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Dozens of parents showed up to Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education to demand a more comprehensive safety protocol in schools and better communication from the district in the wake of student fights at Haven Middle School that have sent two staff members to the hospital in recent weeks.
Many parents held signs with phrases such as “The teachers and staff of District 65 deserve respect,” “Trust the teachers and staff of D65” and “Our faculty, staff and students deserve a safe Haven.”
Over the weekend, the RoundTable reported that many teachers at Haven feel unsafe in the school building and unsupported by both the Haven and District 65 administrations, despite continual pleas for help and resources in addressing safety concerns. In response to teachers, parents and staff members who have spoken out about an alleged lack of care or concern regarding reports of violence from educators, School Board President Anya Tanyavutti said that characterizing the board and administration’s reaction to safety concerns as normalizing violence is inaccurate.
Tanyavutti added that Haven has had an established crisis response plan since fall 2021, but that plan has not sufficiently worked in addressing fights among students that have resulted in injuries.
“We are disappointed that all of our investments could not prevent the incidents that occurred over the past two weeks, and we expect that incidents such as those never occur again,” she said. “But we do not believe they occurred as a result of lack of board and central office listening, engagement, effort or investment.”
Board Member Joseph Hailpern also said he believed that the board and administration have been well-intentioned in their efforts to address concerns from teachers and parents this year, but he identified a lack of proper communication between community stakeholders and the administration as the main issue causing teacher dissatisfaction.
The board, central office administration and teachers union have worked hard to collaborate with a seat at the table for everyone involved, according to Hailpern, even though that message may not always have been clear to parents and teachers.
“Physical and emotional safety is a top priority of this board, yet we have been unable to stabilize the current unrest and rally our current network together as schools are meant to do because communication has broken down,” he said. “This is the cost of turnover. This is the cost of people not giving one another the benefit of the doubt. This is the cost of too many of our new school leaders, many of them leaders of color, receiving an onslaught of pushback.”
‘It’s disappointing … the lack of transparency’
Two current Haven students, both seventh-graders, started the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting by presenting a petition that they had written to the Haven administration. The petition received 459 signatures from their fellow students, representing more than half of the entire Haven population.
The two pupils told board members that students and staff at Haven are struggling because they are not getting the kind of support and resources they need to succeed. They also gathered feedback from other students which they said indicated that the Haven student body wants fewer fights, more resources for students and teachers and more transparency in the district’s communication to Haven families.
“One of the problems that we are facing currently is the fact that there are so many decisions being made, but none are involving the students’ voices,” the two Haven students told the board. “Students should have always had some type of say in what’s going to happen in their education because it’s their education.”
Lee Ann Silva, an educator, Haven parent and the founder of a group called “Guardians for a Safe Haven,” also said that she conducted a poll of the teachers at Haven and found that 91.7% of respondents had expressed concerns to administrators. Of those, 100% said their concerns “were not acted upon satisfactorily,” Silva said.
Several parents also specifically discussed concerns about Willard Elementary School as well. Earlier this year, Willard Principal Charmekia McCoy informed parents and families that Assistant Principal Jerry Succes, a longtime educator in District 65 and Willard assistant principal for the last nine years, would not be returning to the school next year. He will be replaced by Michael Johnson, a current assistant principal at Haven who has worked in three schools already this year, including Rice Children’s Center, Oakton Elementary School and Haven.
“[Succes] was one of the few Black male teachers that I was fortunate enough to have during my time throughout District 65,” said Justin Neal, who grew up in Evanston and has kids at Willard now. “He’s been a strong mentor to my children, and it’s disappointing, the lack of transparency and communication that’s been given to us by our principal, Ms. McCoy, and members of the administration, as to why the choice was made.”
Several parents of Willard and Haven students also mentioned hearing from teachers that some current administrators have “destroyed the climate” at the schools and that almost every educator “fears retribution for speaking out” about their concerns regarding safety, student wellbeing and crisis planning in school buildings.
One speaker at Monday’s meeting read a letter on behalf of a Black and Mexican mother and District 65 staff member, who remained anonymous due to her position in the district. She said that with Assistant Principal Succes, the lines of communication between teachers and administrators were always open, but now, the school is struggling from a “severe lack of communication from our leadership.”
Without Succes and other reliable administrators in the building, she fears that dual-language learners of color at Willard and elsewhere in the district “will be left behind,” according to the letter read on her behalf on Monday.
Amber Evey-Schmidt, the Haven music teacher sent to the hospital in an ambulance earlier this month after being shoved to the ground by a student, spoke in front of the board Monday night. Superintendent Devon Horton left the room for Evey-Schmidt’s speech and the district’s YouTube livestream went down, but she continued with her comments.
“I have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention or action to my and my colleagues’ pleas for support for us and our students that somehow rarely seem to be taken seriously,” Evey-Schmidt said. “Whenever I have voiced concern, I’ve been told that I need to document it. So I document it, speak about it at meetings and I seldom hear any follow-up as to if or when any action was taken to address the concern.”
At the end of the meeting the board elected Sergio Hernandez the next District 65 board president, succeeding Anya Tanyavutti. Hernandez becomes the first Latino president of the District 65 board.