BOYNTON BEACH – Congress Middle School closed its cafeteria to eighth-grade students this week in an attempt to curb what educators described as a rash of fighting and unruly behavior on campus.
The school’s principal, Denise O’Connor, told teachers Wednesday the extraordinary measure stemmed from a recent spate of “unsafe issues” at the Boynton Beach school that administrators were working to halt.
“After several unsafe issues with Grade 8 lunches the past couple of days, I have decided to have Grade 8 students eat in their classrooms for the rest of the week,” O’Connor wrote in an email obtained by The Palm Beach Post.
The rare move, described by some veteran educators as previously unheard of in the county’s public schools, was the latest instance of short-staffed campuses struggling to grapple with what experts call a nationwide increase in student behavior problems.
Teachers say the number of fights and other behavioral issues at Congress Middle, a 1,100-student campus on Congress Avenue in Boynton Beach, had increased significantly this year as schools returned to complete in-person learning.
Compounding the issue, educators say, are a high number of vacancies and resignations at the school, leaving fewer people to monitor student behavior. The campus atmosphere has only worsened, district administrators say, since a student, 13-year-old Stanley Davis Jr., died in a motorbike crash last month while being followed by a police officer.
“The children’s anxieties are high. And the teachers' anxieties are even higher, because the kids are fighting constantly,” one Congress Middle teacher told The Post. “They get off the bus fighting. They go to the bathroom fighting.”
Students cause diversion so other kids can fight uninterrupted, teacher says
When a group of students decides to fight between classes, the teacher said, another group of students will sometimes create a commotion in one part of the campus, drawing administrators’ attention there so the students have time to fight elsewhere without interruption.
“They are better coordinated than the administration,” the teacher said. “Sixth-graders will create a diversion where they run through the first building so the eighth-graders can fight in the courtyard.”
The decision to cancel eighth-grade lunch in the cafeteria came, the teacher said, after one such outburst this week as students walked to the cafeteria for lunch.
Howard Hepburn, an instructional superintendent who oversees Congress Middle, acknowledged the increase in student misbehavior and attributed it to grief over Davis’ death last month. “The students here have been displaying some emotional distress ever since then,” he said.
He added that the cafeteria would resume operating as usual Monday, with some new security measures in place. He declined to elaborate.
Some say fights started after death of local boy; others say it predates that
Teachers, though, said the rise in misbehavior predates Davis’ death, and that they are frustrated by the school district’s inability to better control the campus.
“We want to know why the district is not able to get a grip on this,” said Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union and a Boynton Beach city commissioner. “Why is this one school perpetually unable to resolve or address this in a way that resolves it? Because it’s been continuous for years.”
When O’Connor canceled cafeteria lunch for eight-grade students, she asked teachers to volunteer to use their lunch break to supervise their students in the classroom. In exchange for giving up their contractual lunch break, she offered to give them three times the amount of “comp time.”
O'Connor did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Though the offer was voluntary, Katz said many teachers felt pressured to accept in order to avoid professional repercussions later. Teachers worry, he said, that the school may pressure them to give up lunch breaks more frequently in the future.
“For a school to need to put upon teachers that they need to not have a lunch break, to us it just conveys that something extreme is happening,” Katz said. “There are teachers that are concerned that some of these things the school might try to make more permanent.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Congress Middle closes cafeteria to 8th-grade after ‘unsafe’ incidents