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Haven Middle School. (Photo by Adina Keeling) Credit: Adina Keeling

On Monday, April 11, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton wrote an email to parents and families addressing ongoing concerns about safety at Haven Middle School. 

Horton sent the message just days after Evanston Emergency Medical Services responded to the school building to treat a teacher who was pushed to the ground amid a fight involving dozens of students. An ambulance eventually transported that teacher to the hospital, and Evanston Police Department officers later the same day took a student into custody for interfering with Evanston EMS officials who had returned to Haven to treat an allegedly intoxicated student, according to Interim Police Chief Richard Eddington. 

That incident occurred a mere eight days after a student punched Jayson Lim, a Haven hall monitor, who also needed an ambulance to take him to the hospital. Lim told the RoundTable that he is working with EPD to press charges against the student.

In his April 11 email, Horton said that the district had added two school counselors, eight hall monitors and a third assistant principal to the Haven staff this year to address student needs and concerns about safety in the building.

But he also said that “even prior to the pandemic, student behavior and discipline has been a continued problem for Haven.” 

Although the school has seen its fair share of fights and disciplinary problems over the years, several teachers told the RoundTable that any past situations pale in comparison to what the staff has faced this year. 

“I’ve never seen it this bad ever, ever,” said Amy Odwarka, a longtime librarian at Haven. “There isn’t even anything that I can compare it to. We are a middle school, so things happen. Stuff escalates. … But I’ve never seen this level of disrespect and this level of violence and abuse toward staff members in 26 years.” 

Over the last two weeks, the RoundTable spoke to more than 10 current and former teachers and staff members at Haven, including Odwarka and Lim, about fighting at the school and an alleged lack of care or concern from the building administration, the district and the school board. In those interviews, teachers spoke about a “toxic” workplace culture and said administrators simply have not responded to or addressed their reports of abuse or threats from students. The teachers said they feel “blamed” by the district for a lack of basic planning or problem solving from both the superintendent’s office and the Haven administration. 

Many teachers also said that the vast majority of Haven students come to school ready to learn and engage every day. The teachers said only about 30 students whose needs are not being met are causing the fighting and interrupting classes. 

“We’re coming as their [all Haven students’] advocate, and those concerns have been ignored, dismissed, minimized,” said Elizabeth Jackson, a Haven language arts teacher. “We just feel entirely gaslit, entirely, by the Board of Education, by the upper administration.”

‘They don’t feel safe at all’

One former language arts teacher, Megan Dorsey, who joined the Haven staff last fall, spoke of her own experience with verbal and physical abuse from some students and her struggles trying to get help from administrators. 

After she landed her “dream job” at Haven in spring 2021, Dorsey texted her friends that she imagined she would be at the school for the long haul. She had worked in another district for two years, and she was overjoyed at the opportunity to join a district that had a reputation for strong teacher voices and collaboration between teachers, parents and administrators.

But less than a year later, Dorsey quit her job. She said she had to leave for her mental health – after months of student fights, she was experiencing trauma that left her unable to sleep at night and gave her frequent panic attacks. Dorsey said there was little to no response from the school administration or District 65 supervisors. 

Dorsey said one day in February, a huge fight involving dozens of students spilled over from the cafeteria, continuing through the halls and eventually into her classroom. She said she saw blood and jewelry on the floor of her room, and all she could do was keep asking the fighting students to leave.

But when she told the students involved in the fight to leave the room, several of them cursed at her and said they “could easily kill” her, according to Dorsey’s account of the incident. 

At the time, she said, a crowd of students was pressing up against her, and she had to cover her face to avoid catching an elbow or an inadvertent punch. Each classroom at Haven has a button that calls the principal’s office, and Dorsey said she “probably hit it 50 times,” but got no response. She said she later learned that administrators were already responding to a different fight elsewhere in the building.

Dorsey said she was so shaken by the situation that an administrator and other staff members told her to go home for the day. She added that before she left work, she checked multiple times to make sure that would be OK with the Haven administration. But Dorsey said when she got home, a different administrator called her and reprimanded her, saying “I heard you ran out of the building today.” 

Parents organized a show of gratitude for teachers at Haven Middle School this week, kicking off with a small demonstration before school on Monday in which they cheered for teachers as they entered the building. (Photo: Adina Keeling)

In an email to the RoundTable, Haven Principal Chris Latting did not comment on or address Dorsey’s claim that an administrator scolded her for leaving school that day. 

Dorsey said she then wrote up every detail of what had happened in the fight and emailed it to all of the Haven administrators. The RoundTable obtained a copy of that email, which Dorsey sent to all three administrators on the afternoon of Feb. 24. In that message, she wrote that the fighting students “got in my face, made me feel unsafe, and continued to fight each other.”

“I also let them know that I would not feel comfortable returning to school until I got some help identifying the students involved and what consequences would take place,” Dorsey said. “I only got one response, and the rest [of the administrators] I never heard from again.”

After not receiving much support from Haven leadership, she went to the District 65 Dean of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer, who met with her and Jackson, who also serves as the union representative for the school. Dorsey said Palmer told her at the time that he would discuss her situation with Horton and Assistant Superintendent Terrance Little, but she never got a follow-up email or meeting with any of them. At that point, her “decision was made” to leave, she said.

Palmer did not respond to a request from the RoundTable for comment on his meeting with Dorsey.

Dorsey said she hoped leaving in the middle of the school year would serve as a wake-up call for the district. But reports of violence at Haven have continued, including the two incidents between late March and early April that sent a hall monitor and a teacher to the hospital.

“I just had one bump in the hallway, but I’ve had many students tell me that they don’t feel safe at all,” Dorsey said. “So that’s a lot to bear on your own, and it’s a lot for a team to just keep trying new ways to combat this, and just kind of feeling left out there.” 

A failure in planning?

Several teachers said that rampant foul language and fighting started on the very first day of the school year. Despite teachers pleading for extra help and an established system of consequences for students perpetrating verbal and physical abuse, most of these students face little to no repercussions, the teachers said.

“All the programs that the district has had over the years that supported students who were in crisis seem to have just evaporated,” school librarian Odwarka said. “And I don’t know where they went, and I don’t know why they went away.”

Horton and School Board President Anya Tanyavutti did not respond to a request for comment on the statements that teachers have made to the RoundTable. 

District 65 board members and Superintendent Devon Horton, second from left, discussed heightened behavioral problems at middle schools during an April 4 meeting of the Curriculum and Policy Committee. (Screenshot via District 65 YouTube)

Latting, the Haven principal, told the RoundTable that the school has several teams in place with educator representation to address the culture and climate in the building. Between those teams and additional staff in place this year, including hall monitors, counselors and administrators, he said Haven still has a “strong foundation for growth and improvement” moving forward.

“There is more work to do and much needed improvements to create a more positive and uplifting school climate at Haven,” Latting wrote. “It is both disheartening and concerning to hear concerns over safety in our school. It remains incredibly important to our administrative team to foster a safe environment and a culture of health and well-being for all individuals.”

Most of the teachers the RoundTable spoke to this week also said that in the past, restorative conversations always occurred with students who acted out or fought with others, where the teacher, an administrator and the student could talk through what happened and directly address why the student needed to learn from that experience. In fact, every teacher’s employment contract includes requirements for administrators and teachers to follow those restorative practices, according to multiple teachers. 

But this year, those conversations have not happened, despite repeated requests and complaints from teachers and the District 65 teachers’ union, Dorsey and Jackson said. 

In the past, “when there was an emergency where kids were violent and everyone needed to respond and those children needed to be made safe, there were systems in place that went into action immediately,” Jackson said. “We all knew what to do, we knew who to call and we knew what would happen. That has not existed the entire school year, including after our first staff member was sent to the hospital. Even after that incident, we still did not have any clear plan.” 

According to teachers, the lack of action and planning from the administration, despite continual calls for help from teachers, has created a climate at Haven where students know they can, in Dorsey’s words, “beat each other up and get away with it.” Another teacher added that every single Haven staff member has likely been told “F___ you” by a student at least once this year.

The RoundTable filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Evanston Police Department and District 65 to obtain any documents or incident reports regarding the February fight involving Dorsey and the March fight that sent Lim to the hospital. 

In response to both filings, the district told the RoundTable that “there were no records responsive to your request,” but the RoundTable did obtain a police report from Feb. 24, the day of the fight in Dorsey’s classroom. The report described a caller who “received calls/texts from at least 7 teachers, saying that they feel unsafe in the school because of the number of fights that broke out during the lunch and afternoon periods.”

Latting said that he knows the administration “can’t do this alone,” and he said his team at Haven has put in extra effort to collaborate with teachers to address their concerns about crisis and violence prevention. 

“For the vast majority of students, interventions are quite successful,” he said. “Unfortunately, in certain situations, multi-layered interventions have not had the intended impact. This requires deeper collaboration and more robust support in the form of wraparound services for students, in conjunction with school and district staff and their families.”

In a Friday afternoon email to the RoundTable, District 65 Educators’ Council (DEC) President Maria Barroso said the union is aware of issues at Haven and is working to address them in partnership with the district administration. She also added that the District 65 community needs to acknowledge the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted students and teachers.

“There are systems in place at schools to help attend to student behaviors, but the implementation has been difficult for several reasons,” Barroso said. “Some of these reasons are private information that will not be disclosed by us because we are employees of an institution and private matters not shared publicly.

“Our educators are voicing concerns, and DEC is hopeful that things will get better because as a collective we are requesting that Administration help resolve the issues collaboratively with us,” Barroso said. “This will improve our educational setting and take time to assemble, but there will be prosperity and stability.”

‘This completely changed everything’

Dorsey and other teachers said they often fear even going into the hallway between classes or after school. In the early months of the year, they met with administrators and the union demanding change and a better response to teacher concerns. But after being repeatedly ignored or dismissed, they feel like there’s nothing they can do. 

“A lot of people feel retaliated against, at least at Haven and I believe in the district, because even in just my experience alone, I was shunned after I spoke out to the district about what happened,” Dorsey said. “Two out of the three administrators just never talked to me again.”

Latting did not respond to Dorsey’s accusation that the Haven administrators did not respond to her email report about the February fight or even talk to her in the building again. 

Several other Haven teachers echoed Dorsey’s concerns about retribution from the administration, saying that people in the district are afraid of speaking out about any problems they experience in their schools for fear of being reassigned to a different position or even losing their job by having their contract non-renewed. One special education teacher at Haven told the RoundTable that the district did not renew her contract for next year, despite over a dozen special education position vacancies that currently exist at the school.

After she left Haven, Dorsey, who is 25, took a contract job as a training specialist at a tech company. Before this school year, she taught at a middle school in another Illinois district, and she also got her master’s in diversity and equity in educational policy at the University of Illinois during that time. But despite her training, her experience this year has left her wondering if she should even teach again, she said. Several other teachers who spoke to the RoundTable this month echoed this sentiment. 

“This completely changed everything for me because Haven was my dream job and dream school, and it just got completely warped,” Dorsey said. “This experience really did traumatize me.”

Several educators who are still working in the building also said their students have become desensitized to the violence and the verbal threats. One teacher, who requested anonymity, said fights like the April 7 altercation often result in students nervously laughing and joking about “just another day at Haven.” 

Dorsey, Jackson and others said they have had students tell them they are scared to even go to the bathroom sometimes for fear of a fight breaking out or being threatened by someone.

“Getting rid of consequence, communication and support of teachers at the end of the day 100% damages the students,” Dorsey said. “They can’t walk around safely in the halls. …  It’s impossible to support students if they are scared of being at school.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. As a white patent, who grew up in Evanston, I am outraged at the racism and vitriol directed by white parents at Black board members. The jeers, yelling, dismissal of stories of racism at Haven that have occurred there for years, shows all there is to these newly emboldened parents, pushed by FAIR and other “parental rights” groups. How many times were white parents begging admin to not expel or punish their kids for racist “mistakes” but some fights that involve Black youth and you all want to expel them, put them in the school to prison pipeline and ruin their lives. We are talking about children here. Like the 8 year Black child arrested by cops in Syracuse, NY for allegedly stealing a bag of chips. But go on, and continue to bring down trauma as long as it’s not on your white child. All while some of you have BLM used signs. So quick to criminalize Black children over “fear”.

  2. Mr. Agnew, please continue your impressive reporting on this
    escalating public health crisis in our noisy embattled community—a community forever aspiring—messily, imperfectly—to heal, repair, remediate, improve, & even (given our rich human capital) to LEAD! 💜

  3. Anyone who watched or attended last night’s school board meeting can relate to Elizabeth Jackson’s summary of how the superintendent and board respond to teachers, parents, staff, and community members who express concerns over their failure of leadership: “We’re coming as their [all Haven students’] advocate, and those concerns have been ignored, dismissed, minimized,” said Elizabeth Jackson, a Haven language arts teacher. “We just feel entirely gaslit, entirely, by the Board of Education, by the upper administration.” All of that was on display last night.

  4. Enrollment numbers, student test scores, achievement gap, 360 reviews from faculty and staff, community satisfaction surveys, safety numbers? What yardsticks are we using to determine success/failure of the D65 administration and school board? Without excuses, how are we doing?

  5. A student code of conduct exists for all D65 schools. Students at Haven have repeatedly violated the code of conduct to the extent that the environment is no longer safe for students, teachers and staff. The lack of communication from the Superintendent’s office and School Board to Haven parents and the community is unacceptable. “No comment” is no way to ease tensions or resolve ongoing concerns. It’s truly shameful and unprofessional conduct by D65 leadership. I feel for the teachers who come to work each and every day to make a difference in the lives of their students. I also feel for the students who, no doubt come to school fearful for what the day might bring. “Just another day at Haven.”

  6. Dr. Horton, his leadership team and the entire D65 school board only know how to divide, not unite. They should be ashamed of themselves. I have yet to see them make a decision that benefits anyone other than themselves. They have yet to put students, teachers or staff as a priority and the responsibility for that all falls into their laps, especially Dr. Horton’s. It’s time for Evanston residents to VOTE THE BOARD OUT- one by one.

  7. Dear lord, the amount of white tears and white solidarity is nauseating. Never this much vitriol directed at the former white superintendents. Yes, there are issues, but the dog whistling and complaints of being labeled a racist…well, if the shoe fits, you’re probably a racist. The real comes out when it counts from “progressive” white Evanston.

    1. There were never this many ‘white tears’ and as much ‘white solidarity’ when Dr. Hardy Murphy was superintendent. Oh, and by the way, Dr. Murphy was Black.

      1. So what does that prove? White folks don’t seem rings either as much fear of being openly racist these days. So go ahead and point out another Black leader that white people accepted. As soon as Dr. Horton came in and spoke
        of ant-racism, equity, etc, white patents and teachers started getting visibly angry. Miss with the fake outrage.

    2. Matt Temkin, you hit the nail on the head. We profess to be progressive, but there is a lot of fear here – from both teachers and parents. My child only attended Haven for two years and there were regular fights there when Ms. Robeson was principal. According to my son, there were daily incidents. I smell a rotten fish here – I am sure a lot of the complaints were well-orchestrated and are coming from those who do not want to change curriculum, redistrict, etc.

  8. Something I absolutely loved about this article were all of the quotes given by Elizabeth Jackson. Each quote was centered around the need for effective implementation of restorative practices in the district. I saw no mention from Jackson about a need for more old school, punitive discipline. I want to see someone at the district address these concerns, as she isn’t advocating for more punitive consequences. She’s calling out the lack of RESTORATIVE PRACTICES and follow through at the district level. We know these practices benefit children. But something tells me it will be crickets from pro-district advocates on that issue.

  9. As a parent of four former students of Haven, it is disheartening to read of the chaos that is occurring at Haven.., Please Bring back Lorraine Morton’s style of leadership! Discipline, order, caring and camaraderie among the teachers. She was proud to be involved with Haven as were the students. Where do you go otherwise!

  10. What is the world you are trying to help create, RoundTable? Do you like the current situation where some get more safety, more care? Do you have any interest in safety and care for all?

  11. As a former Haven parent – and as someone that has been hearing these concerns trickle into conversations with Evanston neighbors and friends – this is very disturbing . Not addressing the core concerns of these teachers and even worse, retaliating – is shameful leadership from Administration officials. As someone that has lived in this neighborhood for 26 years – I plan to be more engaged in the dialogue and solution.

  12. I have to commend Duncan Agnew for this excellent piece of journalism. Thank you, and kudos to the Roundtable for its excellent work here. As for D65, a culture of retaliation against staff is not “collaborative.” Just sayin.

    1. I agree with you! Great work and solid reporting by Mr. Agnew. It’s about time the lack of judgement and dismissal of the core issues by the administration comes to light. We moved from Evanston three years ago as we could see how the “restorative justice” ideas would cause the implosion of D65. It’s a shame the students who are there to learn, grow and succeed AND the teachers who have the skills to guide them have to deal with kids who have ZERO respect for authority. What a waste of precious school hours.

  13. When differences of opinion regarding the most effective and appropriate way to educate D65 students began being met with accusations of “racist”, you could almost see this disaster coming. Discourse ceased, as a virtually unified and utterly sacrosanct school board moved ahead with its agenda. I am appalled by what’s transpired at Haven, along with the lowering of the bar on academic goals across D65. There is nothing “equitable” nor “anti-oppression”, nor enlightened about the impact of this on our students and community.

  14. The lack of empathy that the administration and School Board has shown towards staff and students at Haven is stunning.

    Two staff members were injured by students at Haven within 8 days. The administration’s response is “even prior to the pandemic, student behavior and discipline has been a continued problem at Haven”, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening here.

    According to the administration “a small percentage of students experiencing behavioral issues” is “tied to the bulk of the challenges that staff and their student peers are facing.” Yet in an email exchange with the Haven PTA that was subsequently shared with the Haven community the administration states: “We have reviewed the incidents at Haven over this past year and there are 42 students who are responsible for 75% of the incidents”. This does not sound like a small percentage of students but like a rather large problem that the administration needs to address – and take responsibility for. Nor is it a statement that would reassure teachers, parents or students.

    The admittedly difficult decisions that were taken to keep the school remote for such a long time during the pandemic arguably accentuated the social stresses and behavioral issues that we are now seeing. Some School Board members have been in power for most of the time that a current student at middle school has been in D65. Yet they take no responsibility. In fact the label “toxic masculinity” that one School Board member used to explain/describe this behavior is tone deaf, unhelpful and wholly without empathy.

    The lines of communication between the administration and the School Board on one side and the teachers, staff and parents on the other have deteriorated to the point where the community makes its voice heard in comments to the Roundtable and on Facebook. When will the School Board and administration start listening to the teachers? When will there be in-person Town Hall meetings (instead of Zoom meetings with presubmitted and potentially prefiltered questions) where open discussions can be held and suggestions be voiced?

    The teachers, staff and students deserve better.

  15. This situation is deeply concerning and it is growing more and more apparent that several members of the school board, as well as, Dr. Horton, are misleading the public and are actively involved in creating a climate of fear and retaliation for our teachers. I am now inspired to get involved in campaigns to defeat current board members and bring in new leadership.

  16. As a former District 65 employee, whose position was eliminated, and an Evanston resident, and a parent of two kiddos who attend Dawes I can tell you retribution in DistrIct 65 is very real. Administrators will make your life miserable if you challenge, advocate for students or yourself, or speak out in anyway…A portion of the public call you a racist if you question or challenge this administration. I am saddened and disappointed that I moved my family to this once amazing district. The light in the lighthouse has gone out Evanston is no longer the beacon it used to be…so disappointing…we are now an urban turnaround school district…if you don’t tow the line you are involuntarily transferred to a position you don’t want in a building you don’t want to be in…with administration that doesn’t hear your concerns for safety for students or adults. I wish, I hope the community comes to its senses and a change is made regarding the administration and the board. As for me I’m in a better place where I’m appreciated, respected, and NOT micromanaged. I wish for my dear District 65 village that the community will see and support its educators on the front lines, and appreciate them especially on the precipice of a teacher shortage.

  17. A perfect illustration of how this administration has attempted to dismiss and minimize what has been going on at Haven is the difference in how Dr. Horton has described this situation publicly vs. privately. In Dr. Horton’s statement to the community on April 11th he described what has been going on as, “a few physical altercations.” Yet, in an April 8th email exchange with a parent, that has since been made public, Dr. Horton referred to what has been going on as “the continuous fighting issue.” He went on to indicate that he had determined that “there are 42 students who are responsible for 75% of the incidents.” Maybe the RoundTable will have better success than I have in having Dr. Horton explain how a “continuous fighting issue” that apparently involved 40-50 students became “a few physical altercations” in a matter of 3 days.

  18. According to the school board this article must all be based in the hatred because Horton is black only

  19. It is unacceptable that the administration has no records related to a massive fight in which blood was drawn and a teacher’s life directly threatened. The lack of communications or documentation shows how little the district seems to care about the issue. Should violent and abusive kids be expelled? What are the procedures for discipline? Are the procedures being followed? These are discussions the district should be having after every major incident, and there should be records of those discussions. How can they fix a problem that they barely acknowledge exists.

  20. Why don’t D65 Admins support the 5th ward middle school and consistently refuse to accept any modicum of responsibility. Horton told staff at the beginning of the year to be “unapologetic” who knew that was the official D65 position on literally everything. What a sad state of affairs.