More than a year has passed since then, but the disruptions from the pandemic seem to have intensified, pushing teachers and staff to a breaking point. They recounted their experiences in interviews and in emotional testimony at a recent Brockton School Committee meeting, describing students vaping and dealing drugs, engaging in violent behavior that was recorded by crowds of onlookers, having sex in empty classrooms, and verbally harassing faculty.
“When I’m asked by people outside of Brockton, in Brockton, ‘What’s going on at Brockton High? Is it really as bad as they say it is?’ And I say, ‘No. It’s much, much worse,’” guidance counselor Martin Feroli said at the Jan. 31 meeting. “Teachers and administration staff are sworn at, shoved, and met with a staggering level of disrespect that most people, I would hope, would not even show toward their worst enemy.”
Teachers and parents said the fights and general chaos at the school, while an issue for some time, have escalated this year. Facing a massive budget deficit, the school system has laid off more than 100 teachers and staffers, and in November hundreds of students spent some of the day in the cafeteria due to a shortage of substitutes and teacher absences. A new principal took over last month, the third person at the helm this school year.
Several people said teachers have left the school out of fear for their own safety, and hiring new faculty has become an increasing challenge. About 70 percent of students come from low-income households, and the school has long struggled academically, with its most recent accountability report finding it was making “limited or no progress” toward improvement targets.
On local Facebook pages, some parents said they had withdrawn their children because of the constant turbulence, while those with younger kids said they would never consider sending them to the school. One mother told the Globe she couldn’t fathom sending her son, who “doesn’t harm a fly,” to an environment where he might well be bullied.
Acting Superintendent Dr. James Cobbs, Brockton High School principal Kevin McCaskill, and Mayor Robert Sullivan, who also chairs the School Committee, did not return multiple requests for comment.
At the school board meeting, Cheri Mazzoli, an administrative assistant, recounted being swept up by a crowd of students rushing down a hallway to watch and record a fight. She was pushed into a locker and a wall and was stepped on before her boss was able to pull her into a classroom. She said she’s afraid to be in her office on the second floor and gets nervous seeing crowds of students.
“Unfortunately, staff now feels that it’s only a matter of time before someone dies in our hallway,” she said.
Faculty members urged the committee to ban cell phones during the day, saying students are posting videos of unruly behavior on social media, texting each other about upcoming fights, and bullying their classmates.
McCaskill outlined some of his plans, including bringing back in-house suspensions, hiring six new safety and security specialists, and more strictly enforcing existing rules.
“One person doesn’t make change,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of hands … a lot of tears, a lot of sweat … to really make systemic changes going forward.”
In an interview, city councilor Winthrop Farwell Jr., a former mayor and School Committee member, described the situation as a “watershed moment” that demands change.
If the situation continues to decline, the council would consider asking the state to take over the high school temporarily, he said.
“To hear what they have gone through, to see how pained they were with what they face every day, it was disturbing,” he said of the school committee meeting. “It was disturbing, sad, and embarrassing for a city that always had exceptional teachers and programs and services for our kids.”
“You can’t function and teach effectively in that kind of an atmosphere,” he added.
Officers paid for by the school system are at the high school each day, but in too small numbers to make a real difference, teachers said. There are also metal detectors that students are required to walk through in the morning, but some faculty said they are not sensitive enough to detect weapons like knives.
At the latest school committee meeting on Feb. 6, members approved the purchase of Yondr pouches to store cellphones, which will allow staff to enforce the policy approved over the summer, said Kim Gibson, president of the Brockton Education Association.
In a statement, Gibson and two other union leaders said that “right now, most educators are operating on a triage mode, moving from one crisis to the next. Meanwhile, students are losing time to learn and grow.”
“We need an immediate accounting of all possible available funds for Brockton Public Schools,” they added. “To the greatest extent possible, funds from any source in the city need to be spent on student-facing positions before any more is spent on school administrative costs.”
Tony Rodrigues, a member of the School Committee, attributed many of the problems to a lack of funding and the city’s budget issues. A number of teachers have upwards of 30 students in their classes, he said.
“How effective is our policy going to be when you don’t have the proper staff to enforce those policies?” he said. “You have to actually fund the school district where it’s supposed to be. You don’t fund it — this is what we get.”
Rodrigues also said the state “has tied our hands” with how students can be disciplined.
“We have to do what we have to do to make sure our school is safe. And if the state doesn’t agree with it, let them sue us. Let them take us to court,” he said, adding that parents need to take responsibility, too.
Many teachers said a sliver of the school’s 3,600 students is responsible for the bulk of the disturbances but that they set a tone that is hard to overcome.
“That small percentage is ruling the roost right now,” Canavan said.
He traces the root of the problem to a 2012 law called Chapter 222, which aims to “make exclusion from school a last resort.” As a result, many students are not held accountable for “horrific” behavior, he said.
A longtime track coach, Canavan was in the locker room before practice on Dec. 19, 2022, when he learned a group of teenagers was waiting under the bleachers to fight some of the girls on his team. He escorted them through the stadium gate but they refused to leave, he said. He called the police station downtown to dispatch a school officer, but no one arrived within five minutes. When he turned around, it was too late.
Several girls wearing ski masks had run out of the school bathroom and were attacking two runners, Canavan said. One was on the ground unconscious, being repeatedly kicked in the head by another girl. Canavan grabbed her from behind, and one of her friends slammed into him, sending them both into a steel water station rack.
Two bones in his forearm were shattered.
A video of the attack, which required Canavan to undergo surgery and months of physical therapy, was posted on a since-deleted Instagram account dedicated to sharing fights at the high school. Canavan said he will never regain full function of his arm.
He decided to stop coaching track, feeling it wasn’t worth it anymore.
“We might have these Chapter 222 laws in place to try to protect the education for the worst-behaving kids,” he said. “But what the hell protects the good kids from getting the education they deserve? 95 percent of the students here are fantastic young adults who deserve better, and we’re failing them.”
Shannon Larson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98.