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Cheltenham teachers say administrators ignored pleas for help with unruly students

In a February survey, the high school faculty described an out-of-control climate of violence and disrespect that left them feeling unsafe, if not terrified, long before Wednesday's student brawl.

Loitering bands of aggressive, cursing students own the halls, constantly fighting or kicking each other. They slam teachers into lockers or walls. They barge in uninvited to disrupt classes. They tell adults who dare confront them to "get the [expletive] out of my face!"

Those descriptions of life at Cheltenham High School come from faculty members who have been  warning administrators about an out-of-control climate of violence and disrespect that left them feeling unsafe, if not terrified, long before a student brawl on Wednesday injured seven teachers and three security officers.

"Students jostle each other, scream aggressively, and always seem to be on the verge of a fight," one staffer wrote anonymously in a school-climate survey that the teachers' union, the Cheltenham Educators' Association, delivered to high school and district administrators in February. "If teachers try to discipline them for this behavior, some students will verbally assault teachers, saying things like, 'What are you going to do about it? You can't do anything.' "

Faculty felt threatened; here's what they said in anonymous survey

Union leaders say it took this week's wild fight, which sent one teacher to the hospital with a concussion and produced viral videos that led local newscasts, for the Montgomery County district to finally take their long-standing pleas for stepped-up security measures seriously and offer to work with them on solutions.

On Thursday morning, district administrators, including Superintendent Wagner Marseille, met with union officials pushing for highly trained hallway monitors, a possible ban on mobile phones, staff training in de-escalation methods, and possibly the eventual creation of an alternative school for students causing the worst problems.  The schools chief also set several lunchtime meetings with teachers on Friday.

"While we are very cognizant of the school-to-prison pipeline, we're also very concerned about the safety of our members and of the students, and that's the paramount issue in the situation," said Paul Gottlieb, a representative of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), who attended the Thursday meeting.

The fight took place roughly two months after the union delivered its school-climate survey to administrators.  In it, nearly half of the Cheltenham High teachers, 36 of 79, said they did not feel safe walking in the corridors between classes. The vast majority said that they had been cursed at or disrespected in the halls, and that combative teens frequently burst into their classrooms while they are trying to teach.

Discipline problems, teachers say, have been festering for years. But the union's effort to bring attention to the issue has roiled the district, which produced alumni such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and baseball slugger Reggie Jackson at the height of the baby boom era, and has grown increasingly diverse in the 21st century, as more African Americans, Latinos and other minorities move from Philadelphia.

PSEA's Gottlieb said Raymond McFall, the high school principal, met with union reps after getting the survey on Feb. 15 and seemed interested in their concerns. But, he said, Marseille was angry about the report, which was laced with the profanities used by students, included comments that mentioned a half-dozen teens by name, and had been leaked to parents. Instead of meeting with union leaders, he launched an investigation of the five representatives involved in the survey, who ultimately received an official letter of reprimand, Gottlieb said.

When it came to improving the disciplinary climate at the high school, "nothing changed at all as a result of that," he said.

The school district did not respond to requests for comment about the survey. Spokesman Susan O'Grady said Marseille was not available for interviews.

The 16-page report features a few hundred anonymous comments from teachers who described the scene at the high school as "groups of mostly young men loitering in the hallways, using bad language, creating an intimidating atmosphere … almost daring authority to ask them to move to class."

"I have been 'banged around' the hallway multiple times," wrote one teacher, who didn't believe the jostling was deliberate, while another said, "I have been slammed against walls and lockers and had students run into me."

Reports of verbal abuse were more common. Teachers who said they had attempted to discipline students or asked them to get to class were greeted with such remarks as "Who the [expletive] are you to tell me where the [expletive] to go?"; given the extended middle finger; called names like "old-head" and "[expletive]-eater."  One student bluntly told a teacher, "We own this place."

Calling it an everyday occurrence, the teachers said students barge into classrooms where they don't belong, for instance to say hello to friends or deliver headphones. "When I ask them to leave," one wrote, "I am met by dirty looks. … They may suck their teeth at me or say they were just saying hi – 'what's your problem?' "

The controversy has divided the community, with some parents arguing that the complaints overstate the extent of the problem and are tarnishing the image of Cheltenham, its schools, and their children. One poster on a private Facebook page for Cheltenham parents wrote that "what the video shows is not a representation of our school," while another argued that "even award-winning, excellent schools have issues with crime and violence." On social media, some Cheltenham students have begun posting positive images of school activities or diverse groups of kids under the hashtag #ThisIsCheltenham.

Many parents voiced support for the teachers' plight. "The teachers have been trying to sound the alarm and need to be listened to," one wrote on Facebook.

Gottlieb said ideas put forth at Thursday's two-hour meeting included placing teachers in regular posts to monitor the hallways between periods, a role that would require the district to invest in increased training. The participants also talked about a cellphone ban, amid concern that the desire to post viral videos is fueling some of violence.

In addition, those at the meeting discussed a possible long-term solution: an alternative school for students with repeated disciplinary problems – an idea favored almost unanimously by the teachers who took the survey. The district said in a statement that security has been beefed up through next week, counselors are available, and McFall is leading a series of meetings to discuss "school culture, climate, and student conduct."

However, another idea advanced this week by school administrators – punishing students who recorded the fight with their cellphones – might not pass constitutional muster, according to a local official with the American Civil Liberties Union. Legal director Witold "Vic" Walczak said sanctioning students for videos posted under current school policies could violate their First Amendment rights.

"I'm sure the school would not like for people to see what was going on," Walczak noted, but "if there are any students who have published this and get in trouble, this group called the ACLU would love to hear from them."

O'Grady, the spokesperson, said in an email that a district regulation  prohibits electronic devices being used "in any manner which interferes with, or is disruptive to, educational or extracurricular activities or events."

Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said it's important for administrators to focus on school climate before fights occur, rather than react afterward with disciplinary measures.

Implementing school-wide positive behavior supports, de-escalation training for teachers, and restorative justice for students has been shown to reduce fighting, police calls and expulsions, she said.

The law center, she said, has handled several Cheltenham cases over the years, many involving the district's attempts to remove students who it alleged did not legally live in the district.