MPS reacts to community violence in schools and streets
Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton wrote a letter to the community titled “The community’s silence is deafening,” asking where the outrage is over the deaths of four MPS students in the last two months. He took the entire Milwaukee area to task on the apathy toward the violent deaths of teens, especially teens of color.
Thornton wrote. “I am outraged because the community is not outraged,” Thornton wrote. “Has everyone simply accepted that this is life in Milwaukee now? No other community in this state would stand so quietly in the face of our grim statistic: four children dead in seven weeks. If four boys had died of the same illness, we would cry out for the vaccine.”
His letter struck a nerve. MPS School Board President Michael Bonds called a special school board meeting to call the community to action in regards to the violence in our schools and streets. On Tuesday night, people packed the auditorium of the school district headquarters. Local elected officials attended or sent representatives to speak. Students, teachers and community activists spoke at the meeting.
A choir of young men from Milwaukee High School of the Arts sang “The Prayer of the Children” by Kurt Bestor. Its words too struck a nerve; “Can you hear the voice of the children? Softly pleading for silence in a shattered world? Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate, Blood of the innocent on their hands.”
Thornton asked the board and the community to become involved in ending the “senseless deaths.”
“Citizens of Milwaukee and the MPS community, we cannot let complacency allow us to accept this dire situation,” he said. “We must act and we must act now. We cannot let another young person lose his or her life.”
However, much of the discussion did not focus directly on the issue Thornton raised in his letter — the collective shoulder shrug at the news of another young person’s life being cut short in the streets of Milwaukee.
The discussion primarily focused on MPS’s efforts to stem violence and student suspensions within its halls. During the 2007-08 school year, MPS implemented Safe Schools/Healthy Students to prevent youth violence and substance abuse in the schools and community. In 2008-09, the district started Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports to reduce out-of-school suspensions. Certain campuses have been designated Violence Free Zones.
District officials presented data showing the violence and suspension initiatives are working in the schools, with the percent of suspensions dropping from 26.6 percent in 2007-08 to 20.4 percent in the last school year. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011 shows 52 percent of students feel safe at school, 80 percent feel they have one or more adults other than parents in their lives that can help them, and 50 percent have at least one teacher at school they can talk to in the case of a problem.
Students from James E. Groppi High School for at-risk youth praised the restorative justice programs, VFZ and counseling programs that are helping them make better decisions, mentor younger students and learn to resolve problems without guns, knives or fists. But their biggest thrill was the addition of a basketball team at the school this season. Many students described how the team has given both players and fans something to do on and off the streets.
Teachers and elected officials advocated for smaller class sizes, more mental health access in the schools and promised to partner with the school district in its reforms addressing violence.
One teacher, Tyson Kuhrmeier of Carver Academy, asked for more adults in the schools and an understanding from the public that $1 billion in cuts to education has had catastrophic effects.
“Kids are not getting an education,” he said. “This has become a civil rights issue.”
The most compelling offer of help came from one man, Arno Michaels, the director of “Life After Hate,” a community organization working to bring races together and to build character development, taught by either former perptrators or survivors. He offered his condolences to the families and friends of the four students.
Michaels admission that he was a former skinhead was met with stunned silence, but was then followed by cheers and applause when he explained the major changes he made in his life when the people he claimed to hate showed compassion to him in a time of need.
“Along the way I’ve learned alot and life is a learning process,” he said. “Character development is a positive way to address all the negative circumstances. These kids have the power to become the good people they want to be. I want to offer my services to MPS in anyway we can be of assistance.”