By Kit Slack and Mark Betancourt
Dr. E. Carlene Murray, Northwestern High School’s principal, said that when the school was vacant during the pandemic, the football field became a community gathering spot.
Despite a school policy forbidding students to go to the field without supervision, gatherings of dozens of students and other residents continued daily on the field throughout the 2021-22 school year.
School staff and students interviewed, as well as the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD), were concerned about the safety of youth spending time on the field during the school day, and about the presence of adults on the field. School policy is that community members can use the field only with permission from the school.
Some days as many as 200 teenagers and young adults, students and non-students, gathered there, according to Lt. Zachary Nemser, who supervises HPD school resource officers.
Northwestern staff did not take a punitive approach to the problem last year, as they implemented a new countywide policy emphasizing supportive responses in the handling of student offenses like cutting class. School staff talked to students about why they were on the field and connected them with services and programs in the building.
Staff were also sensitive to stressors facing students returning from virtual school.
This school year, because of ongoing safety concerns, school security or police are visiting the field hourly, according to Murray. She said that these and other measures mean that fewer students are gathering there so far this fall.
Kids need to get outside, now more than ever
Nemser, in an interview about adolescents and young adults on the field, said, “What we’re learning is that these students are different than they were two years ago.”
Students found on the field have expressed anxiety about being inside the school, according to Nemser and Murray. Some have said they’re uncomfortable eating lunch with a large number of other students in the cafeteria, and that walking outside makes them feel better.
“The socialization that they missed for almost two-plus years, it’s hard to reintegrate,” said Nicole Isley-McClure, director of instruction for the district’s area administrative office that includes Northwestern.
She noted that Northwestern has many recent immigrants and English-language learners. Time on the football field may be giving these students an opportunity, Isley-McClure said, “to escape for a few moments … to be in an environment where you don’t have to feel this pressure.”
School community concerned about safety on the field
Isley-McClure, along with every other staff member and student interviewed, was concerned about drug use and student safety on the football field.
Fighting and marijuana use were common on the field last school year, according to a teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, and multiple students, who asked the Hyattsville Life & Times (HL&T) not to use their names for privacy reasons.
The teacher and students said school security guards were unable to stop students from heading up to the field on a daily basis during school.
“A gang could probably come up from the back of the school, and you wouldn’t be sure, because the security guard wasn’t there,” said one student who graduated in May.
Mid-morning on Monday, April 25, shots were fired on the field, according to an HPD tweet.
Principal Murray said she can’t require administrators or teachers to go to the field because of concern for their safety. She said she does not have enough security officers to station one on the field at all times.
The HPD intervenes on Northwestern’s football field only when a crime, such as an assault, robbery, weapons violation or possession of larger amounts of marijuana, has been reported, Nemser said.
The department logged 22 crime reports on the Northwestern campus during the 2021-22 school year. County school data shows eight student arrests: three for assault, three for possession or use of a weapon, one for theft and one for a drug charge.
Arrest and HPD crime report numbers were similar in the two years prior to the pandemic, though both arrests and reported crimes had increased during the 2019-20 school year before schools were closed.
Nemser said it was difficult to determine whether non-students were involved in criminal activity on the field. “If there’s 150 people, and 25 aren’t supposed to be there, and everybody runs in every direction, we can’t confirm that a crime occurred.”
Nemser could not confirm reports that drugs were sold on the field last year. He said, however, “That wouldn’t surprise me whatsoever if somebody had some type of business operating up there.”
Disciplinary shift to supportive intervention
Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, Goldson directed schools to stop suspending students for some offenses, including disrespect, disruption, loitering and cutting class, according to Raven Hill, a county schools spokesperson. The move aimed to combat subjectivity and bias in discipline.
As a result, in 2021-22, the total number of student offenses reported at Northwestern went down to around 200, fewer than one-third of the 650 incidents recorded in 2017-18, according to data obtained by the HL&T.
Hill said school staff were trained to address problems through restorative approaches. Restorative justice is a form of conflict resolution that includes facilitated group conversations.
“In some cases, we have to get to the root cause of why the student is choosing to go to the field,” said Murray. “Once we’ve learned that root cause, we do provide wraparound services to the student to support them in reengaging with the building.”
Similarly, while the HPD has the authority to enforce truancy laws, officers prefer not to take that approach. “The last thing we want to do is start charging a bunch of kids with trespassing or truancy or minor violations. We think there’s a way to get them back into school without going that far,” said Nemser.
New security efforts; community support sought
“This is something that we do have to get under control, and we will,” Murray said, speaking of the football field.
Administrators have been meeting about the problem, and are working to have fencing improved and repaired to prevent people from accessing the field from the back.
The HPD has placed cameras on the field.
County schools have reinstated lead investigators in high schools this year, according to a spokesperson. The district-employed security officers, who have arrest powers and oversee all security personnel within schools, were staffed at lower levels last school year as part of an effort to reform the school-to-prison pipeline.
Northwestern had no lead investigator last school year, but has one this year.
Murray thinks community members may not know that they are not allowed on the field during the school day. “I would love to communicate with the community: Please, please stay away from the school.”