BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools Dr. Tonja Williams and community leaders are trying to tamp down concerns over schools safety after police swarmed McKinley High School Wednesday.
Williams began her news conference with a direct message, “The students at Buffalo Public Schools are not out of control.”
Her message comes in the wake of a large fight during dismissal outside McKinley High School, the stabbing of a 17-year-old girl at Buffalo School of Culinary Arts in September, a student getting a BB gun into PS 156 Frederick Law Olmsted in May and the stabbing of a 14-year-old student and shooting of one security guard outside McKinley High School in February.
A 16-year-old male student was taken into police custody after Tuesday’s fights.
Dr. Williams, who was named BPS superintendent in July, said that district students aren’t out of control, but instead “impacted by a global pandemic, as most of all of us have and as students have across our state and our country.”
She said some students made “poor decisions” by failing to get on their NFTA busses and headed to the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Amherst Street to fight. The Peacemakers and Buffalo Police were on the scene trying to de-escalate the situation, she added.
“We had an unfortunate situation which happened with some of our McKinley students who made poor decisions. They are not out of control,” Dr. Williams said.
Approximately 32,000 children are enrolled in Buffalo Public Schools and Dr. Williams said the fights outside of McKinley High School this week do not represent the majority of the student body.
“On any given day, most all of our children do the right thing. They do the right thing, so now we just have to work with that small group of students that are making poor decisions,” Dr. Williams added.
So, how is the district protecting its staff and students?
Dr. Williams pointed to support staff in BPS buildings students can turn to for support, development of a strategic safety plan and going to 100% metal-detector wanding of students. She added that the district is looking into hiring a chief of security and touted the purchase of state-of-the-art security systems.
Buffalo Public Schools set aside more than$300,000 of American Rescue Plan and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money for security upgrades last year. From 2021 to 2024, $360,000 will be spent on security. Parent leaders say the district has the money to put new technology in every building.
McKinley High School students will now be staggered during dismissal. Grades 9 and 10 will exit through one door and grades 11 and 12 will exit through a different door.
“This will allow security, staff members, because all of the CTE [career and technical education] teachers have committed to be outside at dismissal, to help with student transition from the school to the buses,” Charlene Watson, associate superintendent of school leadership, explained at the press conference.
Community advocates were also in attendance when district leadership addressed the media. Pastor James Giles leads the Western New York Peacemakers, who were on scene on Tuesday trying to break up the fights. One Peacemaker told News 4 she was pepper sprayed by Buffalo Police during the altercations. Pastor Giles says it will take the entire community to make real change.
“We want the community to know and be confident that we are exercising every effort and every plan because we care about them,” Pastor Giles added.
Dr. Williams and BPS Board of Education President Louis Petrucci also spoke about how the district’s code of conduct was written to ensure student safety.
“The code of conduct isn’t just about what happens on school grounds. It’s about what happens from door-to-door, from the time children leave home in the morning to come to school, that means when they’re on the buses when they’re walking to school, to the time they get home safely,” Dr. Williams said.
“That’s one of the things the Board is always highly, highly concerned with, is ensuring the safety of our education, because, we’re concerned about academic achievement when kids don’t feel they’re in a safe environment,” Petrucci added. “Whether it’s the physical infrastructure or the policies and procedures that they need to get through to get into the building or to get home safely.”
Parent leaders say they generally agree with the district’s strategic plan, which includes an emphasis on safety, security and wellness.
“I would like every parent when their child comes home tonight to have a real conversation about what’s going on at their school and what’s expected of them every day,” Edward Speidel, president of District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC), added.
“We need to start dealing with the root cause of this issue and really come together as families,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, president of of the Community Health Worker Parent Association and BPS parent. “It’s really important for us to talk to students and talk to youth. So, parents, ask your kids what’s going on. It’s hard for them to navigate some of these issues and how to maintain face credibility when issues arise because they’re complicated issues.”
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Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.