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'We As A Community Have Failed Our Children:' Tense Town Hall Digs At The Roots Of Peoria Public Schools' Deeper Issues

Jeff Smudde

Disruptive days at several schools in the Peoria Public Schools system are putting a spotlight on the deeper problems at play in the district.

Teachers worry a lack of consequences for what happens in the classroom are setting kids up for a life of unemployment, or worse.

Some parents say there's a lack of after-school programs, while others involved in those programs say they're struggling to connect with enough young people.

The tense two-hour town hall meeting came a week after fights at Peoria High School led to at least nine arrests of young people.

Michael Riley, the president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, put it like this:

"Where we find ourselves right now is that we have failed as a community. This isn't a school district's problem. It's not a school board's problem. It's a community problem," Riley said. "When these students feel that they are at the point where nothing else matters, that's a community problem."

Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, the district superintendent, said children's brains are affected by the experiences they have.

Thoughts affect feelings, feeling affect thoughts - and both impact how people act, Kherat said. But positive experiences can have a positive impact.

"Let's all remember that love changes the brain. Love changes the brain," she said.

Kim Thomas, a teacher at Glen Oak Community Learning Center who was named the Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2016, said the schools are in need of more structure.

That includes students suffering repercussions for their actions, like being held back when they fail too many classes instead of being promoted to the next grade despite a lack of mastery of the curriculum.

"The kids will know consequences do come from love," she said.

Kellar Primary School teacher Nicole Larson said some children need to be held back to catch up. Not doing so is causing frustration which ultimately festers into more serious social-emotional issues, Larson said.

"These issues are not new, they have just been amplified by COVID. And you are seeing what the teachers have seen for years," she said, noting that some of her first-grade students come to her with at pre-K learning levels.

Julie Craghead, a teacher at Calvin Coolidge Middle School, said she fears the lack of consequences is hurting kids in the long run.

"I'm so afraid that we are just creating unemployable adults," Craghead said. "We have a future, and these kids are in our future. And these are the citizens that are going to be taking care of us when we're older."

She said she feels like teachers' hands are tied when dealing with kids who refuse to do assignments or anything else the teacher says. That also has a disruptive effect on the rest of the class who are there to learn, she said.

Craghead said the district needs a true alternative school for those 5 to 10 percent of students who require more structure than a traditional classroom can offer them to succeed.

"I'm exhausted from juggling it all week long. And it's not all of them. It's not a whole district problem. It's just a few and we can fix it, but we need to do it and call it what it is," she said.

Corine "Cookie" Williams is the parent of two Manual High School students. She said she herself was one of those kids who got into trouble.

"I didn't pick with anybody. But if you said fight, I had something to prove - until accountability set in and and I lost out on a full ride scholarship to school because of my actions," Williams said.

She said just moving disruptive kids to online learning isn't enough.

"It's not holding them accountable. You do need suspensions. You do need that. Because if we don't stop it now, the justice system will later. It is time for them to be held accountable," she said.

Agbara Bryson, the CEO of the New Millennium Institute, said ultimately, the problems are stemming from deeper troubles.

"I've been in this game a long time. And a lot of times what I'm seeing is that a lot of our students are really suffering from post traumatic stress, undiagnosed, and it's coming out in these behaviors," Bryson said.

Alivia Parker, the student school board member from Peoria High School, said she believes more accountability is needed after seeing students kicked out of class one day for bad behavior only to be back the next. But she said more resources are also needed.

"Some students maybe are getting abused at home. So you take it out at school. Maybe you need a room where you can get things, because you're getting bullied at school for the way that you dress because you're getting abused at home. Which could be a reason why you end up fighting, because someone's picking on you," Parker said.

She said sensory calm-down rooms would also go a long way towards smoothing over some of the tensions at school.

Sharron Ford, a building monitor at Manual High School, said allowing some students to be suspended or expelled now for their actions will keep them from ending up in prison later - or worse.

"I cry at my desk, because I see what the students are. And I know that there's something that we can do to help them and we're not doing it," Ford said. "We need to come together and come up with some solutions and some consequences to save our babies."

Board member Dr. Anni Reinking said she and board member Mike Murphy are on the parent-teacher advisory committee, which is currently reassessing the district's disciplinary guidelines. She said some of those policies haven't been updated in more than a decade.

"But just thinking about solutions, and hopefully those being able to be impacted by this the community that we're living in. Now we are living in a time of social media, where a fight can start with a Snapchat send button," she said.

Several parents said more after-school activities were needed to give kids something constructive to do. But Spanky Edwards said friends running basketball and STEM programs are actually having a hard time finding enough young people to participate.

"We have all these particular programs for your kids. So they're not just... again, there is no shortage of after school programming for your children," he said.

Reinking suggested that shouldn't be the case.

"The first thing that is popping into my head is why aren't all of these on the district website for parents to have?" she asked.

Pastor Clara Underwood-Forman of The Potter's House said that needs to be resolved.

"There has been a disconnect. But I heard different people say that, how come we didn't know that this was going on,' or 'why isn't certain information on the website' or whatever? There's a disconnect someplace," she said.

Board member Lynne Costic said it is sad it took an event like the fight at Peoria High School for a town hall discussion like this to take place.

"It is just not one person's fault. We as a community have failed our children. And that's the honest to goodness truth. We have. Each and every one of us is has a responsibility to our children. As a community we have failed," Costic said.

Costic said she's lived in Peoria nearly her whole life, and she's seen the city go through plenty of ups and downs. But she said lately, it's easy to get the feeling Peoria is going "downhill in a handbag."

"When we look at at all of the crime, the murders, the trafficking, we look at all of these things and it just gives such a negative spirit. But it's going to take us all to come together and try to lift the city up. No, we need each and every one of you," she said.

Board vice president Martha Ross said it would take some time for the board to digest and contemplate the community feedback it received.

Board president Gregory Wilson said he plans to hold more town hall meetings outside the traditional school board meeting format going forward in order to allow better conversations.

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