Education

Survey: Weapons, fights in St. Paul public schools largest concern for students, parents, staff 

Person talks at podium next to others
St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard addresses reporters alongside other district and city officials in February, following a fatal stabbing at Harding High School.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

St. Paul public school students, parents and staff say their biggest safety concerns are the presence of weapons and violence between students. That’s one of many findings contained in a school safety survey presented to the school board Tuesday evening. 

Nearly one quarter of families reported at least one of their children being the victim of physical violence — which includes being punched, kicked or knocked down. The survey found that violent incidents were reported more often in elementary and middle schools than in high schools. However, researchers say most students are not involved in school violence.

According to the findings, students felt most unsafe in certain bathrooms and hallways.

Nearly a third of students who responded to the survey reported feeling unsafe in traditional school bathrooms. 

Students at Harding High School — where a student was fatally stabbed in a hallway earlier this year — felt more unsafe than at other schools. Forty-two percent of Harding students reported feeling unsafe in the school’s traditional restrooms. 

While presenting the results of the survey to the board, the district’s research director Kara Arzamendia read a parent’s note from a listening session.

“My student will not use bathrooms at school for fear of violence and exposure to drugs,” read the note. “They try and ‘hold it’ all day.”

Students at schools with inclusive restrooms — those are rows of single-occupancy bathrooms — felt more safe. Only 12 percent of students felt unsafe using those restrooms. 

Among steps to address concerns, district officials say they’re planning expanded use of digital hall passes during the school day.

Students also say they would like to see more mental health support staff and quiet spaces for them to go.

“Mental health support is difficult to find and access for students, especially the students who need it most,” said Arzamendia, quoting a comment made by a student in the survey. “There also isn’t a convenient space for students to have a quiet environment that’s stress-free.”

The survey found that while, overall, most students reported feeling safe on the way to and from school, there were higher rates of students feeling unsafe on public transit, and in particular among those who use light rail.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said that after a reduction in school bus routes amid the pandemic and a staffing shortage — with many older students using Metro Transit instead — the district is looking at restoring at least some of those routes.

“I’m not saying right here, right now, that we will be back to 2019 levels for yellow buses,” said Gothard. “But we do believe that we are going to have the ability to bring yellow buses back in a limited way, and at schools that are yet to be determined.”

The survey found that 78 percent of students think school resource officers are a good idea. The use of police officers in schools became a hotly debated issue following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. Like other districts, St. Paul Public Schools severed ties with the St. Paul Police Department, which pulled its seven officers from Harding and other buildings.   

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