In the wake of recent reports of violence among students at Lawrence High School, dozens of concerned community members attended an emergency meeting Monday night, many expressing outrage about how district leaders have handled the incidents.
Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez opened the meeting, a joint session of the Lawrence City Council and School Committee, by critiquing the state receivership that the district has been under for the past decade; the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in 2011 to take over because of poor student performance. The receivership mutes the voices of students and parents, he said, and he hoped the Monday discussion could “return that voice to our residents in wake of the situation at Lawrence High.”
Toward the end of the meeting, which lasted over three hours, the School Committee passed a motion to petition the state education commissioner to end the receivership.
Earlier on Monday, more than 100 people rallied at Lawrence High School to protest a series of fights that have broken out among students this month, saying staffing shortages are partly to blame for the violence.
The morning demonstration drew teachers, parents, students, clergy, and elected officials, including the mayor and two school committee members, said Lawrence Teachers’ Union president Kimberly Barry. Barry criticized school administrators for failing “the social and emotional needs of traumatized students.”
“We can’t just ignore the problems students bring to school with them and jump right back to testing them without any effort to rebuild a school community,” she said in a statement. “They’re kids, and we need to invest in staff and services that make them feel valued.”
Fourteen students were involved in altercations on Oct. 8, school officials said. Four days later, staff members were injured while trying to break up a fight. The next day, three students were arrested in an incident at the end of the school day, officials said.
Since the school year began, police have made five arrests and issued a dozen summonses.
“Our kids are in crisis right now,” Barry said last week. “We think the district should hire additional staff — teachers, mental health workers, nurses — because everyone’s spread really thin right now.”
School committee member Joshua Alba said there’s a need for more teachers, teaching assistants, psychologists, crisis counselors, and nurses at the school, which has more than 3,000 students.
Alba blamed the current leadership of Superintendent Cynthia Paris and the state’s oversight of the city’s schools for the past decade. The district is overseen by the Lawrence Alliance for Education, a nonprofit that hired Paris in 2018.
“The superintendent is mismanaging the district, and she’s not being held to account by any elected body. Parents don’t have a voice,” Alba said. “End the receivership. Let’s return to local control. Let us run things.”
Alba said the rally was “really powerful” and spoke to the need for change.
“A lot of people want to blame the kids, the parents, or even the educators,” he said. “But it really comes down to the structural constraints at play here.”
School Committee member Jonathan Guzman said he attended the rally to support the teachers.
“Most of these kids were at home a year ago, they didn’t have the opportunity to be high school students,” he said. Guzman said he also wants the state to yield control of the district.
“We aren’t able to control what is going on in our school system,” Guzman said.
Similar walk-in protests are planned before school every morning this week, said Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the teachers union.
“We expect the number of participants to grow,” he said.
State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Paris were invited to attend Monday night’s meeting, but Riley sent someone from the state’s K-12 education agency in his place, according to a state spokeswoman. Paris attended the meeting.
Residents and elected officials were able to give feedback to the City Council and the School Committee members in attendance, as well as the superintendent, regarding the recent incidents and the status of the receivership. However, those who went up to the microphone for public comment were required to address the group as a whole and not single any one member out.
Even so, one person who went up to the mic called for the resignation of Paris, a call that was met with cheers and applause across the room.
Another, a Lawrence High School alum, said these incidents at the school are nothing new but are now “getting worse.”
In light of the recent events, she said, her daughter hasn’t gone to school in a week. These incidents, along with having to deal with the pandemic, she said, will have repercussions for students.
“These kids are going to end up with PTSD from everything that they’re witnessing every single day at Lawrence High and somebody needs to be held accountable for this — enough is enough,” she said.
The opportunity for public comment was followed by a discussion between the City Council, the School Committee, the superintendent, the member from the state education agency, and others that included the solutions already implemented to alleviate the violence in the high school.
Last week, Vasquez announced additional safety resources for the school, including two school resource officers and two community police officers. He suggested the disturbances showed that returning to class in person after such a long absence is taking a mental and emotional toll on students, educators, and the community.
Vasquez said last week the involvement of local school administrators and state officials will be necessary to address the root cause of the violence.
“I have done everything in my power to provide aid to the district within the constraints of receivership,” he said.
A virtual meeting for families of Lawrence High School students, as well as others who would like to attend, is set for this week to further discuss the violence in the school, Paris said Monday night.
Felicia Gans of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.