Some Jefferson County educators fear a potential increase in gang violence at alternative schools if a proposed merger passes unchanged.
To better serve alternative school students and revitalize district facilities, Jefferson County Public Schools is considering separating alternative school students into middle and high schools housed on different campuses.
High school students at Breckinridge Metro High and Minor Daniels Academy would combine into an alternative school on the current Liberty High campus. Liberty would move to the Gilmore Lane Elementary building, and all middle school alternative students would be at Minor Daniels Academy. W.E.B. DuBois Academy will then take over the Breckinridge space.
In a recent school board work session, district officials said splitting alternative schools by grade level would help them better serve disadvantaged students. But some educators in alternative schools fear the proposed merger will have an unintended consequence — more gang run-ins.
According to teachers and activists, gang-related incidents are a reality inside some district schools, including alternative schools. A combined school could exacerbate the problem, they said.
Fights borne out of gang issues, some leading to staff injuries, are common, Breckinridge Metro teacher Kumar Rashad said. One fight Monday morning ended with a student shouting gang mantras, he added.
When asked about the potential merger, Rashad said he feared the worst. “There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed.”
Anti-violence activist Eddie Woods, who works with No More Red Dots, said a proposal would be “ill-advised” if it didn’t consider the impact of gangs in alternative schools.
Some students have issues with each other because of a gang or neighborhood affiliation, Woods explained. Putting all of the students under one roof could “pose some problems,” he said.
Conflicts happening in the community can be brought inside schools, and school officials often don’t know, Woods said. That could disrupt student learning or the environment, he said.
A JCPS spokeswoman said the district tries to avoid putting students with known conflicts in the same school but doesn’t specifically assign students based on potential affiliations.
“Students are assigned, once referred, in alternative placement based on whether or not they are court involved, space and any possible conflicts students have had with other students,” spokeswoman Renee Murphy said.
In an anonymous open letter on Dear JCPS, one teacher said, “Students will be affected by this merger as all alliances to gangs will be contained to one building, resulting in established turf and targeted students fearful of attending school.”
The current proposal hopes to split students in some capacity on the Liberty campus, which has two identical floors, and provide different transportation, officials said at a forum at Breckinridge Metro Monday night. Many details, including how common areas would be shared, are still in the works.
“Nothing is imminent,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told Breckinridge Metro teachers, security and other stakeholders at the forum.
Nearly every group labeled safety and security as top concerns during small group discussions at the forum. One group listed two gangs by name as their top concern. Another worried about gangs and drive-by shootings in the surrounding neighborhood.
Murphy said security is a focus in developing the proposal, including the impact of gangs.
Educators seemed to support the bulk of the proposal, which hopes to offer more wraparound social services, vocational training and electives to alternative school students. Some liked the idea of separating middle and high school students but didn’t necessarily want that to result in a merger.
Rashad said he liked the additional services, which are meant to increase student belonging, but wondered why they couldn’t be offered at the schools’ current locations.
Violence can lead to trauma for already disadvantaged students — alternative students skew poor and tend to be a racial minority with past behavior issues.
A potential increase in gang run-ins could impact students without an affiliation, too, Rashad said. Some alternative school students are at a “tipping point,” forcing some to pick a side and others potentially getting traumatized in the process, he said.
There’s “nothing positive” about this for school culture, Rashad said.
Gang concerns aren’t new. A 2017 presentation from Stan Mullen, the district’s director of security and investigations, labeled increasing numbers of gang-involved students in “most” middle and high schools as a threat with a “high potential for violence.”
In JCPS’ safety procedure manual, available on its website, gang activity is tied to “civil disturbance” issues. Schools are asked to follow the same lockdown procedures for gangs as they would with an armed intruder.
Wood’s group, which works to reduce gun violence, hopes to eventually have a division focused on school safety efforts. For now, schools should be more “cognizant” of issues and provide support staff, like counselors, whom students are comfortable approaching about problems.
Murphy said the district works with community organizations, like No More Red Dots, to “address problems or conflicts students are facing.”
The local school board could vote on a final proposal as early as March. If the current proposal passes, Breckinridge Metro and Minor Daniels would combine by the next school year.