Oct. 14—LAWRENCE — Mental health issues fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and school shutdowns are believed to be triggering an uptick in violence at Lawrence High School, Mayor Kendrys Vasquez said Wednesday.
The altercations included an assault on a male teacher Tuesday morning and a spate of fights recently at the North Parish Road school.
The teacher, who was trying to break up a fight when hurt, is expected to be OK but had not returned to work Wednesday.
Two teens have been arrested and roughly a dozen more issued summonses for disorderly conduct and related charges due to the assault and fights, said Police Chief Roy Vasque.
Police have heightened their presence both inside and outside of the school due to the fighting, pictures and videos of which have been posted on social media.
Lawrence High School students returned to in-person learning this school year after an entire year or remote learning to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Vasquez said the 12-month break took a "mental and emotional toll on students, educators, and the community alike that will require special attention and additional resources in our school community."
He did not announce specific plans, but Vasquez the matter is being taken very seriously and all available resources will be used to quell the violence, provide student support and restore a safe learning environment at the high school.
It's unclear what the students are fighting out. But Vasquez, flanked by Chief Vasque during a press conference at City Hall Wednesday, said there appears to be a host of issues, such as pent-up frustration and energy.
Vasque said no weapons have been found on campus. "Fortunately it has not risen to that level," he said.
Prior to the 1 p.m. press conference, Vasquez said he had lunch at the high school with students "to show them we care."
"There are plenty of Lancers that are here to support them," Vasquez said, referring to the Lawrence High mascot.
Vasquez, former City Council president, became mayor in late 2020 when former Mayor Daniel Rivera left to take a state job. Now, Vasquez and challenger Brian DePena will face off in the general city election on Nov. 3.
DePena, when asked to comment on the situation Wednesday, said he believes there needs to be an in-depth investigation into the incidents and a review of school policies and procedures. Violence, including domestic violence, are public health issues, he said.
"We will not stand for the chaos in our city schools," DePena said. "The time is now. Now is the time to take action."
School Superintendent Cynthia Paris was not at the press conference. In a letter sent home to parents following incidents Tuesday, Paris noted the "altercations on campus ... are under active investigation by Lawrence Police, and those involved face serious LPS disciplinary consequences."
She said lunch was served in classrooms "in an effort to reduce gatherings and address concerns about altercations in the lunch periods." Staggered dismissals are also taking place.
Paris also address the challenges of returning to in-person school this year.
"It was anticipated that a return to full in-person school this year would include a wide range of transitional challenges, particularly for the greater-than-normal number of students being introduced to high school and our campus for the first time," Paris wrote. "It is very clear to all of us that these challenges are real, and will require time, persistence and our entire community to address."
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.