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Parents, Students Say Hartford School Spirals Out Of Control

Steven Goode

April 30, 2010

Tamara Golding moved into a house across the street from Rawson School last March, feeling lucky that her son and daughter would attend a beautiful school that just completed a $33 million makeover.

These days she has a different view of the school.

"Pretty on the outside hell on the inside," she said.

Parents and teachers say student behavior at Rawson, a pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 school on Holcomb Street, has spiraled out of control.

Fights are commonplace: boys fighting boys, girls fighting girls, even boys fighting girls.

Current and former students say that alcohol and marijuana are being brought into the school and that students are engaging in sexual activity in stairwells and isolated areas.

Bathrooms, frequent sites of assault, are locked. Students are escorted to the bathrooms, which students and parents say are decorated with gang symbols.

There are three security guards for the 750 students, and parents say they fear for the younger children's safety.

Bullying inside and outside the school is a regular occurrence, students and parents say. Last Wednesday, according to one student, a group of students committed random assaults inside the building. The day culminated with an after-school assault on a teenager who came to Rawson to pick up his younger brother and escort him home.

The boy, Andrew Manning, 15, was beaten by four young men at the corner of Holcomb and Cornwall streets and taken by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, where he received a dozen stitches to close a gash in his forehead. He also had a concussion and an eye injury. The attack was interrupted by a man who stopped his pickup truck.

"If we don't stop this, something really tragic is going to happen," said Golding, who acknowledged that her daughter, Jazzman Smith, an eighth-grader, is currently suspended from the school for a disciplinary problem.

After Andrew was beaten, a police cruiser was sent to the street corner Thursday and Friday to monitor the beginning and end of the school day.

Alerted to problems at the school, Hartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts visited Principal Gerald Martin on Thursday to discuss the violence in and around the school.

"If you have to keep breaking up fights, when is the education going on?" Roberts asked. He said police will increase patrols in the area.

Martin declined Friday to confirm or deny any of the allegations made by parents, but said the school and administration are working with parents to address the issues.

David Medina, spokesman for the school system, said Friday that an intervention team has been put in place to deal with discipline issues.

Andrew's uncle, Byron Peart, and grandmother, Refila Walters, said Friday that they appreciated the police efforts. But Walters said she is fed up with what she called a yearlong pattern of harassment of Andrew. She said he has had to endure demands for his money and cellphone, the theft of his music player last winter and an earlier assault by the same group of youths.

"He's scared to walk in the street by himself, and that shouldn't be," said Walters, who added that her grandson will now be accompanied by two neighborhood friends when he goes to pick up his brother.

Peart said the assault in broad daylight was troubling.

"It seems to be like the Wild West. A lot of these kids do what they want to do with no consequences," he said.

Parents say school officials have not responded to repeated requests for help. A parent-teacher organization meeting is scheduled for today, but one parent who did not want to be identified said she didn't expect much.

"This will be the fifth meeting in six weeks, and nothing's changed," she said.

A former student who still has friends at the school said Friday that there were problems last year, but that they have worsened this year as a neighborhood gang that calls itself "II Deep" has established itself among the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students.

"They threaten kids, jump people in the bathrooms," said the student, who asked to remain anonymous. "They're jumping a lot of people, boys and girls."

Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, said Friday that Rawson teachers held a meeting several weeks ago with school and district administrators to say "we're at the end of our rope."

"It's primarily a discipline issue," Johnson said. "I hate to use the phrase out of control, but it's pretty close to out of control."

Frank Velasquez, whose daughter is a student at Rawson, said the problems there began when the school added seventh and eighth grades three years ago.

"It's simple," he said. "The big fish eat the little ones."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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