Calls for change, end of state oversight at Lawrence school safety meeting

·3 min read

Oct. 21—LAWRENCE — A Lawrence High graduate himself, Juan Lopez said he wants to be able to drop his daughter off at school and know she is safe. He also wants her teachers to feel protected.

But he said teachers are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up about problems at their schools.

"What can we do to make them feel safe ... I am not afraid to show up for them," said Lopez, a 2002 LHS graduate.

Lopez was among dozens of parents, teachers, community members and city officials who met Monday night to voice their concerns about safety in the Lawrence Public Schools.

Their reactions ranged from calling for the immediate resignation of school Superintendent Cynthia Paris, to asking to raise the pay of teachers and paraprofessionals, to removing the school district from state receivership and more.

On Tuesday, City Council President Marc LaPlante noted there were numerous calls to end the state's oversight of the school district through receivership.

He suggested the mayor and School Committee should "engage our state delegation" regarding that issue.

"They are our representatives to state government ... It's going to take them to advocate to state officials," LaPlante said. "I would encourage them to consider doing that. I am a city councilor. I am not on the School Committee...This is the the lane we should be going down."

Mayor Kendrys Vasquez had called for the joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee after numerous fights and arrests at Lawrence High School this school year. A school administrator was also assaulted trying to break up a fight.

Members of the Lawrence Teachers Union have said significant understaffing has aggravated a challenging back-to-school transition for many students who are struggling with the aftermath of school shutdowns due to COVID-19.

Vasquez had asked for Jeff Riley, the state's education commissioner, to attend the joint meeting. Riley could not attend, instead asking Dr. Ventura Rodriguez to serve as his designee.

Rodriguez is the senior associate commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and serves on the Lawrence Alliance for Education, the state-appointed receivership board for the Lawrence schools.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Vasquez, who serves as chair of the Lawrence School Committee, released a statement underscoring the committee's plan to petition the state "to end receivership in Lawrence Public Schools."

"The state's most diverse school district has been under the control of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for over ten years. DESE has drawn criticism in the last few weeks from community members in the wake of the on — going altercations at Lawrence High School and families' frustration s over having their community — voice shut out from the conversation about their own students' education in Lawrence," according to the statement.

"Lawrence deserves respect, yet the most diverse community in the Commonwealth has been denied autonomy for more than ten years and that must end," said Vasquez, who thanked everyone that is "fighting to free our district from the grasp of the overseer."

On Monday, as part of a safety plan, Paris announced students at Lawrence High will now start each day talking with their teachers about the school's "culture and climate."

Safety measures will also include an increased police presence, shorter lunch periods, staggered dismissal time and strict enforcement of the school's uniform policy. A task force to "review and revise" school safety issues will also be launched this week, Paris said.

A "Positive School Climate Task Force" will include teachers, administrators, student leaders, parents and community advocates. The goal of the task force "is to strengthen our collaboration as we review and revise our current safety efforts," Paris said.

Paris said she intends to meet with parents on Thursday regarding the task force. Their feedback "will be a significant driver" in how the group is made up and moves forward, she said.

Also, at Lawrence High, the leadership team is meeting with staff and student leaders this week. All of that input, along with outreach to the schools' community partners, will also be used to shape the task force, according to Paris.

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