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Growing violence, misbehavior at Brockton High School has teachers near a breaking point

Cliff Canavan's arm was broken last year when he tried to break up a fight. He stood in front of where the fight occurred under the school's stadium bleachers.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Cliff Canavan grew up in Brockton and graduated from Brockton High School, where he has been a teacher for more than two decades.

He hasn’t taught anywhere else and doesn’t want to. But with the school beset with widespread misbehavior and frequent bouts of violence, he wonders how much more he can take.

In December 2022, his arm was broken when he tried to break up a fight after school, one day after he had remarked to other teachers that it was only a matter of time before someone got “seriously hurt — or God forbid — killed,” he recalled.

Teachers, staff, parents, and many students at Brockton High are expressing concern about the conditions. In interviews and emotional testimony at a recent School Committee meeting, teachers described fist fights that draw crowds of onlookers, open drug use, and verbal harassment of faculty.

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“When I’m asked by people outside of Brockton, in Brockton, ‘What’s going on at Brockton High? Is it really as bad as they say it is?’ I say, ‘No. It’s much, much worse,’ ” guidance counselor Martin Feroli said at the Jan. 31 meeting. “Teachers and administration staff are sworn at, shoved, and met with a staggering level of disrespect that most people, I would hope, would not even show toward their worst enemy.”

But at a school where more than 60 percent of the students are Black and 20 percent are Hispanic, some parents and community leaders expressed concern that only one narrative is being heard. The discipline problems are associated with a range of factors, they said, from the lack of Black educators to continuing mental health repercussions from the pandemic. In the 2022-23 school year, most of the teachers at the high school were white, according to state education data; about 20 percent were identified as African American.

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Facing a massive budget deficit, the school system laid off more than 100 employees last summer and in November hundreds of students spent some of the school day in the cafeteria due to a shortage of substitutes and teacher absences. A new principal took over last month, the third at the helm this school year.

About 70 percent of students come from low-income households, and the school has long struggled academically, with its most recent accountability report finding it was making “limited or no progress” toward improvement targets.

From Cliff Canavan’s cellphone, a view of the fight that was posted online the day when he was injured. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Faith Tobon, a parent of a Brockton High junior, said the chaotic environment makes it hard for students to learn. Most want to do well, said Tobon, who also works at the school. But they have to cope with daily distractions, in addition to their own frustration over attending a school where some feel they can’t navigate the halls or use the restroom safely.

“The teachers are still doing their best, but it’s not an environment for learning,” she said in an interview. “There’s not a kid in that school who is not in some way anxious about the environment.”

Michelle Henson, whose niece goes to the high school, said it was “hard to hear” the situation the faculty described at the meeting. But since then, Henson said, staff and parents have told her “there are two sides to some of those stories.”

“We see one narrative, right?” Henson said in an interview. “What’s concerning me about the mainstream media is you’re going to see white female teachers crying, and Black and brown children fighting.”

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Meanwhile, problems at the school are left unaddressed, Henson said. She described the school building as “horrible and disgusting,” with mold and many leaks.

“It’s our community. It’s everybody’s responsibility,” she said. “We have some great kids.”

At the school board meeting, Cheri Mazzoli, an administrative assistant, recounted being swept up by a crowd of students rushing down a hallway to watch and record a fight. She was pushed into a locker and a wall and was stepped on before her boss was able to pull her into a classroom.

“Unfortunately, staff now feels that it’s only a matter of time before someone dies in our hallway,” she said.

Acting Superintendent James Cobbs, principal Kevin McCaskill, and Mayor Robert Sullivan, who chairs the School Committee, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Cobbs said at the meeting that there “is not an easy fix” to the problems but that the School Committee would work with the community to “come up with solutions.”

Cliff Canavan's cast after his arm was broken.Cliff Canavan

McCaskill outlined plans that included resuming in-house suspensions, hiring six safety and security specialists, and more strictly enforcing existing rules.

“One person doesn’t make change,” McCaskill said. “It’s going to take a lot of hands — a lot of tears, a lot of sweat — to really make systemic changes going forward.”

City Councilor Winthrop Farwell Jr., a former mayor and former School Committee member, said in an interview that if the situation continues to decline, the council would consider asking the state to take over the high school temporarily.

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“To hear what they have gone through, to see how pained they were with what they face every day, it was disturbing,” he said of what teachers described. “You can’t function and teach effectively in that kind of an atmosphere.”

Teachers at Brockton High School fear for their safety, citing violence and chaos that occurs on a near-daily basis. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Police officers, paid for by the school system, are at the high school each day but in too small numbers to make a real difference, teachers said. Students are required to walk through metal detectors in the morning, but some faculty said they are not sensitive enough to detect weapons such as knives.

“Right now, most educators are operating on a triage mode, moving from one crisis to the next,” Kim Gibson, president of the Brockton Education Association, and two other union leaders said in a statement. “Meanwhile, students are losing time to learn and grow.”

Tony Rodrigues, a member of the School Committee, attributed many of the problems to a lack of funding and the city’s budget issues. Some teachers have upward of 30 students in their classes, he said.

“You have to actually fund the school district where it’s supposed to be. You don’t fund it — this is what we get,” he said.

Many teachers said a sliver of the school’s 3,600 students is responsible for the bulk of the disturbances, but they set a tone that is hard to overcome.

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Some blamed a 2012 state law on disciplinary measures that aims to “make exclusion from school a last resort.” Rodrigues said the state “has tied our hands” in terms of disciplining students.

Tony Branch, vice president of the Brockton branch of the NAACP, condemned students who have assaulted teachers and said they “absolutely shall be dealt with within the criminal justice system.”

But he said there needs to be a greater focus on working with the small number of students who are causing trouble. He emphasized the importance of getting parents involved, increasing funding around emotional support, and steering young adults toward community services.

Canavan was injured in December 2022 trying to stop a girl from attacking a member of the track team, which he coached. Two bones in his forearm were shattered. Canavan said he will never regain full function of his arm. He decided to stop coaching, feeling it wasn’t worth it anymore.

“Ninety-five percent of the students here are fantastic young adults who deserve better, and we’re failing them,” he said.

At the school board meeting, Shamara Tavares, a senior, said issues raised by students and teachers are often overlooked by the School Committee.

“Those that are there to hurt others and keep me and others from getting a good education need to be removed. Either take action or watch the rest of BHS fall,” she said.

Deanna Pan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98.