Mon. Feb 24th, 2020

‘Lord of the Flies’: Fights, bullying, chaos upend San …

‘Lord of the Flies’: Fights, bullying, chaos upend San …

Middle school is rarely easy — but it should never, ever be this hard.

Aptos Middle School stands grandly among stunning homes near some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods: Saint Francis Wood, Mount Davidson Manor and Ingleside Terraces. It’s long been one of San Francisco Unified School District’s most desirable, renowned middle schools.

But lately, the calm, stately exterior has masked chaos inside.

Kids, parents, teachers and administrators agree there’s a small group of kids — as few as five, as many as 20, depending on whom you ask — who’ve managed to wrest control of the school from the adults.

And everybody agrees these kids, just 11 to 14 years old, need far more support to cope with the horrifying trauma they’ve experienced in their short lives and get them engaged in school. Where families and teachers disagree with administrators, however, is whether the school district — which is big on talk about social justice — is actually providing that support.

The district says it is. But the mayhem — physical fights, bullying, chaotic hallways and vile language — shows that’s clearly not the case.

In fact, for the 1,000 students at Aptos, there’s just one social worker. And the only real concession the district has made after complaints about safety has been allowing Principal Nicole Trickett to use the money for new technology to hire a temporary security guard for more protection in the hallways.

It’s like buying boxes of Band-Aids without figuring out why the patient keeps bleeding.

A student listens to instructions during an eighth-grade grade science class at Aptos Middle School.

A group of sixth-graders is even organizing a walk-out for Feb. 21 to demand a beefed-up wellness center staffed with qualified therapists or social workers, crisis training for security guards, clear and consistent behavior guidelines, and follow-through when students violate them.

The students’ demands are spot-on — and it’s ironic they know what’s needed better than the adults paid to lead them. While the San Francisco Unified School District faces deep deficits in the coming years, it must direct more funds to help traumatized students and seek the philanthropic support to do it.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, whose daughter attends Aptos, said he was “a little bit shocked” when he began hearing from her and other Aptos families about what kids are facing there.

“What’s more concerning is the response from the district and the response from the administration, where they don’t seem like they’re doing anything. They don’t seem to be adding resources,” Ting said.

“It’s just sort of business as usual,” he continued. “As a parent and a public official, they drive me crazy in both ways.”


One of the scariest incidents at Aptos this school year occurred in September, when two girls attacked a sixth-grade girl on the schoolyard. The girls pulled the sixth-grader to the ground by her hair, pulled a chunk of it out of her skull and kicked her in the face and the back of her head.

Lisa Merrall, the girl’s mother, said the same girls had yanked her daughter’s hair before, and her daughter reported it to her counselor, who did nothing about it. The Chronicle agreed not to name Merrall’s daughter or other students and teachers in this story in accordance with its policy on anonymous sources.

The girl called her parents after the attack on the yard, and Merrall said the principal, counselor and dean of students phoned her promptly. She sent a follow-up email to them laying out her concerns and asking for a plan to protect her daughter.

“Nobody got back to me for two weeks!” she said.

Laura Dudnick, a spokeswoman for the district, said the principal “addressed this issue in a timely manner and follow-up actions were taken.”

School administrators held a “restorative justice” meeting with the families of each girl. That’s the school district’s preferred way of resolving disputes, and it centers on mediation and acknowledging harm.

“There were no apologies,” Merrall said. “When asked specifically what they would do differently, the girl said, ‘Well, I guess I wouldn’t have kicked her in the face.’… Those girls have approached her multiple times since then and said, ‘You better keep your mouth shut, you little bitch.’”

Principal Trickett declined to say what repercussions the girls faced. She said under the school’s “behavior matrix,” penalties can include picking up trash on the yard or even suspensions.

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But many parents and students don’t see the consequences making any difference.

“It’s kind of ‘Lord of the Flies’ around here,” Merrall said.

Cristine Egami said kids have kicked her son repeatedly and rubbed orange peels in his eyes. She said one of his teachers warned him he’d probably get beaten up if he reported the other kids’ behavior.

“It’s this systematic terrorization by whoever the heck is roaming the halls that day,” said Egami’s husband, Kiyoshi.

Jason Rupp, whose son is in seventh grade at Aptos, said it’s infuriating there’s apparently no money to hire another social worker or offer more services.

“This is a city with a huge amount of wealth,” he said. “We have kids getting beat up at school, and we’re not offering them any resources.”

He emailed Superintendent Vincent Matthews asking for help and heard nothing.

In an interview, Matthews said he has seen emails from Aptos parents and knows there’s been a “slight increase” in incidents at the school, but didn’t sound overly concerned about it.

“It’s still within the norm for middle schools,” he said, which makes you wonder about what’s happening at all the others.

“Are more services needed?” he asked. “If we can, we try to provide those, but unfortunately we have to live within our means. … What’s in place now is what’s in place.”


Tony Payne, the San Francisco Unified School District’s director of principal leadership and support for middle schools, acknowledged that “it was a chaotic start to the year, absolutely.”

“We did get a tough bunch this year,” he continued.

But the problems don’t just stem from tough kids.

Aptos’ principal and discipline-minded assistant principal both left recently, and Trickett and her administration are relatively new. The school district cut $190,000 in federal money aimed at the poorest schools from Aptos because its population got slightly wealthier. That meant Trickett couldn’t replace the family liaison, a longtime Aptos staff member responsible for building relationships with families, after that person retired.

And the district has stalled in making simple changes. While it pays for school buses to transport kids from the southeast part of the city to diversify the school, the buses leave right after the bell rings, meaning the kids who need after-school support, sports and clubs the most often can’t access them.

Dudnick, the district spokeswoman, said the bus contract can’t accommodate a later departure. Clearly, that’s got to change.

Talya Huntley, Aptos Middle School dean of students, talks with a student while working in the hall.

A much-heralded 10-week cognitive-behavioral training session for the most traumatized students was offered at Aptos eight years ago — even making Chronicle headlines — and showed participants’ stress levels went down and reading levels improved. But after grant money expired, the therapy ceased. After I asked why it wasn’t offered anymore, Dudnick said it would begin again soon, run by the school’s sole social worker.

Trickett said changes have been made to improve students’ safety, including increasing adult presence in the hallways between classes. Good behavior is reinforced by offering “Tiger Tickets” and posting signs in the hall and hosting assemblies on the topic.

The administrators point to a decrease in referrals from teachers for bad behavior since the fall as proof their strategy is working. But teachers say they’ve just stopped bothering to refer problems, and things aren’t getting much better.


One evening last month, 14 kids gathered in a meeting room at the Ingleside Branch Library to describe life at Aptos. They were a mix of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from a mix of racial backgrounds.

“Somebody shot a rubber band at my eyeball, and it really hurt,” said a sixth-grade boy. He said a counselor had a meeting with him and the rubber band shooter, but “nothing much happened.”

“I see fights at least every week,” said a seventh-grader. “It’s usually the same kids. And nothing is ever done.”

The hallways, bathrooms and cafeteria can be even worse. Kids described other students throwing condoms blown up like balloons with “gooey stuff” inside at other kids and flinging a dead mouse at each other on the yard.

And the language tolerated at school is horrific, students said. Kids use homophobic slurs, call girls “ho’s,” and a mother said she heard a student tell a teacher, “F— you, you motherf—ing n—” in front of other adults, and none of them did anything.

“Every single conversation you hear in every single class,” a boy said.

“Some days I don’t learn very much at all,” one girl said.

Signs in the hallway of Aptos Middle School remind students about positive behavior.

Kids roam the hallways throughout the day, barging into classes they’re not in to pick fights, yell and harass teachers. On one visit to the school, I saw two girls hanging out in the entrance during class time. One of them stared me down and for no apparent reason snapped, “Bitch!”

On another visit to the school to observe some classrooms — which, by all accounts, have great teachers and solid academics — all hell broke loose in the hallway during the passing period. Kids lingered in the hall far longer than they should have, shoved each other, chatted on their phones, yelled and ignored orders to get to class.

Once all the kids were in their classes, a security guard, Maylina Baltodano, sighed in exhaustion.

“You have to make sure they get to class. Sometimes it takes half an hour,” she said. “In middle school, it starts getting real.”


On a recent afternoon, 22 teachers and staff gathered in an Aptos classroom after school to vent, commiserate and brainstorm. They spoke on the condition their names not be used for fear of retribution from the school district.

They’ve made their concerns known to Trickett all year. “I didn’t sign up to be physically threatened and verbally abused on a daily basis, and I am fed up,” one teacher wrote to the entire staff last fall in an email describing the unbearable situation.

The problem, as they see it, boils down to Aptos being a microcosm of San Francisco at large when it comes to stark income inequality, and there’s too little support for those on the losing end of the socioeconomic equation.

Some kids, the teachers said, walk to school from grand homes nearby and have stay-at-home moms who can respond to a problem at school at a moment’s notice.

Other Aptos students are homeless and don’t have enough to eat. Some of them have parents who are in jail, addicted to drugs or dead. Some are being raised by single moms working three jobs. Some have seen their family members slain in front of them.

Do the teachers feel like the district has equipped them to deal with their students’ trauma?

“No!” they called out.

“My students deserve more than my compassion — they deserve a trained specialist to help them deal with these problems,” one teacher said.

“It’s not just an achievement gap, it’s an investment gap,” another said.

While the teachers are social-justice-minded do-gooders who believe in restorative justice, they said the district needs to hire restorative justice coordinators for each school to mediate disputes, train teachers and families in the practice, and be proactive so troubled students are helped before they’re tormenting others.

And if the teachers used the practice to address every single harm caused by students to other students, there would be no time to actually teach. And so a lot of what happens at Aptos goes unreported and unaddressed, they said.

Teachers cried as we talked.

“I’m burnt out,” said one. “But I’m going to keep going until I’m ashes.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: hknight@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf

Published at Fri, 14 Feb 2020 08:37:00 +0000

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