'We are afraid' | Daily fights, classroom disruptions plague Academy @ Shawnee

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Daily fights, classroom disruptions, excessive profanity and disrespect for teachers and staff – these are not the things Daimen Fuentes thought he would find when he chose the Academy @ Shawnee in his pursuit of the American dream.

“My mother leaves us to go to school, thinking that we are safe in school but we are not,” said Daiman Fuentes, 17, who along with his twin brother, Dariel, emigrated to the United States from Cuba about a year ago. "We are afraid. And this is not only us, we are talking in the voice of many students who have the same concerns that we do.”

Their classmates, Niyonsaba Diane and Ricky Sanders are frustrated as well and after two violent fights Friday and Monday. They – along with parents, teachers and staff members – are pleading for help.

"I have seen some really bad stuff...including kids getting their teeth knocked out, people were bleeding,” Sanders says. “It has gotten to the point where the adults, they can't teach us.”

According to data obtained by WDRB in an open records request, there have been nearly 1,087 student behavior incidents reported at Shawnee since the start of the 2016-17 year, down from 1,314 incidents during the same time period last year. However, student suspensions through the first 54 days of school have increased from 154 last year to 266 this year.

Among the most common problems: failure to respond to questions or requests (330 incidents), talking out during class (108), fighting or striking another student (70) and using profanity or vulgarity towards staff (62).

Jefferson County Public Schools officials say they are aware of the violence at Shawnee and are trying to address it by adding additional security officers and dispatching senior level staff to assist principal Venita Benboe in “modeling expectations” with teachers and students this week.

“One of my recommendations was that we bring down some folks from my team and help spend some time in the classroom, spend some time in the hall, working with administrators and security,” said Katy Zeitz, an assistant superintendent who has been working at the school all week.

“We know that there are concerns and issues and what we are trying to do is really look at what is happening so that we can address those things very specifically,” she said, adding that despite the recent violence, she doesn’t think Shawnee is an “unsafe place to be.”

However, Zeitz says school officials and district administrators are working furiously to address the behavior, saying “we want to nip it now.”

For decades, Shawnee has struggled with low achievement, attendance problems, transient and impoverished students, teacher turnover and dwindling enrollment. It is among the lowest performing schools in Kentucky.

Recent test scores show that only 17 percent of students scored proficient on the end-of-course Algebra II test, well below the district and state averages. In addition, only 28.5 percent scored proficient on the English II end-of-course exam, also below the JCPS and state average.

"The school is being set up for failure by design," says Jacque White, whose daughter is in the middle school at Shawnee. "You don't have decades of cars being stolen, kids assaulting other kids, teachers getting assaulted, and high staff turnover and say that you are working to address it. The problem is systemic."

‘It’s a war zone’

Many parents, students and teachers tell WDRB they disagree with the district’s assessment of what’s taking place at Shawnee.

“It’s a war zone,” said Carroll Burnett, whose two children attend the school. “I am at a breaking point following the incident on Monday where a half a dozen people were exchanging blows and a young person had to be tased. How does this happen? How is it allowed? Why is it continuing?”

On Monday morning, the hallways were packed with students as they transitioned from one class to another when suddenly chaos broke out. Videos taken by students show two girls getting into a physical fight that school officials say originated over a social media post.

Within moments, more than a dozen other students were involved, many are seen throwing punches and cursing as security staff, police officers and school officials struggled to separate those involved and encouraged dozens of other students in the hallway to get to class.

Officer Lamont Washington, a spokesman for the Louisville Metro Police Department, said while the school’s resource officer attempted to deescalate the fight, a 16 year-old student assaulted the officer and “was tased.”

Three students were arrested, including the 16-year-old male for felony assault on a police officer, and 18-year-old Keevan Taylor, who was charged with felony assault on a school employee. JCPS officials say a female juvenile was also arrested, but her charges were unclear as of Thursday.

In all, 14 students were suspended and are facing harsher punishment for their roles in Monday’s attack, said Jennifer Brislin, a JCPS spokeswoman.

Zeitz said the fighting and student behavior at Shawnee are similar to the problems other JCPS schools face – many of which originate in the community and are then brought to school the next day.

“Typically what has occurred (is) students (who) have a bone to pick with each other and they address it at school,” Zeitz said. “The most recent event was again, a symptom or a continuation of something that happened outside of school.”

 She added that “we have fights at other schools besides Shawnee and we address those in the same manor...which is get control, deescalate the situation and provide consequences for the students involved.”

Indeed, during last week’s school board meeting Superintendent Donna Hargens shared data with board members that showed through Oct. 21, there had been 44,310 student behavior incidents reported in JCPS, compared to 28,902 for the same time period last year.

In addition, Hargens said student suspensions were at 4,486 this year compared to 3,070 last year.

‘They are keeping us from getting an education”

The new data comes about a month after the state released the district’s School Report Card, showing that the number of student behavior incidents – which include everything from drugs, tobacco and alcohol offenses to fighting, assaults, harassment and weapons cases – spiked from 49,155 total incidents in 2014-15 to 62,125 last year -- a 26 percent increase.

The data specifically show that assaults, bullying and harassment cases in JCPS skyrocketed during the 2015-16 year. There were 7,915 bullying and harassment incidents last year, compared with 5,239 incidents the previous year – a 51 percent increase.

Dariel Fuentes says he and his brother love their teachers at Shawnee and the school’s popular aviation program, which they hope will help them reach their lifelong goal of becoming pilots before they even graduate from high school.

“We have great teachers but there is a problem with the students…they are stopping us from getting an education,” Dariel says. “We would like to change that because there are many of us here who want to learn.”

Daiman adds: "I'm seeing fights, I am seeing profanity…and teachers, you see them sad because they come here every day to teach and they finish the day crying."

Diane says that while many students run towards an altercation to see what’s going on, she does the opposite.

"I run away,” she said. “I don't think it's worth watching and I don’t want to get hurt. It’s just really sad to see my fellow students get into a fight for some ridiculous reasons.”

On Friday, Diane says one of her best friends was sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch when he was attacked from behind.

“Out of nowhere a student launched two punches to my friend’s back and one punch to his face and ran off,” she recalled. “My friend is the most kind and sweetest person and he never wanted trouble. He was assaulted for snitching on the person who stole his phone.”

Diane, who came to America when she was 7 from Tanzania, says she just wants to learn.

"We came here to get an education and a better life, and I'm currently not receiving it," she said. "There are many of us here who want to learn. We need help." 

Over the past month, students at Shawnee have taken to their cell phones to record more than a dozen videos of fights in the hallways, classrooms and cafeteria to document what some of them feel is an attempt by the district to downplay the situation.

After Monday’s altercation, WDRB received several copies of video from the fight that show various angles.

“This was closer to a riot verses a fight,” says a source who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation. “I just thought you may want the real story vs. JCPS’ scaled down version and another incident to shove under the rug and not have the public know what is really taking place in our schools.”

Zeitz says JCPS is not scaling down the seriousness of incidents.

"I think there's this misconception that every student there is running the halls and tearing down posters...that's not reality,” she said.

Not just fighting

But students, parents and staff members say it’s not just the fighting that has plagued the west Louisville school, which for years has struggled with low achievement and is considered one of the lowest performing schools in Kentucky.

According to an Oct. 13 police report, someone stole the car keys out of a teacher’s purse and then took off in her car. JCPS officials say a student “may have been involved” and referred comment about the case to LMPD and a department spokesman says the incident is still under investigation.

All four students who contacted WDRB say profanity is also a problem.

“I think the way verbally that they treat some teachers, I think they use a level of profanity that shouldn't be used in the school,” Daiman says. “I hear things that I’ve never heard in my life and I hear it here in a school where I am supposed to be educated."

Several parents, including Burnett, attended a special-called meeting of Shawee’s site-based advisory council on Tuesday.

“I have to question the people in charge,” Burnett said. “Something needs to be done and it needs to be done before someone really gets hurt.”

Erin Korbylo, whose son is a senior, agrees.

“There are growing concerns with a lot of things happening at the school...the safety, the environment, the climate,” she said. “I've been asking questions since beginning of the school year and I don't feel like it's getting any better.”

During the meeting, council member Leslie Bates, a parent, asked the administrative team at Shawnee about the school’s climate.

“When we meet with teachers monthly, honestly speaking...it's challenging,” said Jaronda Majors, an assistant principal. “There are some that are discouraged, there are others that feel hopeful...it's just a challenge."

Majors told the council that if she were to give morale a number, with 10 being the highest, she would say it’s currently at about a “4 or 5.”

“We have a lot of instability with school personnel, we are dealing with behavior and some frustrations with classroom management and the overall school climate,” Majors said. “We are trying to look and identify ways that we can try to encourage us to come together as a school.”

'Thinking about transferring'

The Fuentes brothers, Diane and Sanders all say they want to continue at Shawnee. But they worry that one day, they will be the target of a fight or altercation.

"I worry about that because I am really trying to be good for my college resume,” Sanders said. “It has gotten to the point now where a school I once loved, I am thinking about transferring."

Zeitz says staff members are trying to think outside the box when trying to address behavior problems.

"I know the staff follows social media and attempts to look at anything that might help them predict where there might be issues with particular student groups or even two students,” she said.

Zeitz says she has seen many of the fight videos, which she calls “disturbing and upsetting.”

"I feel it is very unfortunate, my immediate thoughts are sadness and concern,” she said. "It is never a good thing to see students hurting each other."

Parent Jacque White said she is not satisfied with how the district has handled the problems at Shawnee.

"This is not about the teachers and staff at Shawnee," she says. "This is about how what is going each day is impacting children…children who were already vulnerable before they walked in the door. This goes much further than the school level. This goes to the district. They are letting this happen on their watch."


Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved.