responsibilities, or more freedom to engage only persons who think and feel the way that they think and to do whatever they want while at home. However, this attitude is very costly as they prepare for the responsibilities of life. Again, our primary job at MCPS is to prepare our students for success with jobs and careers in a safe environment. We will continue to focus on this priority.”

At the Monday night School Board meeting Glenn Edwards credited solcial media for these issues. “We’re the ones that have to straighten this out. You parents that are here tonight are the concerned parents. Think about the other thousands who have children in school that are not here tonight. A lot of them can’t be here but a lot of them don’t care and it’s creating a big problem in our community and were going to straighten it out but it starts at home.”

Nichols addressed rumors Monday night that the new school would not be flying an American flag or the Virginia State flag. “That has never been considered. In fact, we are looking for the biggest American flag that we can find.”

Chairman Gavin Honeycutt said that while the Board does not always agree, they are united in saying that the “fighting, bullying, and drugs stops tonight”.

“We are going to be behind our Superintendent 120%. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance. Everybody has to be on board with this starting tonight. We have spent millions on [computers and tablets] for students, and I know I’m going to get some kickback, but why do we need cell phones in the schools? There is a phone in the office. You are able to walk to the office with any issue to call your parents. I concur with Mr. Edwards, social media is causing a problem,” said Honeycutt.

County resident, Brad Evans said that the way to solve the problem is to enforce the school policy. “If my child has her cell phone and she’s not supposed to, call me, inconvenience me, because I promise you she will not have it again. There needs to be zero tolerance.”

Father of two MCPS students, James Garner started by thanking Paul Nichols for his honest and forthcoming video to parents and students. “More strict rules might be the answer right now but I don’t think it’s a sustainable long-term solution. I don’t want the school to look like a jail.” He did agree that cell phones should not be in the schools but instead make it to where the students will have access to a phone for emergency and recommended parents start using cell phone monitoring software.

Natasha Pettus said that her nephew was involved in one of the fights and disagreed that the problem is at home. “My nephew was defending himself. We told the school that he was having issues with these same boys and nothing was done. You all wait for something like this to happen to decide you want to take action. Then you’re charging these boys with felony charges at 15 years old for defending themselves. I know with a felony you can’t do anything. You all are going to label them for the rest of their lives as felons for a school fight? How is that going to make things better for the kids?”

A PVHS teacher credited cell phone usage for the “crazy rumors” that started circulating the school and social media last week. She spoke on behalf of the Gay/Straight Alliance Club saying that she knew that the implications that the club was “stirring the pot” were completely false.

“It has been suggested that the school should put more messages out about issues that are taking place in our schools. We are committed to being clear and transparent with our parents, students, and staff on all of these issues. However, there are very stringent guidelines from both the state and federal government about personal privacy related to health and discipline issues that we must respect and follow. Disciplinary issues have to be validated rather than assumed so that they can be appropriately dealt with. We are committed to notifying everyone whenever there is any significant threat,” said Nichols.