By Brandon Reid
Either Rockford Public School District 205 administrators are completely clueless about what’s going on in the schools, or they think they can pull the wool over the public’s eyes when it comes to telling the truth.
Rockford police and fire units were called to Rockford East High School for two consecutive days Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 18-19, after students pulled a series of false fire alarms and food fights broke out in the cafeteria. Determining exactly what happened beyond that depends upon with whom one speaks.
According to District 205 administrators and Rockford police, the false fire alarms were simply pranks, examples of “kids being kids.” Ditto for the food fights. Little Bobby and Cindy might have had a little mashed potatoes and Jell-O in their hair, but all was well. In the administration’s descriptions of the Nov. 18-19 incidents, the events amounted to little more than a “disruption” caused by a “few” rascally students.
As Rockford Public School District 205 Executive Director of Schools Earl Hernandez said regarding the Nov. 19 incident, “That’s what we’re hoping is that we catch the few who are doing those things and stop it, because the overwhelming majority of the kids in that school just want to go to school.”
In other words, District 205 administrators seem to expect parents and the public to believe not much has changed in the public school system since Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls frolicked down a hill on their way to school in Walnut Grove, Minn., in the 1870s and 1880s on Little House on the Prairie.
Parents and students, however, paint a different picture of the Nov. 18-19 incidents at East High School, ones more likely to draw parallels to scenes from the 1989 movie Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman as Eastside High School (Paterson, N.J.) Principal Joe Clark. In that movie, based on a true story, Eastside is overcome by gang violence, drug use and urban despair.
Students’, parents’ account
of Nov. 18 incident
Following the Nov. 18 incident at East High School, one parent of an East High student reported seeing approximately five Rockford police squad cars outside the school and about six students running out the back door of the building. The parent described it was very loud inside, and said there was fighting in the stairwells and hallways, and food was being thrown around, along with plates, chairs and tables.
An East High School student said there was a fire alarm earlier in the day Nov. 18, then another leading into the lunch hour. The student said a food fight broke out in the cafeteria, and these fights have become a regular occurrence at the school.
According to the student, the Wednesday, Nov. 18, incident included fighting, hitting, screaming, throwing of trash cans, breaking of tables, and students punching other students in the face. The student said the whole school was practically involved in the incident, and students were coming out of classrooms. The student said approximately 60 percent of those involved in the incident were directly involved in violence, while the rest of the activity included students running and general chaos.
The student also said the incident was likely gang-related, and there would likely be further retaliation and violence in the days ahead. Additionally, the student estimated approximately 30 percent of the school is involved in gangs. The student said Aryan Brotherhood, Latin Kings and the Gangster Disciples are present in the school. The student added regularly seeing other students with knives in the school, particularly in the morning.
Reports from the scene,
District 205’s misinformation
After The Rock River Times (TRRT) first received reports Nov. 18 of what was described by parents and students as “rioting” at East High School, Staff Writer Joe McGehee and Photographer Daniel Jenkins went to the school. They were greeted by a security guard, Juan Reyes, who denied anything happened at the school Nov. 18. Reyes said maybe the reports TRRT was getting from parents and students were in regard to Eastern Illinois University, not East High School. McGehee and Jenkins were also informed they would need to wait until 3:30 p.m., Nov. 18, to have anything confirmed because administrators were in a meeting.
However, a student at the scene said there was a lot of fighting Nov. 18, and also reported seeing a trash can on fire.
While on the scene, McGehee and Jenkins reported seeing what appeared to be two students taken away by police in handcuffs. Jenkins took a photo of the incident (see A1). They also reported seeing two Rockford police squad cars and a police van. Two Rockford police officers were seen in a hallway inside the school.
Upon his return to the newspaper office Nov. 18, McGehee immediately began calling District 205 administration and Rockford police in attempts to confirm whether any arrests had been made Nov. 18. No phone messages were returned.
McGehee went to the District 205 Administration Building at the end of the day Nov. 18, and, after waiting 40 minutes, met with Mark Bonne, chief communications officer for District 205.
Bonne said Nov. 18 no students were escorted out of the building or arrested. He also denied any allegations of mass violence. He said the incident report stated there was a fire alarm, everyone was evacuated, and then another fire alarm was pulled after everyone returned to the building. He said any allegations of violence or students being escorted from the building were unfounded. “We both know how the rumor mill works,” Bonne said. “All these kids have cell phones.”
Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Bonne’s comments would later prove to be misinformation.
Rockford Police Sgt. Mike Spelman confirmed Nov. 19 the arrest of a single male student for aggravated battery for allegedly striking an assistant principal at East High School Nov. 18. Hernandez said Nov. 19 the incident was not related to the Nov. 18 fire alarms.
Later in the day Nov. 19, TRRT learned from Rockford Police Deputy Chief Theotis Glover that there was a second arrest, for a weapons charge, at East High School Nov. 18. Glover would not confirm what the weapon was, but said it was not a gun. “It was an object a student shouldn’t have at school,” Glover said.
Overall, District 205 administrators and Rockford police denied there was any rioting or violence at the school Nov. 18. These denials came despite the fact that one student was arrested for allegedly striking an assistant principal and, somehow in all the calmness described by administrators, a table in the cafeteria was broken.
Meantime, the East High School student who predicted the “calmness” would not end Wednesday, Nov. 18, would prove to be correct.
Nov. 19 incident
Rockford police and fire units were called to East High School for the second consecutive day Thursday, Nov. 19, after students set off a series of false fire alarms.
Hernandez said the first alarm was activated around 12:50 p.m., the second one was set off about 30 minutes later, and a third was activated around 2:45 p.m. The East High School student, cited previously in this article, described the exact same timeline as Hernandez Nov. 19.
Hernandez said two students were arrested Nov. 19, one for activating the false fire alarm and another for allegedly throwing “a large waste container in a reckless manner” in the cafeteria.
Hernandez, who was on the scene Nov. 19, said there were no reports of violence (apparently throwing “a large waste container in a reckless manner” is not violent). Students, however, again painted a different picture.
One East High School student reported there was a lot of fighting again during the first of the false fire alarms Nov. 19. “Just a lot of fighting; no guns or knives,” the student said. “From what I could see, there was only about 2 percent of the school NOT running towards the fight.
“The incident yesterday (Nov. 18) that happened was gang-related,” the student added. “I knew yesterday that this was going to happen again today (Nov. 19), and I’m sure it’s going to happen again tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) if they don’t have any security there.”
Another East High School student reported on TRRT’s Web site through comments in reply to an article about the Nov. 18-19 incidents: “Wow, why does the school have to try so hard to cover up something so obvious. We have had MANY riots, and a bunch of fights. On the first day it happened (11/18), they pulled the alarm twice after the fire drill, because they wanted to fight! And they did. Ask anyone, including the teachers. They had to call the police because they couldn’t handle it on their own because of the HUGE riot. …
“Today [Nov. 19], there were food fights, they pulled the alarm twice again, and there was an even bigger riot in the front of the school,” the student continued. “I had to go home early because it was getting too scary, and it was OK that I went home because the officers said we could (it was THAT bad). … I know for a fact a bunch of people had knives for ‘the fights,’ someone got sent home on the first day of all this chaos for that reason.
“When my mother called the school to see what was going on, they lied and said that the fire drills were scheduled, and that everything was under control,” the student added. “Wow I don’t feel safe at that school at all, and the people in charge of the school lying isn’t helping much, either. The new superintendent made it so hard to discipline these kids causing these problems, and they know that, that’s why it’s going to keep happening until something serious happens. … Sorry I felt like sharing this, mainly because it makes me feel sick to my stomach that they aren’t doing anything about it!”
TRRT made 23 phone calls to District 205 and Rockford police Nov. 20 and left 13 messages in attempts to gather information about whether any incidents occurred Nov. 20. Hernandez returned a phone call late in the day Friday, Nov. 20, but reporters were unavailable at the time, and further attempts to reach Hernandez were unsuccessful. All other messages were not returned.
Hernandez said there was an extra security presence at the school Nov. 19. He said the number of administrators, private security guards and police officers were all increased. This begs the question, if there were no violence or rioting, why the need to spend taxpayer money to provide extra security? Simply to try to catch kids pulling false fire alarms, as District 205 administrators claim?
Letters from Superintendent Sheffield, hastily-called news conference
Nov. 23, five days after the first incident at East High School, District 205 administrators sent a copy of two letters, written by District 205 Superintendent LaVonne M. Sheffield, to the media. One letter was addressed to parents of students at East and the other was addressed to Molly Phalen, Rockford Education Association, IEA-NEA.
In the letter to East parents, Sheffield again denied there was any violence or gang-related activity at East Nov. 18-19, and assured parents the school provided a safe learning environment.
In the letter to Phalen, Sheffield accused Phalen of drawing “a false connection between minor pranks at East High School and our discipline code.” She also wrote: “To issue statements in the media that suggest otherwise is doing more harm than good. If you or your members have any information to support such an implication, please send the facts to my office at your earliest convenience.”
Sheffield also said in the letter to Phalen: “I’m sure that you do not want the spreading of half-truths and innuendo to become the norm for the most important group of employees in our education system. Adults should not be perpetuating unfounded rumors.”
The letters by Sheffield were sent to the media by Bonne at 4:58 p.m., Monday, Nov. 23, and included the following line: “Earl Hernandez and I will be available to offer comments between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. this evening in Administration Building.” If the administration were really interested in being upfront and honest with the media, why send a release at 5 p.m., imploring them to be somewhere in 30 minutes if they would like answers to their questions? If the administration were really concerned with being honest and putting an end to “unfounded rumors,” then why all the unanswered phone calls and messages?
Gangs in the schools, similarity to 2007 incident
An East High School student, cited earlier in this article, said of the Nov. 18-19 incidents: “The gangs had a meeting, and it’s all been planned out. They’re using the fire alarms as a way to get out, and they’re having distractions on either the front or the back of the school. So they’re using distractions to start fights in other places.”
Although District 205 administrators said the incidents at East were not gang-related, Glover confirmed the presence of gangs in Rockford schools. He said he doesn’t understand why students don’t come forward with their fears.
The student added that a number of students left school after the incident Nov. 19, and said many students have expressed fear and believe it is all a disruption, “because nobody wants to deal with that. They had the same thing happen [in 2007].”
As reported by the local daily Sept. 28, 2007:
“Twelve students were arrested Thursday [Sept. 27, 2007] at East High School and more may be forthcoming after fights inside the school and on the campus broke out.
“The melees brought as many as 15 Rockford police and Winnebago County officers to the Charles Street campus.
“The fights seemed to be triggered by a fire alarm at 1:42 p.m., prompting a mass exodus of students.
“School officials said it has not been determined what caused the fights, but students say the fisticuffs were gang-related and planned.”
Regarding the Nov. 18-19 food fights at East, the East High School student said these are not ordinary, random food fights adults might remember from their childhood. “It has been happening very, very recently, and it’s not something that…this happens on practically a weekly basis,” the student said.
The student also added that some students who are not directly involved with the incidents like them because it means they get to go home for the day. “Why should they [speak out about the violence], because they like it because they want to leave,” the student said. “So everybody’s going to contribute to helping.”
District 205’s inability to communicate in a timely, accurate manner with regard to the Nov. 18-19 incidents at East High School is the latest in a series of events that has created a massive credibility gap.
About two weeks ago, TRRT received reports from three students and one teacher at Guilford High School that a gun was found on the school’s Spring Creek Road campus. After repeated phone calls to Bonne for comment, Bonne finally confirmed about a week later that a gun was found, but that it was found in the middle of Spring Creek Road.
Really? A gun was found in the middle of Spring Creek Road? Just like no one was arrested at East Nov. 18? What are we to believe?
Getting back to the incidents at East, if there were arrests Nov. 18, why not be honest about it? If you didn’t know whether arrests were made, why say there were no arrests? Where is the credibility and accountability on behalf of the school district?
There certainly was little credibility or accountability involved when it was revealed in March 2009 that the school district had provided inaccurate truancy rates to the state for the past three years.
The district was bragging about how it had improved upon its dismal truancy rate when, in fact, it had gotten worse!
As the local daily reported March 26, 2009:
“A clerical error by district staff made it appear the district’s chronic truancy rate improved last year when it actually worsened.
“Data from the Rockford Register Star obtained this week from the school system under a Freedom of Information Act request shows the number of chronically truant students increased 4 percent, from 1,868 in 2006-07 to 1,945 in 2007-08.”
The local daily’s article added: “In 2005-06 and 2006-07, a clerical error led to incorrect reporting of chronic truancy rates, but the overall trend was accurate: During the first year of the formal partnership after the creation of city truancy ordinance, the number of chronic truants fell 28.8 percent from 2,625 to 1,868.
“What appeared to be a significant reduction in chronic truancy rates from 6.6 percent to 5.8 percent on the 2008 report card was nothing of the sort.
“The chronic truancy rate had actually increased to 7.5 percent last school year when 321 chronically truant elementary school students were accidentally not included in the count reported to the state.”
This all from the school district that brought us the Bill Neblock vs. David Strommer choking incident of 1997 and the massively expensive school desegregation lawsuit that crippled our schools and, ultimately, our community.
Truancy, ‘dropout factories’
and what’s at stake
The sad part is that while administrators and others in District 205 are scrambling to play politics and spin things in their favor, students are suffering. Did you hear me, District 205? STUDENTS ARE SUFFERING!
Want proof students are suffering? For starters, 7.5 percent of students would rather not show up to school every day than deal with the fear, frustration and hopelessness of attending a Rockford public school. Furthermore, 403 students (or about 5.6 percent) dropped out of the district in 2009—154 from Jefferson, 107 from Auburn, 82 from Guilford and 60 from East.
According to a 2007 study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University that looked at retention rates, Auburn, East and Jefferson are all considered “dropout factories.” The study reported the average retention rate, or the number of freshmen who make it to their senior year at the same school, is 53 percent at Jefferson and 45 percent at both Auburn and East.
I could have been a product of one of those “dropout factories” had I not moved from the district. Here are some of my classmates from Rockford public schools (prison information courtesy of Illinois Department of Corrections’ online inmate search):
Classmate No. 1—Murdered in drug and/or gang-related activity.
Classmate No. 2—Murdered in drug-related activity.
Classmate No. 3—Serving six years, six months for manufacturing/delivering 1-15 grams of cocaine; served five years for felony possession/use of weapon/firearm; served four years for aggravated battery of a peace officer/fireman; served four years for the manufacture/delivery of cannabis/30-500 grams.
Classmate No. 4—Serving 20 years for armed robbery/armed with firearm; served eight years for manufacture/delivery of 15+ grams of cocaine.
Classmate No. 5—Serving 10 years for 18+ Del sub<18/PK/SCH/PUB HS.
Classmate No. 6—Serving six years for 18+ Del sub<18/PK/SCH/PUB HS; served five years for manufacturing/delivering 1-15 grams of cocaine.
Classmate No. 7—Served five years for receiving/possessing/selling stolen vehicle; served two years for bad check/>$150 or second offense; and serving seven years for aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a victim 13-16 years of age.
Classmate No. 8—Sentenced to seven years for predatory criminal sexual assault; serving three years for failure to report weekly/no address/second+.
Classmate No. 9—Sentenced to five years for other amount of narcotic sched I & II; serving eight years for armed robbery/robbery w/firearm; serving 40 years for murder/strong prob kill/injure.
Classmate No. 10—Sentenced to eight years for armed robbery; serving six years for other amount narcotic schedule I & II.
I learned fairly quickly in school that these individuals lived a completely different reality than did I. They didn’t so much choose these lifestyles as they felt they had no other choice.
As a community, we must offer our youth something more to aspire to. A giant courthouse and jail in downtown Rockford are not the answer—they send the wrong message. As former Rockford Ald. Victory Bell said in a recent conversation, we need to invest in the heart of the city and bring our services and opportunities back to where they are visible to everyone.
Any kids who live a similar reality to mine, with the dream of going to college, frequently face an uphill battle in Rockford public schools. True, some do make it out, and there are plenty of success stories. But it’s also true the poor quality of our public schools has created a private school empire in this town and contributed to flight and sprawl. Only those with the means to do so can afford to move away and/or send their children to a private school. That leaves those in the middle and lower classes with no options, and contributes to the cycle of gangs, drugs, crime and poverty that has slowly been sucking the life out of this dying city for at least the past 20 years. Need I remind you that Rockford has the highest unemployment and crime rates in the state?
Maybe it’s time we start listening to what kids are saying. They appear to be the only ones with credibility in this district. Our future—Rockford’s future—depends on them. The time to act is now. If we fail to act, what future do we have?
We need to give kids a reason to go to school, instead of punishing them for not going to school. We need to make them feel safe at school, and prove to them that an education does have a purpose. This would require a community-wide effort and a redistribution of resources.
For example, instead of spending so much time and money fighting those who are truant and introducing them to the court system at an earlier age, we should spend more time addressing the reasons they do not go to school and the reasons they drop out.
The truancy and dropout rates are symptoms of a far deeper problem in Rockford. We can focus on the symptoms all we want, but the problem is not going away. The statistics prove it, despite the district’s best efforts to cover it up.
Students are trying to share a message with us right now: they don’t feel safe in their schools. How can students learn anything in an environment largely dominated by fear and hopelessness? Are we listening to what they’re saying, or are we just brushing it off as “kids being kids”?
Kids are more than just kids—they’re our future. It’s time we wake up and take a stand for our kids—our future. We must demand that District 205 quit playing politics with our kids, and start telling the truth and investing in making our public schools better and safer.
Staff Writer Joe McGehee and Photographer Daniel Jenkins contributed to this editorial.
From the November 25-December 1, 2009 issue