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Administrators, police grapple with ‘dramatic increase’ in crime at Newark High School

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Newark High School has seen a dramatic increase in crime this year, police said.

The Newark Police Department will station a second police officer at Newark High School as officials try to get a handle on what Chief Paul Tiernan called a “dramatic increase” in crimes at the school.

The decision came less than two weeks after the school saw five fights in one day, involving a total of 14 students.

With the school year only about half over, the existing school resource officer, Cpl. Andrew Pagnotti, has handled 100 incidents at NHS and made 45 arrests, Tiernan said. The number of arrests has already surpassed that of the entire 2018-2019 school year, when police handled 139 incidents and made 43 arrests.

The arrests this year included 13 for disorderly conduct, 12 for assault or offensive touching, four for conspiracy, two for theft, two for terroristic threatening and two for marijuana possession. The rest were for other unspecified offenses, according to a breakdown released by police.

“There is no indication that this upward trend related to call volume and crime will decrease, unless the SRO position is given the support needed to resume preventative, proactive activities,” Tiernan said.

Pagnotti has had to call for backup 33 times this school year. There have been two incidents when every available officer, including the chief himself, responded to the school, leaving no one to handle normal calls.

“It’s been a significant burden,” Tiernan said.

He explained that while the SRO is responsible for keeping order at the school and handling any incidents that arise, the officer’s most important responsibility is to serve in a mediation and mentoring role to foster relationships with students and prevent issues before they happen.

“Right now, the officer is investigating incidents that happened and following up on those reports and he doesn’t have the time to do some of the other things he’s supposed to do, like counseling,” Tiernan said. “With a second officer there, it will give him more time and he will be able to work more closely with the student body and faculty, and hopefully the number of arrests and the number of incidents will go down.”

The Christina School District will pay 60 percent of the SROs’ salaries. An existing officer will be reassigned to the school, and a new officer will be hired to fill the vacancy.

The SRO is stationed at Newark High, but also spends time at and handles incidents at all the other schools in Newark, including Downes Elementary, West Park Place Elementary and Newark Charter School’s three buildings. Tiernan had originally proposed hiring a dedicated SRO for Newark Charter as well, but the school could not commit to paying for it.

Newark High not alone

Newark High is not alone in facing an increase in discipline issues, Principal Aaron Selekman pointed out.

“There has been a dramatic increase in disciplinary issues all up and down the state, and that is not exclusive to Newark High School,” Selekman said.

Alison May, a spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Education, said disciplinary data won’t be available until the end of the school year, but she confirmed Selekman’s statement.

“I can tell you anecdotally that Newark is not unique in the school climate challenges it faces this year,” May said. “For example, at least four schools in Delaware have had police dispatched to them since January for issues similar to the recent incident at Newark.”

However, locally, Christina’s other two high schools – Christiana and Glasgow – have not seen an increase.

“Newark High School’s discipline trend does not represent the culture and climate of all of our schools,” district spokeswoman Alva Mobley said. “The current trend for discipline at other schools is in a reduction state.”

‘A tremendous level of need’

Selekman said students arrive each day dealing with a multitude of issues that go far beyond the classroom.

“One of those things is the sort of emotional environment that they live in – the challenges that they have in school, outside of school, with friends, with not friends, with partners and with their families,” he said. “Some of it is extraordinary, and some of it is really just being a teenager and dealing with all the teenage stuff.”

He added that each group of students matures and gels at a different pace.

“One of the fascinating things about the way that we rate and rank our schools is that it's based on the idea that every year, things are supposed to improve or get higher,” Selekman said. “Yet, people who are in education know that each group of students is so different, and each group of students moves through their K-12 schooling career in a different way.”

He acknowledged that this year, Newark High is dealing with a number of issues.

“This particular group of students that we have as our underclassmen has just presented with a tremendous level of need, and we are doing our best to try to address those needs in the most timely way that we can,” Selekman said.

However, solving those problems takes time, he said.

“It’s not one meeting, and they're fixed and everything's good. So, in the time that we're working with students, we do still have incidents that occur. What's important is that not only do we handle the incident, but we also come back afterwards and we talk with that student about the choices that they made.”

New program seeing success, principal says

Selekman said he is grateful for the additional help the Newark Police Department is planning to provide but noted that the school’s efforts to tackle the problem go far beyond policing.

One initiative that has started to show results is a twice-weekly activity block. Administrators restructured the schedule to carve out time during the school day on Wednesdays and Thursdays for teachers and other staff members to convene informal groups focused on specific topics.

Students and teachers bond over a shared passion, and then the teachers leverage those relationships to also engage with students about their emotional well-being and any challenges they are experiencing.

Selekman, for example, started a comic book club.

“We talk about comic books, we talk about storylines, we talk about superheroes. And then we talk about academics. And then we talk about grades. And then we talk about performance in school,” he said. “Some of those students will come and have lunch in here because they begin to build a comfort and a connection. That happens all over the building.”

The program is already paying dividends, Selekman said.

“We're seeing students who feel ‘somebody cares about me.’ We're seeing students who believe that, ‘hey, somebody is looking out for me and somebody's checking up on me to make sure that I'm doing the things that I'm supposed to be doing,’” he said. “Then there are students who want to do things because they want to make sure that they feel proud when they go in and tell one of these teachers that they're succeeding in some fashion or improving their grades or whatever the case may be.”

Beyond that, the school has implemented protocols so that when fights or other incidents occur, they are de-escalated quickly so the school can get back to normal. Even after the Feb. 12 fights, the school was able to maintain the flow of the day and have the students finish all their classes.

“On our worst day, we were absolutely at our best,” Selekman said. “I’m remorseful about the events of that day, but I feel proud of the way my faculty engaged and I am no less hopeful about Newark High School.”

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