Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misquoted student Nasir Sumpter. We edited the story on Nov. 22 to be more clear about his brother’s time at Charlottesville High School. We’ve also embedded the video stream of the forum event, released by In My Humble Opinion.
After taking a year off from subbing at Charlottesville City Schools, Kristen Pate was eager to get back into being a substitute teacher. She had first joined in 2020, as a way to help her children’s school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Come October, 2023, that eagerness faded. Pate saw a video online of a massive brawl at Charlottesville High School. Out of fear and caution, she abandoned her application.
“I’m not equipped for that,” said Pate. “When these fights happen, you have anxious children in classrooms not knowing why, but knowing that something is going on in the school. And I just know from my son’s teachers that the kids start getting antsy and frustrated. I just don’t see putting myself in that position.”
Pate related her experience to over 300 people at the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center at CHS Monday night. She and dozens of parents took the microphone to share their concerns about safety in school.
The public event, hosted by the nonprofit community group Charlottesville United for Public Education, was a quick response to a tumultuous week at CHS.
Charlottesville High School closed its doors Friday after 27 of its 96 teachers called out, according to Charlottesville City Schools. But it wasn’t due to illness.
Teachers are fed up with the volume of fights, and lack of accountability, that have happened in the high school recently, said David Wilkerson, a counselor at CHS. Thursday alone, two fights broke out.
The first happened in a bathroom during lunch, and students were told to “stay put, stay tuned,” to stay in whatever room they were currently in until the fight was resolved, said City Schools spokesperson Beth Cheuk at a Friday press conference. A Charlottesville Police Department spokesperson said officers were called to help break up that fight. While officers were there, a second fight, involving an adult who was not authorized to be on campus, broke out in a different part of the school. Superintendent Royal Gurley said a CHS student let an 18-year-old into the school to fight another student.
The severity of the fights led teachers to huddle for an emergency faculty meeting in which some of the them discussed calling out, or “sicking out,” to take a break from all the chaos that has occurred in the high school recently, said Wilkerson.
“It got emotional,” said Wilkerson. “Teachers spoke their truth and it felt like somebody at least noticed that something was gonna have to change.”
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The plan worked. By 6 a.m. Friday the district sent a short note to parents saying that CHS was closed due to “staffing issues.”
“I’m disheartened when we have days like this, because I know the value of our teachers and I know the value of our students being able to show up in a space where they feel mentally and physically well,” said Gurley on Friday afternoon. “These types of things are so very unfortunate. And they really kind of go against everything that we stand for.”
Gurley said he did not know how many fights have occurred in CHS, but students who spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow said they happen at least weekly. Many of the fights come from “a small group of students” who are bringing non-school related issues — and people — into the building.
City Schools originally said class would resume Monday, but notified community members on Saturday afternoon that class would also be canceled Monday and Tuesday, and resume Monday, Nov. 27 after the Thanksgiving break.
Two weeks ago, Principal Rashaad Pitt submitted his resignation to focus on “health and family.” He started the role in August 2022. Pitt declined to speak with Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Some parents have speculated that his departure had something to do with the rise in fights in the school, which Gurley would not confirm. However, Pitt’s resignation came a day after a particularly intense fight between students in the CHS library.
Gurley said Pitt’s departure was “disruptive,” but he said he respects the former principal’s decision. “It’s not what we wanted, but you can’t make someone stay here when they want to prioritize their health,” said Gurley.
Monday morning, City Schools confirmed Kenny Leatherwood will serve as interim CHS principal. Leatherwood previously served as principal of the school for six years. It was one of several positions he held in City Schools during his 31-year career, before retiring in 2012.
The Charlottesville Education Association, the union that represents teachers, said it did not take part in organizing the teacher call out, but released a statement on Friday calling for Monday and Tuesday to be a “hard reset” for teachers, without the presence of students. Gurley called the two days a chance for a “refresh.”
Spokesperson Cheuk said that Gurley used Monday to lead conversations with staff about how they should handle student fights, how City Schools administrators can respond and support staff members after student altercations, and where staff members should be positioned on campus to ensure the safety of all students.
After City Schools cancelled class Monday and Tuesday, Charlottesville United for Public Education published a flier for a community conversation regarding Friday’s events at Charlottesville High School, and streamed online by the radio program In My Humble Opinion.
The idea for the town hall came from some of the teachers who called out on Friday, said Sandra Aviles-Poe, community organizer for CUPE. On Friday, City Schools announced that they would host their own community conversations following the class cancellations, but have yet to organize one.
Joseph Patterson, Tina Vasquez, Holly Faulconer, Pam Brown and Matthew Deegen — all educators at CHS — offered their perspectives. The five teachers reiterated this: The fights only involve a small group of students, but no one should disregard those children involved.
“When you don’t support them, they know it,” said Faulconer. “They knew you were talking about them, and your adults.”
This especially hit Nasir Sumpter, a senior at CHS. He spoke about his brother, “was one of those kids” before his mother got him transferred to an alternative education program. His mother told Charlottesville Tomorrow that her son roamed the hallways at the school with a group of students and that she tried multiple times to get him transferred to Lugo Maginis. The focus shouldn’t be on the students themselves, Nasir Sumpter told the crowd. Rather, it needs to be on the response and disciplinary actions being taken.
Sumpter, and two other CHS students who spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow prior to Monday’s event, said they see students roaming the halls during class time and smoking vapes in the bathrooms frequently.
Wilkerson, the counselor who has worked at CHS for nine years, said there has been a rise in the number of students who do not listen to authority, especially following the COVID-19 lockdown. Often, he sees groups of students linger in the hallway during instructional time. Given the increase in student disruptions, some teachers have decided to “close their doors and concentrate on what they can control.”
But disruptive behavior and fights have taken a toll.
“I come home and I’m crying because there are just constant fights and lockdowns and ‘stay put, stay tuned’ orders,” said a sophomore student who asked not to use her name. “It just interrupts everything when in the middle of the day you’re in a ‘stay put, stay tuned’ and you hear that somebody’s getting their head smashed in, in the cafeteria. It’s not a good learning environment.”
It just interrupts everything when in the middle of the day you’re in a ‘stay put, stay tuned’ and you hear that somebody’s getting their head smashed in, in the cafeteria. It’s not a good learning environment.—Charlottesville High School sophomore who asked for her name not to be published
Thursday was a particularly rough day, she said. It started during lunch when a group of girls brawled. The sophomore student said she was just yards away when the fight broke out.
The students around her had a variety of reactions, she said. Some were laughing, others were clearly scared. Nobody knew how to help.
“And then somebody started talking about guns,” she said. “That was the second it got scary because we were sitting right there, and if somebody had a gun we would be in serious danger.”
No one in the audience explicitly called out the race of the students involved in fights, but the two students who spoke to Charlottesville Tomorrow, who didn’t want their names published out of fear of backlash, said the students involved in these conflicts are Black.
“We’re making it seem like it’s a race problem, but it’s not. It’s how these kids are acting,” said Sumpter, the student said his brother is involved in the conflicts.
Brown and Elizabeth Valtierra, a former community organizer for Latino advocacy group Creciendo Juntos, talked about the dangers of using racially-charged language.
“The narrative outside of CHS has always been demeaning, rooted in racism, and patronizing,” said Valtierra.
Black students are disproportionately disciplined in Charlottesville schools. In the 2022-23 school year, Black students were given 80% of short-term suspensions and 100% of long-term suspensions, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
A 2018 ProPublica and New York Times investigation found stark racial inequities at Charlottesville High School; Black students are much more likely to be held back a grade or suspended than their white classmates. Data collected by the Department of Education show racial disparities in advanced placement courses and repeating grades in the district. And the most recent state assessments show that many non-white students continue to struggle in core subjects.
The teachers at the forum said serious and immediate change is needed for all their students to succeed.
After the teachers spoke, community members were encouraged to share comments or questions. The teachers on stage would occasionally respond. At one point, one commenter proclaimed his support of City School’s responses to the conflicts at the high school, while another cut him off to disagree, thickening the tension already in the auditorium.
One subject was specifically off limits in the conversation: Charlottesville United for Public Education requested that no one bring up school resource officers (SROs) before starting public comment.
Some people have taken to Facebook and Reddit to push for the return of SROs. City Schools has not discussed the possibility of bringing SROs back, Cheuk told the press.
In 2020, City Schools, along with Albemarle County Public Schools and other schools across the country, removed their SROs, certified law enforcement officers who are stationed at the school to respond to emergency situations and are sometimes involved in disciplining students. City Schools leaders made the decision after protests against police brutality.
In exchange for the four SROs, City Schools employed care and safety assistants (called “safety coaches” in Albemarle), workers who invest time in cultivating relationships with students in between classes to ensure safety.
But Thursday was the third time this school year alone that an unauthorized adult got into the school to fight a student, spokesperson Cheuk said at the Monday news conference. In May, an adult was caught attempting to trespass on Buford Middle School’s campus but was stopped by law enforcement officials. She did not give details about the other incident.
The Charlottesville Police Department plans to patrol the outer campus of all schools in the city from now on to prevent situations like Thursday’s brawl at CHS from happening, said Gurley.
Many of those who spoke at the forum, including the teachers on stage, though, implored more community members to attend the next Charlottesville School Board meeting and speak up.
Back on campus, the students who seem to be at the center of many of these fights have been reprimanded, said Gurley. Some were given Level 4 interventions which, according to City Schools’ standards of behavior, can include referral to law enforcement, an alternative school program or suspension.
Lugo-McGinness Academy is City Schools’ alternative high school. Gurley said the school division is crafting another program called Knight School, in which high school students can get their education at night while performing various service and work opportunities during the day. Gurley hopes to roll out the new program after the Thanksgiving break.
“I do think that the right decision [to cancel classes] was made today,” Gurley said on Monday. “My message is that this school is safe and we’re ready for everyone to return.”
But not everyone agrees.
“I’m kind of not ready, just because every time we tell the School Board or admin to do something, they can’t put it into action,” said Molly Miller, a CHS sophomore. “They can’t do it. So, if I go back on Monday, who knows how many fights are going to be at school this time.”