Last month, after a spate of arrests and fights at Riverside-Brookfield High School, the top administration at RB decided to take strong action.
In February, the District 208 school board, after two closed sessions to handle disciplinary matters, voted unanimously to expel six students from RB. One of the students expelled is believed to be the student who displayed, but did not use, a knife during an altercation in a hallway last month.
School officials would not release the names of the expelled students citing privacy rights.
In addition to the six expulsions last month, another student voluntarily withdrew from RB under threat of expulsion.
Most, if not all, of the expelled students have been identified as gang members by the Riverside Police Department.
“We did find gang affiliations in six of the individuals,” said Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel said, referring to the RB students who were arrested in February. “Three had either self-admitted or had been logged in by other police departments with gang activity and/or tattoos. Three of them had affiliation with the Latin Kings and three had affiliations with a street gang called the Four Corner Hustlers.”
The former students typically did not try to hide their gang ties from the police.
“They’re proud of it,” Weitzel said. “They don’t hide it.”
District 208 Interim Superintendent David Bonnette said that the expulsions were related to recent incidents at the school, but did not go into specifics.
“Some of those police reports over the past several weeks certainly were related to the disciplinary actions taken here by the board as advanced to them by the administration,” Bonnette said.
The students were expelled for what Bonnette called “gross disobedience with some reference to gang related activities.”
Weitzel said that his officers were familiar with all the students who have been identified as gang members.
“We’ve had previous experience with all of them,” Weitzel said. “There was nobody on that list who was not familiar to the Riverside police officers that are working the street.”
Weitzel said he works closely with Bonnette and RB Principal Pamela Bylsma to head off potential problems at RB or to deal with problems when they occur.
“They’ve done a much better job of responding,” Weitzel said. “They notify us immediately. There’s no delay. As soon as they have a situation requiring police response they call.”
Despite the recent spate of fights and arrests most RB students seem to feel safe at school.
“For the most part I do,” said RB senior Joseph Wilkinson said. “Every once in a while you hear people arguing or really loud yelling.”
Some students were unaware of the recent fights and disturbances because the incidents were brought under control quickly by school staff.
Teacher Jan Goldberg, who began teaching at RB more than 30 years ago, says that the atmosphere inside RB is peaceful.
“It’s calmer than my house,” Goldberg joked.
Weitzel said that since the expulsions things have improved at RB.
“My officers that are on the street, especially the day shift officers now that we have permanent shifts, have seen an immediate improvement at the high school,” Weitzel said. “Because what is typically the case is that a small percentage of the individuals cause a large percentage of the police response and the police activity there.”
Some of the recent fights at RB have involved students of different ethnic groups. Are there racial tensions at RB?
“Definitely earlier this year, but not recently,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said that he believes there is, however, more fighting and disturbances at RB this year than there was during his freshman year.
He attributes the increase in fights to “a new group of people.”
Bonnette said that he hopes the expulsions will send a strong signal that the school will not tolerate fighting.
“At this point, with a small group, it came to a head and we’re not going to tolerate that type of thing,” Bonnette said. “We have a very small element of kids that, you know, attract a high level of attention both administratively, in terms of attendance, in terms of tardiness, in terms of behavior referrals, disrespect and so forth. In most of these cases they’re not here to learn, certainly by all appearances they’re not taking advantage of what’s available to them.”
Bonnette said that in most cases the expulsions were not based on any one incident but rather on a student’s entire record.
“In several of these cases there has been more than a single incident of behavioral concerns,” Bonnette said.
Seven students have been expelled from RB this school year. In addition to the six expulsions in February another student was expelled in November for drug related reasons, Bonnette said.
District 208 school board President James Marciniak said that he thinks the school environment is good at RB.
“I’m very encouraged by the tone that Pam Bylsma is setting as the principal in the building and in how strongly we’re promoting the Character Counts program and trying to make sure that that diffuses through the organization,” Marciniak said. “And I think stepping up to the discipline problems when they occur and dealing with them decisively and promptly is the key to keeping a good climate for the educational task in the building.”
Learning, not breaking up fights, is what the school wants to concentrate on.
“We’re an education institution, not a correctional facility,” Bonnette said. “If kids aren’t here to learn and take advantage of a great program, then we’re not going to put up with this stuff.”