Apr 27

2022

School violence not limited to McKinley

Violence in Buffalo high schools has been a growing problem that the district has largely ignored until recently.

District officials have taken steps to address violence in Buffalo schools since a February  shooting and stabbing at McKinley High School left a student hospitalized.

Violence in and around schools isn’t limited to fights between students. There have been reports in the news of students attacking their teachers and administrators. Parents have been involved, too, administrators told Investigative Post, attacking school staff, including security guards.  

An Investigative Post analysis of four years of 911 data found calls to Buffalo school locations have increased by nearly 20 percent since the 2018-19 school year, the last full year before the pandemic. High-priority calls for the most serious crimes in and around school property — such as fights, injuries and threats of weapons — jumped 42 percent.

A response from the district has been a long time coming, according to Robert Boreanaz, an attorney for the Buffalo Council of Supervisors & Administrators, the union that represents principals, among others in management. 

Boreanaz told Investigative Post that requests for additional security staff, school resource officers, functioning cameras and secure doors have not been acted on for years. Calls for additional school resource officers and security staff, as well as partnerships with community organizations, were also put off. 

“We’ve been harping on these things that address security, and been asking for them and then discussing and pointing out the importance of having these things,” Boreanaz said. 

“For whatever reason, it has not been made a priority.”



“There’s that sense of frustration because people feel we’re not acting with a sense of urgency,” said Louis Petrucci, president of the Board of Education. “We’re acting as quickly as we can. And sometimes that just seems to be glacially slow.”

Change came about quickly after the violence at McKinley.

Within weeks, the district underwent a turnover in leadership, after Kriner Cash resigned under pressure and Tonja Williams, an associate superintendent, succeeded him as interim superintendent. 

A plan to address violence and security has since been approved. It includes hiring of additional security guards and bus aides; replacing or upgrading malfunctioning or broken cameras, doors and walkie talkies; and building community partnerships with nonviolence groups. The district is also looking into new weapons detectors, increased staff training and additional deescalation options like “calming corners.”

They’ve also contracted Vista Security Group, a private investigation agency in Amherst, to evaluate security at each of the district’s buildings.

“I’ve been very clear about what my expectations are regarding safety,” Williams said. “We will do everything every day that we can to make sure that all of our children are safe.”

Some administrators and teachers Investigative Post spoke with are skeptical there will be real change, even under new leadership.

“One thing’s for certain, nothing is stable here,” said Marc Bruno, a history teacher at Riverside High School.

“Is Dr. Williams going to lead that change? I’m not very confident of that. But I’ll give anyone a chance.”

Rise in violence

The violence at McKinley garnered a lot of attention, but it’s not the only hot spot. 

The same day as the stabbing, a fight broke out at Riverside High School. Bruno, the history teacher, was there.

“We had a riot at the school with 50 kids all hitting another,” Bruno said. 

Earlier in the school year two two students from Emerson High School on West Huron Street were stabbed during a fight at the nearby Fountain Plaza. On another occasion, a security guard at Emerson School of Hospitality on Chippewa Street was injured after being attacked by a parent outside the building. 

The Buffalo Teachers Federation estimates at least 45 teachers have been hurt this school year in violent incidents involving students and parents. They include two injured in fights that occurred in March at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. Many of the injuries were sustained as teachers broke up fights among students.


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The analysis by Investigative Post of four years of 911 call data shows that the number of calls to Buffalo school locations has gone up 17.7 percent since 2018-19, the last school year before the pandemic.

The number of high-priority calls to schools — for fights, weapon threats and shots fired, among other reasons — has surged from 87 to 149. 

Police, including school resource officers that the police department provides the district, are often at schools for reasons unrelated to fights or threats. They’ll walk around the schools’ perimeter and enter if needed. 

Most 911 calls requiring officers to be dispatched to schools were made by school personnel or community members rather than called in by police. 

Calls involving high schools account for 51 percent of high-priority calls in the district this school year. Most were to four high schools: McKinley, International Prep at Grover, Bennett and Riverside.


High priority 911 calls to Buffalo high schools

High School Priority 1&2 calls *
McKinley 13
International Preparatory School at Grover 12
Bennett 8
Riverside 7
Emerson (West Chippewa Street) 6
Math Science Technology Preparatory 6
Hutchinson Central Technical 5
Emerson (West Huron Street) 4
Burgard 4
* calls for the current school year through March 31.
Source: Erie County Central Police Services.

Most of the high-priority calls were for threats of weapons (30 percent) and fights (28 percent).

Administrators and teachers who spoke with Investigative Post said violent incidents between high school students occur not only within the building, but at dismissal time or when students are traveling to and from school on bus or foot.

“Dismissal time has definitely presented challenges for the schools,” one security official told Investigative Post.

“All day long something starts brewing in the school. And when do the students have an opportunity to get at each other? Dismissal, as they’re congregating outside, waiting for buses or walking home.”

Concerns were ignored

Principals made clear their continuing concerns in a board meeting in mid-February, following the stabbing and shooting incident at McKinley.

“Our members are the leaders of every single building in the district. And they have been expressing these concerns for well over two years about the needs for improving insecurity,” said Boreanaz, the administrators’ union attorney.

Functioning PA systems, cameras and doors along with more school resource officers and security guards are among the measures they’ve been requesting time and time again, he said.

Calls for new cameras, a source told Investigative Post, began seven years ago. It wasn’t until late last school year that a project finally began to replace 4,000 old cameras with 3,500 new devices. Though fewer, the new cameras will increase overall coverage in buildings by 20 percent.

Increasing security staff in the district was another proposal brought to the table long before things came to a head in February. The Board of Education moved to hire additional security early in the current school year.

“I know that some additional security were hired,” said Larry Scott, an at-large board member. “It doesn’t appear as if it was done as aggressively as it needed to be done, and as aggressively as it’s being done now.”

Contracts with community organizations also sat for months. Buffalo Peacemakers, a group that works to address the cycle of violence in the lives of gang-involved or at-risk youth, began efforts to work with the district in November, several sources told Investigative Post.

So why the wait? 

“Political infighting and lack of budget,” one source said.

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Petrucci, the board president, said solutions to problems like security take time.

“I wish the solutions were a little bit simpler, because it oftentimes feels as if we’re not responding, when we’re acting as quickly as we can,” he said.

Past leadership — Cash, in particular — played a role, as well.

“Part of it is transition, part it was in the past, you know, I get it,” Petrucci said.

“What I’m happy to see is how things are proceeding going forward under a new superintendent,” he said.

Suspensions

At a board meeting on March 16, Williams, the interim superintendent, said a small number of students are behind the violence. 

Seven percent of students had been placed on short-term suspensions this school year, she said. Another two percent were placed on long-term suspensions. Those suspended total about 2,900 of the district’s 30,000 students. The number of high school students placed on short-term suspensions was 11.7 percent.

Math Science Technology Preparatory, a middle school located on High Street, had the highest suspension rate of any school in the district. As of March 25, 31 percent of its 124 students had been suspended this school year, according to district data. 

One in every five students received short- or long-term suspensions at four of the district’s high schools: Emerson, on Chippewa Street; McKinley; East Community; and Research Laboratory.

Seventh-grade students have been suspended at higher rates than other grades. Nearly one in every six seventh-graders (17 percent) have been suspended this school year, and one in every seven ninth-graders (15 percent).


Suspensions by grade level

Grade Suspensions * % suspended
Pre-K 14 1%
K 31 1%
1 38 2%
2 36 2%
3 53 2%
4 93 4%
5 145 7%
6 212 9%
7 401 17%
8 302 13%
9 401 15%
10 274 12%
11 245 11%
12 182 8%
* suspensions this school year, through March 31.
Data reflects short-term suspensions only. Details on long-term suspensions not available.
Source: Board of Education.

Bruno, the Riverside teacher, agrees with the district’s claim that only a small number of students are at the root of the violence. But he said many more are impacted by it.

“Even if it’s 2 percent, you’re talking about hundreds of students who are disrupting 15,000 other students’ education,” he said.

Bruno and other teachers and administrators told Investigative Post they see the same students being suspended and returned to schools time and time again.

While the district has an alternative school for its most troubled students — Academy School, located on Main Street — district policy states students can’t be enrolled without parental consent. That can be difficult to obtain.

“Should that prevent us from jeopardizing the hundreds of students who are doing the right thing every day who deserve an education and an environment that’s both safe and conducive to learning?” Bruno said. 

Community violence an issue

Buffalo is one of the most violent cities in the nation, ranking 12th worst among 79 mid-sized cities, according to FBI reports.

Schools are not immune.

One family is seeing it firsthand.

“The violence is carrying from the streets into the schools. And then they see that it’s elevated and escalated to the point where now it’s a lot more gang activity,” said Natalie Brooks, mother of Leandrea and Naveyah Lias, both freshmen.

Both Leandrea and Naveyah said they don’t feel safe in their schools, especially after the violence at McKinley. 

“The area I’m in, stuff happens all the time,” said Naveyah, who attends Math Science and Technology Preparatory High School. “So I have to watch out.”

Her sister, Leandrea, who attends Performing Arts, told Investigative Post the shooting at McKinley got my guard up really high.

Brooks and her daughters said they’re looking for change after the district announced its plan to address school violence. 

Williams, the interim superintendent, said the plan is her priority.

“We have been working expeditiously to make sure that we are implementing it,” she said.

District’s plan 

At the Board of Education meeting the week after the McKinley incident, the district announced it would begin working with Buffalo Peacemakers. Led by Pastor James Giles, the group quickly started work mentoring high school students and identifying those most at risk of violence.

At a board meeting on March 16, Williams announced the district would work with the police department to provide additional school resource officers, and with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to better monitor students on buses and the subways. 


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The district also plans to hire 40 more security guards and 11 additional bus aides. Interviews are underway, but the hiring process and training can take months, Williams noted. 

Other elements of the plan include “calming corners” in classrooms, new security cameras, emergency door-locking devices, weapon detectors and gold standard walkie-talkies.

Parents, like Brooks, said they’re hopeful for change, but watching.

“Being able to increase security, I’m glad that they’re making an initiative to do that,” Brooks said. “We know that there’s a lot of problems, but follow through and stay on top of things.” 

Some teachers and administrators remain doubtful they’ll see real action.

“Everybody thinks there’s going to be some miracle that’s going to happen in the high schools,” one administrator said. “But it’s like a slow-burning fuse under a keg of dynamite, where there’s only so much they can do on a daily basis.”