Recent signs of violent times

Juneau-Douglas High has had 29 cases of violence this year

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2001

Tips for avoiding trouble

To reduce the potential for an incident of mass violence at Juneau-Douglas High School, health teacher Nancy Seamount recommended:

Provide student services on campus for alcohol and drug treatment.

Restructure JDHS into smaller cultures or communities of 100 or so students each, or build a second high school. The current building is overcrowded.

Institute an emphasis on developing character. As we raise academic standards and bring in qualifying exams (for graduation), we need to have character benchmarks or we will aggravate the disenfranchising, she said.

Work harder to know all students. There are freshmen here that no one knows. If a student doesnt know you care about him, he is disenfranchised. If we can break down the barriers between the haves and the have-nots, a climate of safety will develop, she said.

Amid continued campus violence across the nation, troubling incidents have surfaced at Juneau-Douglas High School.

Through April 12, JDHS had recorded 29 cases of "assault-battery-fighting-attempting to do bodily harm" this school year, according to Ron Osibov, one of three assistant principals.

The number of such incidents, which Osibov described as "the most serious infractions in the discipline plan," totaled 26 during the entire 1999-2000 school year.

Specific incidents included:

Feb. 14, a boy waiting for a school bus was jumped and knocked unconscious.

March 28, a spring-loaded knife dropped from a 17-year-old's pocket as he strolled down the hall.

April 4, a student was suspended for a history of violent behavior.

April 5, students were involved in seven fights, two of them on school grounds.

April 9, a student, 16, reported the slashing of her car tire.

Such incidents have prompted new Principal Deb Morse to ask for a greater teacher and administrator presence in the halls. She also began assembling a team to confront the issues.

The possibility of mass violence worries health teacher Nancy Seamount, who believes the

ingredients are in place.

"We are the right size. We have kids who think about violence. We have kids who are disenfranchised," she said.

The shootings two years ago today by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., have become a cultural benchmark for disaffected kids who set up Web sites memorializing the killers.

In Seamount's classes, a series of Socratic seminars and panels is addressing interpersonal relationships, including date rape. As part of this ongoing series, parents assembled April 6 to discuss school violence, the potential of gun violence, racial slurs and bullying. Following the seminar, Seamount concluded many parents were "in denial" about the potential of gun violence.

"I went to school here," parent Tricia Myers said in Seamount's class, "and at least three times a week there would be a brawl in the halls."

John Gaguine said he had read that violence in schools in 1965 was "smoking in the bathrooms and running in the halls," while violence in 2000 was "guns in the classrooms and beating up in the bathrooms."

"I am not worried about violence happening, that something will happen to Rebecca (his daughter) here," Gaguine added. "But the level of violence is higher."

Chet Durand, a JDHS custodian for nearly 20 years, felt that the media overplayed school violence. "Maybe nationwide violence is up, but you don't see it here."

In his years at JDHS, Durand said he knew of an incident with explosives and an incident where "the kid you'd least expect" pulled a gun out of a duffle bag. He suggested the problem could be addressed by more teachers in the halls during 10-minute breaks and paying more attention to students' conversations. "It's simple: Just a little bit of looking around," he said.

"I don't want anyone to think this is a dangerous place to be, because it is not. In the last seven or eight years we have made some big steps forward; kids don't run in packs any more," Durand said.

Students had a wide variety of reactions to Seamount's panel. Meaghan Coyle and Rebecca Gaguine, 15, volunteered that most fights begin with rumors of "people talking about other people behind their backs." Dusty Ahrens saw this as "about power."

"Fights start with the F-word, and you can hear it from four rooms away. The teachers don't pay any attention, as if (the students) were just talking," Ahrens added. (Seamount's reaction was to decide she should spend more time in the halls.)

Student Bryant Bearfield commented, "Now there is more blood. It's not just holding each other to the ground."

"In eighth grade I was picked on by a couple of kids who thought they were bad-assed, but they stopped when I got into high school and I haven't been stressed out as much," said student Chris Silver.

Coyle described a recent show-down off school grounds when cars lined up like opposing armies. "After the first punch was thrown, there was a mob of people beating up anybody."

One student said that slurs against Jews were so prevalent that he heard "40 to 60 a day."

Would students tell authorities if they knew another student had a gun? In Seamount's class, Rebecca Gaguine said she wouldn't tell. But, after thinking it over for another period, she decided she would.

"If a friend brought a gun, I would be overwhelmed - but I would tell," she said.

"It's a gray area," Ahrens said. "You don't want the gun pulled on you."

"There is a real denial of the threat of gun violence; that's what we heard all day," Seamount said at the close of the seminar. "Bullying and harassment are still current."

Police say there is no reason for local residents to be alarmed. "There is nothing different than in the past year," said Sgt. Steve Hernandez.

Teacher Mark Roschy disagrees. Roschy said fights were rare when he arrived at JDHS six years ago, but this year he has seen "a lot more fights campus-wide."

"The kids who get strong parenting know how to defuse conflict or discuss it; they are not getting in trouble. But others are. I have seen more fights in this school year than in all my past years here combined, in my recollection," Roschy said.

Roschy said he was "disheartened" at the increase: "Just this weekend I caught some comments maybe I wasn't supposed to about a fight at a party out the road, somebody's hair ripped out. I used to hear about parties - but not fights," he said.

Roschy believes differing administrative philosophies - "touchy feely" vs. going "by the book" - contribute to the problem. Ron Gleason, principal for eight years who retired two years ago, knew every student's name, giving the student body "a stronger sense of connection," Roschy said.

Deb Morse served as principal on an interim basis throughout this school year after another administrator, Sasha Soboleff, held the job for one year after Gleason's retirement. Morse was appointed principal on a permanent basis on March 6.

"We're working on a greater presence in the halls to catch things," Morse said three weeks ago. "Any lead we get, we follow it up."

Maureen Crosby, a social studies teacher at JDHS since 1990, welcomes the full-time appointment of Morse.

"My perception is that instability has been dictating the levels of fights," Crosby said. "Since Deb was appointed permanently, we have more stability and consistency, accountability and familiarity. Things have settled down. She's visible in the halls, and she is pulling together a team with the same visions. I'm optimistic."

Two days before Columbine, the U.S. Department of Education visited JDHS to commend the school for significantly reducing campus violence.

"We had documented results," said Seamount, the teacher who organized the student-parent-faculty-staff seminars.

However, she said in an interview, "I think we have been slipping in the two years since Columbine."

Administrative turnover is a factor in this slippage, because "an interim principal is really a handicapped situation," she said. In addition, the school lost an on-site alcohol treatment program offered by Juneau Recovery Hospital.

"We are sick about the drug and alcohol abuse," Seamount said.

In Juneau, teaching respect for differences helps to eliminate bullying, said Seamount.

"Our Students for Social Responsibility and Mediation program is built on respect for diversity," she said.

She also cited the JDHS Teen Health Center, the only one in Alaska, which is equipped with a diagnostic tool distributed by the National Institute of Mental Health.

"That computerized tool uses multiple-choice questions to reveal prejudices and anxieties, and the results can be discussed with a Juneau Youth Services clinician. Juneau Youth Services provides the BASE program for kids who are diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. JYS also provides a counselor one day a week at the Teen Health Center. I think our services are exceptional," Seamount said.

Students are offered therapy, counseling and tutoring in BASE, which stands for Behavior and Academic Success in Education.

"The silver lining of school shootings is that administrations are focusing on inequities. If there is injustice in a school, parents need to advocate for all students - not just our own children," Seamount said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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