Education

Tigard-Tualatin School District works to rebuild after violent incident goes viral

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Oct. 5, 2023 1 p.m. Updated: Oct. 6, 2023 1:10 a.m.

District administrators want to help the community heal. But some are concerned the issues are much deeper and involve a school culture that doesn’t support LGBTQ+ youth and students of color

Students returned to classrooms at Hazelbrook Middle School in Tualatin on Tuesday after a video of a violent student attack went viral last week, followed by threats to the school that led administrators to send students home Friday and close school through Monday.

District leaders are focused on where to go from here — how to help students and staff and how to heal the community moving forward. But according to a former teacher who had a key role at Hazelbrook, the national condemnation of the attack and the district’s response misrepresents underlying tensions at the school.

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Behavioral incidents in schools have spiked across the country since the return to in-person learning following COVID-19 lockdowns three years ago. The national nonprofit news outlet Education Week has reported increases in school violence, including school shootings, since students returned. EdWeek’s latest data found violence had become a bigger problem than before the pandemic, reaching a peak in 2022.

“Criminologists note that the nation is in the grip of a general spike of violence, probably due to the pandemic and social unrest accompanying the murder of George Floyd in 2020,” EdWeek reported in fall of 2021. “Their best guess is that those trends are trickling inexorably, and tragically, down to K-12 students.”

And while things like middle school fights are fairly common, it doesn’t make it any less awful to witness or experience.

Students at Hazelbrook Middle School in the Tigard-Tualatin School District were sent home Friday morning, Sept. 29, 2023, due to a "direct threat of violence" to the school. The school received threats a day after a viral video showed two students involved in a fight.

Students at Hazelbrook Middle School in the Tigard-Tualatin School District were sent home Friday morning, Sept. 29, 2023, due to a "direct threat of violence" to the school. The school received threats a day after a viral video showed two students involved in a fight.

Courtesy of Jaime Valdez / Pamplin Media Group

Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said the recent incident was planned and likely inspired by a national social media challenge to stage a fight, film it and post it for likes. Others have speculated that it was planned because students seemed poised with their phones before the attack occurred.

The video in question shows the would-be attacker standing near a wall in a crowded hallway. OPB later learned the incident was filmed at the end of the day when students were leaving and allowed to use their cell phones.

The video shows the student who had been leaning walk behind another student, pull that student down to the ground by their backpack, then grab the student’s long hair and pull, yanking the student’s head back and forth. The attacking student then hits the other three times on the shoulder and once on the head. The attacking student is then heard on the video saying, “Talk shit again, bitch,” and walks away. Other students are seen in the video filming or with their hands over their mouths.

The student who was attacked is heard saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t do anything,” then stands up and says, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

The video circulated through the Tigard-Tualatin community but gained traction when national conservative personalities shared it on social media. In conservative news coverage, the attacking student was reported to be transgender and the incident was a result of the district’s restorative justice approach to discipline. Where punitive justice focuses more on the consequences of actions, restorative justice prioritizes mending relationships and repairing harm experienced by the victims.

Related: National Training and Technical Assistance Center explains: What is restorative justice?

“We are an inclusive district, and we recognize all based on gender identity, sexuality, language, religion, creed, (and) culture,” Rieke-Smith said. “That being said, the board is also very clear that when a student breaks a rule or breaks the law — and assault breaks the law — the student suffers the consequences, regardless of how they may identify or not.

“I want to be clear about that because I know there are members of the community that believe that because we have taken a very direct stance in terms of being inclusive, that somehow that gives others a pass where their children may not receive a pass,” she added. “And that’s not true.”

The district’s response

Rieke-Smith would not speak much to the specific incident, citing protections under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA and other privacy restrictions. But she confirmed the attacking student in the video has been arrested and is being dealt with by law enforcement. The school is following discipline measures for others involved. While she did not give specifics, she said it was a small group of students affected.

But generally speaking, in any situation like this, Rieke-Smith said the Tigard-Tualatin district first responds by working with victims to provide wraparound support, including access to school psychologists and mental health resources.

When the school received a shooting threat last Thursday night via Snapchat, related to the video, Rieke-Smith said the district followed its protocols with law enforcement to assess the threat and determine if it was credible. They found the threat was not credible, she said, meaning the person did not have the means and motive to complete the threat, so students returned to classes Friday. The young person believed to be responsible for that threat has since been arrested by the Tualatin Police Department.

However, about an hour into the school day Friday, Rieke-Smith said they received another threat via email. The second threat, she described, was different “in tenor and tone,” requiring a different response. It outlined bomb threats to the school and staff members’ homes, as well as a shooting threat directed at Hazelbrook.

Rieke-Smith said, “It was clear that because there were a number of moving parts that we could not run to ground quickly enough, and because the threat was time-bound, that the best course of action, out of an abundance of caution, was to close the school, send children and staff home, and allow law enforcement officers to do their work.”

Law enforcement secured the school and the homes of those who had been specifically targeted and began their investigation.

Schools remained closed to students on Monday, but staff returned. Rieke-Smith said they provided on-site counseling and wanted staff to have a day without students to process their emotions and prepare lessons to help their students do the same.

Rieke-Smith said the staff had a lot of feelings, “which is totally understandable when you know that you’ve been a target and the harm that gets done to the community.”

The superintendent was at the school Tuesday as students returned. A former middle school principal herself, she told OPB it was, in many ways, like any other day.

“I have visited every single classroom today,” Rieke-Smith said Tuesday afternoon. “There has not been anything that would give me pause relative to how the day has gone. Teachers are teaching extremely well, and students are being themselves.”

The main difference was how staff worked with students on writing exercises and conversations with peers about their feelings surrounding the incidents. Social workers and mental health providers were available in addition to school counselors.

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Students were given an opportunity to offer solutions, as well, Rieke-Smith said, when asked, “What do you think the school can do to make the school a more warm and welcoming place?” She said the school also provided students with information on how to get involved with things like student council if they wanted to help more in the future.

Rieke-Smith said healing requires several steps: “It’s first acknowledging the feelings and the fears. It is providing them space to give that information to us and help them work through it, and then giving them tools that can empower them so (they feel) they can be part of a process to help, you know, make the school even better than it is.”

Moving forward, parents will have opportunities to see the lessons given to the kids and will have their own virtual sessions and surveys. Rieke-Smith said all the feedback will be consolidated and given to the school board, which will help inform policy revisions in the near future, including an upcoming review this fall of the district’s student conduct and discipline policy.

“(We) continue to provide care … for our students and our parents and our community at large,” she said. “You know, we still have work ahead of us. But it is good work. It is the right work.”

Hazelbrook culture concerns

Julianne Ackerman worked at Hazelbrook Middle School for the last two years as a seventh-grade language arts teacher and the building’s equity coordinator. She still works in the area but has left Hazelbrook, in large part, due to what she described as staff’s resistance to equity work and its lack of support for LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

Ackerman clarified that the students, as well as the district and school administrators, are not the problem. Administrators made it very clear they want to move in a direction that is more inclusive. Rather, she said, the problem is an embedded culture at the school, supported by the majority of the school’s teachers and many community members. District officials did not comment on the culture issues.

Ackerman argues conservative media outlets are spinning the recent incident.

“As someone who worked in equity there,” she said, “I can safely say that that’s not at all what caused this or what caused any of the fights that are happening.”

According to Ackerman, the culture at Hazelbrook is unique in the district. And it runs deep.

Many teachers there, she explained, want to “stick to what they know.” There were two principals at Hazelbrook during her short tenure, and Ackerman said she was warned by the first that she wouldn’t make a lot of friends because of her “progressive education background.”

“There are teachers who have been here for a long time, and there’s a lot of pushback. And he warned me of that,” she said, speaking especially about anti-racist or pro-LGBTQ efforts. Ackerman decided to become the equity coordinator in her second year to make changes. But she said she was ostracized and isolated.

“When there’s not a community willing to step up and do that, when there’s not a team or a collaborative movement, you end up being on the island by yourself,” she said. “And you can’t carry all that all the time.”

Ackerman said some parents pulled their kids out of her class for teaching books with queer representation and she’s heard of other teachers not respecting students’ pronouns. Few people showed up to equity meetings. Ackerman said students of color were disproportionately disciplined at Hazelbrook, which is a statewide problem in Oregon (school-by-school discipline data isn’t published by the Oregon Department of Education). Some teachers refused to display LGTBQ+ pride flags that had been given out; some requested to have them taken down altogether.

Ackerman also heard comments like, “Hazelbrook used to be a really great school.” She said that view appeared to be in response to the school’s changing demographics.

Over the last 10 years, according to state data, the percentage of students of color at Hazelbrook has increased from about 33% to 48%.

“It was so hard that I (had) to leave,” she said. “It was a really unsafe situation for the kids.”

Regarding the recent incident, conservative commentators have made claims that the attacker is transgender, the attack was motivated by gender, and that it was an example of the school’s failed restorative justice work.

Ackerman said middle schools have seen an increase in fights across all socioeconomic factors. And she claims the majority of Hazelbrook teachers aren’t actually implementing restorative justice. When used correctly, Ackerman says restorative justice is supposed to prevent violence from getting out of hand and help restore student relationships if it does.

“These are kids we’re… talking about,” Ackerman stressed, “and the way that the adults and the media are reacting to it, it’s just causing so much more harm on their education, their families and their livelihood.”

Public schools have a responsibility to provide free education to all students, though discipline incidents may change where a district decides is the best place to put a student.

Superintendent Rieke-Smith said the district responds differently to issues that don’t rise to the level of physical violence, hate speech or bias. These include things like pushing and shoving, putting gum in someone’s hair, tripping someone or non-hate-related name-calling.

In those cases, she said Tigard-Tualatin always seeks to educate students on why their actions didn’t work so they don’t repeat the offense. They have progressive discipline measures, meaning there are more constraints put on the students if they continue to break the rules. There are firmer policies on handling incidents such as fighting, bullying or having drugs or alcohol on school premises.

In this case, law enforcement and juvenile detention take the lead before the district.

“Every child, every child that comes through our doors,” Rieke-Smith stressed, “... is important to us and is cared for by us.

“And if parents feel that their child is not receiving what they need, we appreciate (hearing) that so that we can adjust practices and address whatever the concerns are,” she said. “Because that’s what we do in public education. That’s how we make sure that children are learning. (Every) child learns differently, and every child has different needs. And we want to make sure that we’re addressing them.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the nature of the threats made against Hazelbrook and district staff.

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