Cheltenham residents air grievances, rally support after student brawl

For each person who wanted more discipline, there were those who worried about stigmatizing problem students.

For each person who said staff was inconsistent in how it doled out punishment, there were those who said staff doesn’t have the leeway needed to intervene when fights develop.

And for each person who bemoaned a lack of safety, there were those who said their school isn’t as lawless as it’s been portrayed. 

Less than a week after a student brawl left 10 staff members injured and led to four student arrests at Cheltenham High School, residents of the Cheltenham School District just north of Philadelphia gathered to air grievances and rally support. The opinions were as numerous as the attendees.

Before a packed high school auditorium — and over more than four hours of testimony — they held forth on topics as diverse as school safety, the treatment of black students, property taxes, mentoring, and academic tracking.

It all led back to a Wednesday melee that lit up the internet and put this small suburban community in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Though the tone was mostly civil, the length and passion of Monday night’s meeting spoke to just how deeply the student fight has wounded Cheltenham.

“I’m seeing things on the news. And, when I look at it, I say this looks like Philadelphia School District,” said parent Tiffany Clark, who said she attended high school in Philadelphia. “And I do not pay mortgage and taxes to put my child in that kind of danger.”

Several speakers Monday said they were drawn to Cheltenham because of the school system’s stellar reputation. Almost as many said they were now questioning that reputation in the aftermath of the fight.

Eric Fisher, a district resident who said he used to teach in Philadelphia public schools, argued Cheltenham officials should have seen an incident like last week’s fight coming.

“That fight did not happen in a vacuum,” he said. “It didn’t happen because of something last month or last year. It happened over years and years of decline and neglect.”

Fisher pointed to an anonymous teacher survey obtained by Philly.com that suggested many staff members were worried about an increasingly fragile school climate before the fight took place.

Some residents asked if the district could create separate programs for students who continually defy orders or disrupt classes. But others argued such an initiative would disproportionately enroll minority students and doom them to a dead-end academic career.

“These kids are stigmatized as being bad, and, even worse, they’re stigmatized as being dumb,” said resident and former teacher Terry Dillon.

There were countless calls during the meeting, however, for more and better discipline. Some said students felt empowered to disobey teachers because of lax or inconsistent punishment.

“You have to take back this school,” said Vaughn Tinsley, a Cheltenham alum.

Tinsley and others also centered the conversation around race. The Cheltenham School District is around 51 percent black, a number that has climbed in recent years. Residents, who argued the district has been slow to adjust, said the faculty isn’t as diverse as the student body.

“I haven’t had an African-American male teacher since the fourth grade,” said ninth-grader Adonis Hunter.

For the most part, district officials simply listened. Superintendent Wagner Marseille, who joined the district in 2015, stood at the front of the auditorium, took notes, and offered quick, contrite responses when asked direct questions.

Marseille did, at the beginning of the meeting, lay out steps the district was taking in the aftermath of the fight. They include adding a full-time safety manager to the high school; hiring a high school “climate” consultant; ramping up hallway security; and updating discipline policies to “outline clear ramifications for poor conduct.”

He also preached patience.

“Just like our hallways didn’t grow into their instability overnight, we cannot expect to change overnight to a culture free from volatility,” said Marseille.

While the district endured plenty of criticism Monday night, multiple residents and students said Cheltenham has taken too hard a beating in the press since last week’s fight.

“The school is truly amazing,” said Isabel DuBois, a senior at Cheltenham High School. “The diversity, kindness, and love outweigh everything else.”

If there were no common opinion Monday, there was at least a common sense of concern, care, and vigilance.

“School is a microcosm of our community,” Marseille said.

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