More than 300 parents, residents, teachers, and students packed Cheltenham High School's auditorium Monday night to press for answers on the recent violence that has rocked the school district — but the student body president stole the show with her penetrating questions for administrators.
Paige Kytzidis drew several standing ovations during an impassioned speech, in which she charged that students have been begging leaders at Cheltenham High for more aggressive action on unruly conditions in the corridors going back to 2014.
"Why now?" she asked, referring to Monday's meeting and promises by district officials to address the problems that exploded Wednesday with a student brawl that injured 10 adults and led to the arrests of four students. She asked why it took injured teachers and TV news reports to get action:
"Why not before? Why wasn't anything done when clearly students have needed services or interventions in our schools?"
Kytzidis' pleas were backed up a steady stream of parents who criticized the district for not taking action sooner, including several who said they no longer planned to send their children to Cheltenham schools.
"Students are failing because of adult failures," said one of several parents who complained that violence and unruliness had been a problem long before Wednesday's melee.
As meeting attendees entered, they passed a table with a floral arrangement and a get-well card for the injured staffers, including a substitute teacher who suffered a concussion and was hospitalized after the fight.
The racially diverse suburb on Philadelphia's northern border has been roiled over the last week by reports of unruly behavior and violence at the 1,500-student high school, punctuated by the hallway brawl that injured seven teachers and three security officers trying to break it up.
Teachers and their union leaders say the fracas — which drew wide news coverage — showcased an out-of-control climate at the school that has been festering for years.
After the brawl, the teachers' union released a 16-page school-climate report from February in which faculty members described a culture of violence and disrespect, in which students constantly fought, jostled and kicked one another, cursed at teachers and occasionally slammed them into walls, and barged into classrooms during instruction.
Even before Monday night's meeting, scores of parents had been debating the school-violence issue on social media. Some said the news reports were painting an unfairly harsh picture of Cheltenham schools and giving the district a bad name, but others pledged support for teachers' calls for stepped-up security.
Superintendent Wagner Marseille and other school leaders met with union representatives late last week to discuss stationing trained teachers and staff in the hallways between classes, a possible cellphone ban, and other measures that would address faculty members' concerns. Teachers have also asked the district to look at establishing a disciplinary school to divert troublesome students.
On Monday night, Marseille said the district was taking a number of immediate steps to tackle the problem, including sending an assistant superintendent to work out of the high school full-time, increasing staff in hallways and the cafeteria, and fast-tracking a joint program with the University of Pennsylvania to assist in reducing tensions. He said next year the district plans to shorten lunch breaks by 17 minutes, increase training for staffers in de-escalating confrontations, and develop action plans for students with the worst disciplinary problems.
Marseille won light applause when he said he wanted "to limit the risk of teachers having to put themselves selflessly in harm's way to protect students."
He added: "My heart truly, truly goes out to the staff members who intervened in last week's altercation."
But many parents voiced anger at Marseille and other district officials, saying they were too slow to respond to complaints about fighting and other bad behavior.
Senior Isabel DuBois said administrators had initially ignored her complaints that a student was sexually harassing and bullying her. Then they put him in her class the following year after promising not to, she said. She also complained that teachers are hampered in their efforts to control the hallways.
"If they can't do their jobs and try to protect us without getting into trouble, what are we supposed to do?" she asked.
One parent who said she was a graduate of Cheltenham schools and has a child about to enter kindergarten said she'd likely send her child elsewhere. She said relatives had warned her about constant fights in school, and she questioned why Cheltenham does not have many nonwhite teachers.
Marseille agreed with several speakers that the district has to address issues surrounding race, including a gap in student achievement. He said he takes "personal responsibility" for the problems at the high school.
Beforehand, community members expressed hope that the event would bring some healing where emotions have been raw, as the video of the brawl was aired repeatedly on TV news for days.
Indeed, the night began with a Philadelphia psychologist who specializes in mindfulness, Louis Alloro, who called the meeting "a beautiful showing of caring" and urged attendees to "take a deep breath, pause, listen and understand."
"I just hope we can all come together and come up with solutions," Danielle Ross of Wyncote, the mother of three Cheltenham students, said before the meeting. She came with her 15-year-old daughter, Camille, a 10th grader taking Advanced Placement and honors courses at the high school, who agreed the school doesn't do enough to address safety issues.
She said some violators "are slapped on the wrist. I can wander the halls and nobody says anything."
Some longtime residents said they were troubled by reports and came to find out what was going on.