WELLSTON • Daija’h Jackson is among the hundreds of Normandy High School students who arrive each morning ready to learn.
But this requires strategy in a place where fights can erupt multiple times a day, where students target one another for living on the wrong street.
On March 5, Daija’h, 15, was worried.
A girl from her block had threatened to attack her in the cafeteria. Facebook taunts were escalating. Daija’h took refuge during lunch in the classroom of an English teacher in East Hall at Normandy High School.
When the lunch period was over, she walked into the hallway and found herself face to face with several girls, including the one making threats. One tore off Daija’h’s backpack and pushed her against the wall. Daija’h panicked and grabbed her pepper spray. She inadvertently sprayed the English teacher.
“She was trying to break it up,” Daija’h said later. “It’s not a safe environment.”
At Normandy High, hallways have become places where neighborhood problems come to a head, where threats made on Facebook and Twitter are carried out.
As the Normandy School District struggles to improve its academics, it’s also struggling with a culture of violence that erupts almost daily at the high school.
It’s a common challenge at many urban schools. But even those with circumstances similar to Normandy’s have demonstrated greater success in stemming assaults and disruptions through prevention efforts, security and targeted discipline.
Normandy stands apart not only for its sheer number of fights, but for a dramatic spike in serious discipline incidents — which have nearly doubled since 2009, according to district figures reported to the state.
The increase coincides with a period of crisis in which the state has stripped the district of accreditation, citing poor leadership, dismal academics and other problems. Earlier this year, the district’s superintendent announced he would leave at the end of the school year.
When asked about the violence at his school, Principal Calvin Nicholas chose his words carefully.
“We don’t have a problem with the kids,” Nicholas said, sitting behind his desk. He pointed out that after two years leading the school, he would not be returning this fall. He declined to answer questions about what needed to be done to improve safety, and whether he had adequate central office support to crack down on behavior. The problems at the high school are “adult problems,” he said.
In 2012, the school reported 285 discipline incidents — such as assaults, drugs and weapons — that resulted in out-of-school suspension, a rate of more than one for every four students, the highest among high schools in the region.
State reports on discipline incidents tend to represent only a fraction of what happens in schools, because districts vary in what they tell the state.
Nevertheless, only one other high school in a Missouri school district — Kansas City’s Central Academy of Academic Excellence — was found to have reported a higher rate of incidents in 2012.
In March, two sociology professors at the University of Missouri-St. Louis notified Normandy High parents of their study exploring the causes and consequences of violence at the school “in hopes of lessening its negative effects,” the letter to parents states.
Wellston Police Chief G. Thomas Walker said violence at the high school had been a problem for years. Students at Normandy come from 24 municipalities, some with longstanding rivalries. Social networking websites and the prevalence of cellphones have made the problem more difficult to control, he said.
“We respond to more fights on campus than off campus,” Walker said. “It takes very little to irritate these kids and cause them to take physical action.”
Students describe an environment in which newcomers are targeted, where even those trying to stay out of trouble are picked on.
“It was hard to learn, knowing that any moment I could be attacked,” said Ta’Darrian Floyd, a freshman. He recalled a morning in March when three students attacked him after lunch, leaving him with a bloody nose. Floyd was new, having transferred from Hazelwood schools.
“After I was attacked I really believed I was hated,” he said. “I didn’t feel too safe.”
Within weeks, his mother withdrew him and moved to Alabama, where he now attends high school.
Teachers describe an environment that is equally challenging.
“Teaching is very difficult,” said Dawn Baldesi, the English teacher who was pepper-sprayed. “Teachers get cussed out, yelled out. There are so many write-ups you can’t keep up.”
Other teachers, who asked that their names not be used, say group fights at the school have left students with broken noses and asthma attacks. But a few cases have been more serious.
Some parents say it’s maddening to wonder each day whether their child is safe. As a result, a few parents have claimed residency elsewhere, even moved out of state, to transfer their children to other schools.
Enrollment has dropped — either from transfers or dropouts — to 805 students, from a reported 1,025 in September, according to the district.
“I sent my son there to be educated, not to be assaulted or beat up,” said Jennifer Floyd, Ta’Darrian’s mother, after withdrawing him.
Last month, Charlotte Hood filled out an enrollment application to send her freshman son to Cardinal Ritter College Prep College Preparatory High School next year. One week, she said, he told her about 15 fights he’d seen at school.
“The frequency is too much,” Hood said.
MarQuitta Miller, Daija’h Jackson’s mother, keeps a journal documenting her daughter’s problems at school and on her street in Hillsdale. She feels trapped, she said, by the lack of options. DaiJa’h was suspended for carrying pepper spray to school, she said. “I’m getting fed up,” she said. “ I can’t afford to just move.”
When Nicholas, the principal, was told that some parents were concerned for their children’s safety, he said too many of them — including those making complaints — weren’t doing their job.
“They’re not telling the truth,” he said. “If the parents here would call the police and handle what’s outside the community better, it would take care of it here.”
By and large, the problems at Normandy High involve arsons and fights with minor injuries. There are a few exceptions:
• On March 12, four males — three of them Normandy High School students — were arrested after a parent saw them exchanging guns in the school parking lot.
• On Dec. 26, a 19-year-old was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a gun in Viking Hall during the Normandy Holiday Basketball Tournament, according to the Northeast Fire Protection District.
• On Oct. 21, 2011, Damontae Woods, 18, suffered a heart rupture in an encounter with security officer James Walls after Woods was caught loitering in the hallway and being late to class, officials said. Woods is now awaiting a heart transplant, said his attorney, Bob Herman.
The last incident was one of several both at the Normandy high school and middle school in which security guards have been accused in lawsuits of assaulting students.
On some days at the high school, as many as five fights break out in hallways and classrooms, according to students and teachers. Even an incident of horseplay has been deadly. On April 11, freshman Marquez Oliver died after a classmate punched him in the chest and sent him into cardiac arrest.
“We had no incidents today,” Nicholas said, watching through the windows of the principal’s office as students left the six buildings that make up the Normandy High School campus. “I consider that a great day for us.”
Nicholas said his requests that the district hire additional security guards were never granted.
By April 1, police and fire crews were called to Normandy High School 83 times this school year, according to the incident log provided by the school district. That list, however, excluded about a dozen calls to the Northeast Ambulance & Fire Protection District, including the assault at the basketball game.
Wellston Police did not respond to a reporter’s request for a log of service calls made from the high school.
Earlier this school year, a string of arsons at the school caught the attention of Fire Chief Quinten Randolph of the Northeast Ambulance & Fire Protection District. Crews were responding to repeated fires and small blazes set in restroom trash cans and custodial closets.
“We can’t keep coming out here like this,” Randolph remembers thinking. “They were setting the toilet paper on fire. They were setting the soap dispensers on fire. They were setting old papers, books on fire under the stairwells.”
Randolph met with students about the penalties they could face by starting fires.
“We said, ‘Hey, take some pride in your school,’ ” Randolph said.
To be sure, hundreds of students at Normandy High School show up to class each day seeking an education. Last year, 68 percent of graduates were enrolling in a 2-year or 4-year college. This year, the robotics team won a regional judge’s award, and the Vikings boys basketball team placed second in state.
Students who stay out of trouble are frustrated that their high school is known more for fights than accomplishments.
“People don’t know we do things like go to state,” said Tamia Crawford, a sophomore honors student, during a rehearsal for “The Color Purple,” which the drama department performed last month. “We’ve got a lot of talent.”
Last September, after years of academic struggle, the Missouri Board of Education voted to strip the Normandy School District of its accreditation. The move angered Superintendent Stanton Lawrence, who hoped his agreement to absorb students from the failed Wellston district in 2010 would result in the state’s giving Normandy schools more time to improve.
The state board’s decision called into question whether any changes made during Lawrence’s five-year tenure was doing anything to turn around Normandy schools, and at the pace it expected.
In an interview in March, Lawrence called the high school “a work in progress.”
“A school can only do so much,” Lawrence said. “To a certain extent it’s going to be about parents being involved. What’s unfortunate is you have a few kids who misbehave and the entire population is painted with a broad brush.” Lawrence announced in the fall that he would resign on June 30.
Tyrone J. McNichols, an assistant superintendent in the Hazelwood School District, will lead Normandy schools beginning July 1. He did not respond to a request to be interviewed about the high school and any plans he may have to improve it.
Among his first tasks will be hiring a new high school principal.