Classrooms in crisis: violent incidents and discipline problems plague Oklahoma's largest school district

by Adam Kemp Published: June 2, 2014


photo - Oklahoma City police officer Tomas Daughtery visits students and staff Feb. 19 at Bodine Elementary School in southeast Oklahoma City. The principal is Nikki Coshow.  Bodine is one of four elementary schools that police are focusing on in an attempt to reduce higher school violence statistics.  School district safety director Rod McKinley has enacted a plan to to put more officers in schools, with a goal of providing a safer learning environment.  Photos by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman   Jim Beckel
Oklahoma City police officer Tomas Daughtery visits students and staff Feb. 19 at Bodine Elementary School in southeast Oklahoma City. The principal is Nikki Coshow. <137>Bodine is one of four elementary schools that police are focusing on in an attempt to reduce higher school violence statistics. <137>School district safety director Rod McKinley has enacted a plan to to put more officers in schools, with a goal of providing a safer learning environment. Photos by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Jim Beckel

One student punched his teacher in the jaw after she asked him to leave a hallway.

Another chased a fellow student with a knife at recess threatening to kill him.

Still another, chest bumped the school principal and threatened to knock her out.

The perpetrators? Nine-, 10- and 11-year-olds. The place? Bodine Elementary School in south Oklahoma City.

The Oklahoma City School District, like many large urban districts, long has been plagued by school violence. A scan of newspaper headlines from the past three decades provide a glimpse of the history; brawls in the 1980s, anti-violence task forces and rallies in the 1990s, gang problems in the 2000s. Today, some teachers and parents believe violence in the 45,000-student district is at an all-time high. Most concerning, they say, is that the perpetrators are younger and younger.

In the 2012-2013 school year, Oklahoma City Public Schools reported more than 2,400 violent incidents in its 89 schools. Of those, 857 were in elementary schools and 42 of those involved a student assaulting a teacher. In fact, the number of elementary teachers assaulted by a student was four times higher than high school teachers and twice that of middle school teachers, district statistics show.

In November, interim Superintendent Dave Lopez deemed school safety as the top issue confronting the district and said the problem needed to be addressed as quickly as possible.

Ed Allen, president of Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, said he doesn’t think the general public realizes how bad things are. He believes the district’s school violence numbers are greatly under-reported.

“A lot of people wonder, ‘why can’t an adult control a kindergartner?’” Allen said. “They have no idea what kind of students come at us and what kind of home life they have. It’s getting harder and harder to teach, they are really difficult to handle.”

A new program

Thursday, district and city officials announced a plan to place police officers in elementary schools beginning at the start of 2014 school year. Eight officers will rotate among the district’s 55 elementaries. The district and city will split the $600,000 cost.

“We don’t want to wait until something catastrophic happens,” said Rod McKinley, a former top-ranking Air Force veteran hired in November to serve as the district’s safety and security chief.

McKinley also said the officers will make it possible for the district to recruit and retain quality teachers and substitutes, which, in turn, should improve academic performance.

The district’s action came after state education officials earlier this year — after having already taken over 57 Oklahoma City schools struggling with discipline, academics or both — declared Bodine among the state’s 13 most-troubled schools.

Soon after arriving, McKinley, a former chief master sergeant of the Air Force, hired four employees, including two private investigators to conduct internal investigations, and established a violence-prevention hotline at 587-SAFE.

“Honestly, I was very surprised at how bad things were,” McKinley said earlier this year during an interview in his office at district headquarters a few months into the job. “Safety and security is every person’s responsibility, but it wasn’t everyone’s priority.”

By then, McKinley already had identified four elementary schools that he thought particularly troublesome, Rockwood, Upper Greystone, North Highland and Bodine. In announcing the police patrols this week, district officials now say they’ve identified areas of concern at nine elementaries, but declined to name the schools.

“Our students, teachers and staff need to know they are in a safe and secure environment,” McKinley said. “We haven’t done a good enough job of ensuring that.

“If we can’t handle that, how can kids handle learning?”

Troubled days

No Oklahoma City school saw more students suspended for violence during the 2012-2013 school year than Bodine, which serves 600 low-income, mostly minority children. Built in 1967 at 5301 S Bryant, a 6-foot, chain-link fence surrounds the building, which has suffered a string of vandalism and thefts in recent years. Last summer, someone smashed every window, costing thousands of dollars to repair.

In the 2012-13 school year, Bodine reported more than 470 suspensions or referrals, where parents and school administrators are notified of student misconduct. More turmoil followed when Bodine’s principal was fired in June 2013 for allegedly misusing school donations.

In the past three years, police have written more than 50 reports involving incidents at the school, but made far more visits than that, said the school’s new principal, who previously served as Bodine’s vice principal. Fights, unruly parents, vandalism, gang problems, bullying were among the problems. Over the years, the violence at Bodine drove some teachers to quit and some parents to move their children to other schools.

“The police were here every day,” Principal Nikki Coshow said. “If it wasn’t kids fighting then it was parents fighting in the parking lot.”

Over a 25-day period in April and May of 2013, police reported responding to the school six times on calls ranging from a student stealing a teacher’s phone to sexual assault to fighting.

Teacher assaulted, injured

The last of the calls involved a student assault on a teacher who was punched so hard by a third-grader that it knocked a tooth loose. As the teacher tried to wrap up the unruly student as trained by the district to do in such circumstances, the boy’s father pushed the teacher to the floor. The teacher suffered a head injury when her head bounced off the ceramic tile.

Several months later, the teacher, Eleanor Goetzinger, a 16-year district veteran, made a passionate appearance before the school board.

She told the board how she suffered from headaches, fatigue and short-term memory loss. She explained how the attack had changed her life, how she could no longer read as much, how her balance was affected, how she had trouble going up and down stairs. She told the board some schools were simply unsafe for teachers. She hoped that by publicly expressing her concerns, the board and state lawmakers would be prompted to act.

by Adam Kemp
Enterprise Reporter
Adam Kemp is an enterprise reporter and videographer for the Oklahoman and Newsok.com. Kemp grew up in Oklahoma City before attending Oklahoma State University. Kemp has interned for the Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Gazette and covered Oklahoma State...
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