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Concerns about fights, safety in Riverside schools aired at two meetings – Press Enterprise | #hacking | #aihp

Assemblymember Bill Essayli, right, hosts a School Safety Town Hall at the Woodcrest Library near Riverside on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Hofmann, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Several weeks ago, videos of fights at Martin Luther King High School went viral. Since then, parents and the community have been voicing concerns about safety in Riverside schools.

This week, those concerns arose at two public meetings, one Tuesday, May 16, and one Thursday, May 18. Parents, educators and others accused Riverside Unified School District officials of not doing enough to solve the problems. Teachers complained of students threatening violence, assaulting teachers. One educator said she’d been “hit, kicked, bit, scratched” this year.

District officials said they’re committed to solutions and improving safety, and added that the concerns are being heard.

After a contentious school board meeting April 27, Republican Assemblymember Bill Essayli, whose district includes part of Riverside, arranged the Tuesday townhall on school safety.

Led by Essayli, Chino Valley Unified School District board President Sonja Shaw and Riverside Police Department Sgt. Erik Lindgren, who oversees school resource officers at North, Poly and King high schools, the event drew more than 100 to the Woodcrest Library near Riverside. 

Essayli said Shaw was present because he “wanted to have a school board member here,” and Riverside school board members Tom Hunt and Noemi Hernandez Alexander hadn’t accepted his invitation.

“I watched their school board meeting, and it seemed to me that when these issues were brought up, they deflected to state laws, and they said to call your Assemblymember,” Essayli said. “Well, here I am, and they’re not here.”

Essayli cited the King High fights, which he said involved a transgender student. School officials said in April that a student accused of starting the fights no longer attends King. Essayli said these fights weren’t the only issues presented to the board.

“There’s a lot of violence that’s occurring at King High School and other schools” in the district, he said.

Several topics were discussed at the meeting, but many cited students’ disruptive and violent behavior and how those issues are being handled.

Taryn Hampton, an educator at Madison Elementary school, said he had a disruptive student in her class. A behavioral assessment discovered that the student threw an average of 14 items a day, Hampton said.

“Going through the process that the district has in place, it took nine months, from August to April, to qualify a student to get them moved to a socially appropriate classroom, to deal with their emotional disturbance that was eventually uncovered due to testing.”

At Thursday’s Riverside school board meeting, members discussed the townhall and concerns.

“It’s an issue that we’re constantly trying to discuss and trying to improve,” board member Brent Lee said. “That’s something that I commit to, that we’ll continue to do.”

Lee then requested a school board workshop on student discipline.

Hernandez Alexander and and Hunt acknowledged Essayli’s session.

“We offered, as a first step and as a courtesy to meet with (Essayli) to answer any questions he had about education and about our district, and offer information that might help advance a productive discussion about student and staff safety,” Hernandez Alexander said.

She also read aloud a letter the school board sent to Essayli, declining the invitation to his session. The letter said the district would be “delighted” to work with Essayli, but stated the board cannot adopt policies or practices that conflict with laws, and attending the townhall might give a different impression.

Riverside educators, many wearing “Red for Ed,” attended and spoke at the board meeting.

Kim Ebie, an educator for 17 years and a Hawthorne Elementary School teacher, said she’s “gravely concerned about the extreme behaviors that we are seeing across the district.”

“Recently, I have seen an increase in the amount of disruptive and, to be honest, disturbing behaviors in our student population, and an utter lack of consequences,” she said.

She said students have been threatening rape and gun violence, and that she knows teachers who have been assaulted by students.

“This is not one extreme behavior,” she said Friday, May 19. “It happens over and over again.”

Riverside teacher Janis Ramirez said students had been “hit in the head by desks, chairs, books and more.”

“Personally this year, I’ve been hit, kicked, bit, scratched and had furniture pushed on me.”

Shannon Trent, another Hawthorne teacher, spoke about a disruptive student and said she felt like other students “were not receiving the education that they deserve” because of those causing problems.

Trent said that, as a parent of a student who is supposed to attend King High next year, she’s worried.

Several teachers called for more support from school district officials and said students need discipline and consequences.

“I do feel that we were heard,” Ebie said of Thursday’s meeting, adding that board member Angelo Farooq and Superintendent Renee Hill spoke with the educators during a break.

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