Teachers & Students Trapped between MS-13 & Administrators

It feels archaic to tell stories of evil villains because the world seems more complex, more gray, than that sort of black and white depiction. Yet, it is hard to ignore how deceptive the actions (or non-actions rather) of some bureaucrats and administrators feel.

Last week, we highlighted how difficult it is for parents to receive clear information about school safety. We discussed how complicated it is for teachers to discipline students who identify as gang members, but who haven’t acted out. We said information was missing, but we did not point fingers or blame anyone. Today, we are.

Just as we finished publishing our piece last week, The Washington Post wrote another article focused on MS-13 activity. This time The Post featured the presence of MS-13 at William Wirt Middle School, but in this story, the rhetoric of the article had a different focus. The Post’s entire piece points to how the school administration actively hides the gang problem at William Wirt Middle.

The paper describes interviewing two dozen teachers, parents, and students, most of whom asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs or being targeted by MS-13. And just like that, the villainous depiction begins. Many quotes are also followed by statements like “claims supported by documents obtained by The Washington Post,” which suggest that, although the school administration has not officially recorded or reported these incidents, The Post has written-proof they happened.

“Although administrators deny Wirt has a gang problem, the situation inside the aging, overcrowded building has left some teachers so afraid that they refuse to be alone with their students. Many said they had repeatedly reported incidents involving suspected gang members to administrators, only to be ignored — claims supported by documents obtained by The Washington Post.”

Even the onsite police officer at Wirt Middle seems to have little power. A spokesman for Wirt Middle wrote an email stating that the principal of Wirt has not experienced any gang problems at school, but when The Post tried to follow-up by interviewing the onsite police officer, he declined to discuss the matter. He stated only, “This is their house, so we’re going to defer to school leadership.” Separately, however, The Post received information from a police station that 74 phone calls were made from Wirt Middle to the police as of May 1 of this school year.

Based on The National Center of Education Statistics latest report, a school the size of Wirt Middle calls the police 12 times a year on average, so Wirt Middle called the police over six times more than similar schools.

Not only do numbers seem to question the administration’s claims, but terrified teachers, parents, and students also tell a drastically different story from the administration. From tales of boys forced by gang members to fight in bathrooms to sexual harassment and assault, the halls of Wirt Middle exude fear. One teacher even described the administration’s take on gang activity as “don’t ask, don’t talk about it.” Evidence of the gang activity even covers tree trunks in the form of MS-13 graffiti just 100 feet from the school.

But this administration isn’t the only one receiving questions, The 74 describes another school in New York where teachers and students also feel endangered and ignored due to policymakers’ pressure for administrations to use more “restorative, less strict” disciplinary tactics. Similarly, another Post article describes other D.C. schools hiding or not recording the actual number of suspensions due to the same policy pressure.

Although it seems clear that administrators are under pressure to have better disciplinary numbers, hiding the truth about misbehavior and safety does not create success for anyone. It not only keeps students from learning, but it also puts teachers and students in very real danger.

But there is another option. There are policies that would put the power back into the hands of families. School choice programs would force administrators to deal more honestly with these issues because the students of schools like William Wirt would leave if their parents had other options. Reporting numbers up the chain would matter less because keeping families happy would take precedent. If families felt unsafe, they wouldn’t feel trapped in their school. And this choice would ultimately force stricter policing of gang activity and violence at schools like Wirt.

We all care about the safety of our students, so consider education reforms that reward public schools that make safety a high priority and that hold administrators accountable when they are just trying to fake it. Read, ask questions, and don’t allow silence on violence any longer.

Image via Amanda Bui