Stamford administrators talk about what they've done after rash of student arrests

Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, April 12, 2021.

Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, April 12, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — Citing a “challenging start” to the new school year, district and building administrators spoke about how they have tried to curb the violence at school buildings which has lead to 20 arrests this school year.

Videos alleged to be of the fights in Stamford have been posted on social media; two high school security guards were injured breaking up fights and one was punched in the face, police said.

Amy Beldotti, associate superintendent for teaching and learning, said district officials expected a rocky beginning to the school year.

“We knew we were coming out a pandemic and we have students who hadn’t been in school for 18 months,” she said during a meeting of the Board of Education’s Teaching, Learning and Community Committee earlier this week.

Beldotti said increased fighting among students is an issue across the country after a year in which students remained at home for a large percentage of school days. She said colleagues in school districts across the state have reported similar rises in school violence.

“This is something that is not unique to Stamford,” she said.

Nonetheless, she said officials are concerned about the number of incidents so far this year.

“Our most important goal is to have safe and healthy and happy students and environments in our high schools,” she said.

In anticipation of the difficult transition back to school this year, the district implemented several changes, including appointing seven restorative student support facilitators, including one each at Stamford High School and Westhill High School.

The restorative approach seeks to reduce suspension rates by working with a struggling student to improve behavior.

Michael Fernandes, associate superintendent for intervention and student support, said the district also added four positions in the DOMUS family advocate program, which works with the most at-risk students at Stamford High and Westhill.

He said teachers were also provided professional development this summer, including one session titled “Mental Health Pulse: What To Expect From Students Upon Returning To School.”

Beldotti said the district has also deployed staff to monitor specific hallways and dismissal time to help prevent some of the altercations.

Board members Jackie Pioli and Becky Hamman criticized the district’s handling of the issue.

“What did those students not receive and how did we not see the red flags?” Pioli asked.

Hamman said student behavior should have been discussed earlier than a mid-October meeting.

“Six weeks into the year is too late,” she said. “We should have started having this conversation the first couple of weeks.”

She questioned the restorative practice approach, particularly with extremely violent behavior.

“Sometimes when you have that extreme of behavior, we need to remove it immediately,” she said.

She added, “We’re here to learn, not to have fight clubs.”

Pioli said the number of reported fights at the high schools this year are the most in recent memory.

“I have never seen what I have seen now going on in our high schools,” she said.

Michael Rinaldi, principal at Westhill, agreed.

“I would say, without question, we are dealing with a different level of disruption than we have in the past,” he said. “It’s certainly very concerning to me.”

Matt Forker, principal of Stamford High, has been at the school for 25 years, holding numerous positions.

He said “flare-ups” among students are common during the first weeks of school, particularly for ninth grade students making the transition from middle school. But he said the incidents he has witnessed this year “pale in comparison.”

Forker said it is the district’s job to figure out how to help students involved in the fighting.

“Where are we failing these kids in terms of when they come to us?” he asked.

Rinaldi echoed those sentiments.

“We owe it to the students who are having this level of difficulty to help them address their needs,” he said.

Beldotti said the district has put together a large spreadsheet of the students involved in fighting, including data on how they are doing in classes, how many credits they currently have and if they are receiving additional instructional support.

“We have dug deeply into the students who have been involved,” she said, adding that the effort is meant to determine next steps for the students and how best to meet their needs.

She said those who have been involved in fighting are not representative of the entire student body.

“This is about 1 percent of our population, which leaves 99 percent of our students who are not involved in these incidents and doing the right thing on a routine basis,” she said.

Pioli said that while the kids involved may only represent 1 percent, the incidents affect everyone.

“It’s affecting the whole environment of the school,” she said.

Jennienne Burke defended the district’s response, saying the “pieces are in place” to address the issue.

“Kids that have not been in school for two years or have never stepped foot inside a high school are in a high school, in a whole new environment, and maybe never had an opportunity for closure at a previous environment,” she said.

Early data suggests the reported violence has quieted down. Stamford Police Capt. Diedrich Hohn said there have been no arrests in the past week.

Also during the meeting, Rinaldi gave a brief history of educational facilities closing down in recent years leading to more crowding at the city’s high schools. Charter school Stamford Academy and Trinity Catholic High School both closed in the past two years.

Hamman said the high schools have gotten too big, and suggested more alternative schools to help struggling students.

Member Jackie Heftman said the community should get involved in the conversation.

“Its time maybe that we have a community conversation about the size of our high school and what’s going on with kids across Stamford,” she said.

Superintendent Tamu Lucero said district and building administrators have had conversations about how to best meet student’s needs. One of the challenges is that some students struggling with attaining credits in high school become disillusioned.

“When you don’t feel successful, you don’t have a place, you start to do things that you probably wouldn’t do,” she said.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com