Inside Brockton High, students meditate on moving forward after months of turmoil

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Past the metal detectors and through the double doors, class change at Brockton High School offers the familiar sounds and scenes of high schools everywhere. The bell sounds, and students whip into hallways adorned with fliers or sports banners. Some beeline it by themselves; others slow down to chat and laugh with friends.

Amid the bustle, the school’s new principal chirps “good mornings” to the high-schoolers, cajoling some of them to classes with an almost cheer-like “let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

Principal Kevin McCaskill talks with students walking the hallways between classes. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

But, as staffers and students alike live out these typical school days, one major difference about Brockton High stands out to many of them. Their moves – especially their moves through the halls – sit beneath a spotlight.

Last month, as worries about the effects of student fighting peaked, Brockton High made headlines after four school committee members requested for the National Guard to staff classrooms, prevent teachers from calling out sick and keep hallways brawl-free. Though Gov. Maura Healey spiked the call to send in the Guard, security over the last year tightened.

“The students didn’t just one day wake up and decide to punch someone in the face. Something systemically has failed.”

Isabela Katzki, sophomore

For sophomore Isabela Katzki, the ensuing media attention hasn’t always felt fair. The 15-year-old often attends school committee meetings to call for more resources and community collaboration. She says students should not be portrayed as the school’s main problem.

“I always hear, ‘The students are bad. The students are violent. The students need to do better,’ ” said Katzki. “The students didn’t just one day wake up and decide to punch someone in the face. Something systemically has failed.”

Two other principals in just over two years came and left Brockton High. The school has faced financial and staffing shortfalls. It’s the state’s biggest high school, with more than 3,800 students.

Like a handful of Massachusetts schools, Brockton a few years ago adopted measures like metal detectors and stricter visitor rules to keep students safe. Students inside the buildings must display their student IDs at all times. (The machines were installed after a student was arrested for allegedly bringing a gun to school in 2021.)

A sign at the main entrance to Brockton High requires people entering the school to pass through a metal detector. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A sign at the main entrance to Brockton High requires people entering the school to pass through a metal detector. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

But the recent spate of school violence and frequent social media posts about it prompted new efforts. The state said it would fund a school-wide safety audit. The principal hired new safety monitors. Teachers are getting fresh training on de-escalation tactics.

Still, as the school community adjusts to these changes, the trickle of news stories and social posts related to fights serve as a reminders there’s more work ahead.

‘Record the fight and post it everywhere’

Junior Sylvie Staco recently sat in psychology class when she and her classmates could hear a fight in the hallway through the closed door.

“There was a bunch of chaos and yelling,” she said, “and my teacher would just stop mid-lesson and bolt out of the classroom to stop something from happening.”

“It just makes us feel really anxious,” Staco added.

She and fellow junior, Nevaeh Johnson, both noted, however, that inside the school’s massive 584,000-square-foot complex, they’ve rarely seen a fight up close.

“I wouldn’t say I feel unsafe,” Johnson said. “Because half of the stuff that happens, I’m usually never around it. I’m usually in class, or I’m on the whole opposite side of the building.”

Still, both girls said they’re aware of how many skirmishes do happen each week. Videos of the fights, they explained, often get posted to Snapchat groups popular among students.

“It’s people’s goal to record the fight and post it everywhere,” said Staco, adding she saw someone she didn’t know create “a Snapchat account that was just based on recording fights.”

She said the focus on the violence has taken attention away from the many positive aspects of Brockton High, like its bevy of Advanced Placement and college-level courses, or its award-winning marching band and robust fine arts program.

“Having the media around is kind of like we’re like animals in a cage, and they’re just watching us,” said Staco. “It’s kind of strange.”

‘We need more teachers’

Teachers expressed frustrations, too, about what the broader community may be missing about the progress Brockton High is making.

Devin Morris, co-founder of The Teachers’ Lounge, recently met with several Brockton teachers to hear their concerns. His nonprofit works with school districts in Greater Boston to help them support and retain teachers of color.

Earlier this year, some district teachers testified at school committee meetings that they feared for their safety.

However, Morris said the teachers he spoke to for initial check-ins said they felt safe in their classrooms, but that conflicts in the hallways still sometimes get out of hand.

“In talking to Brockton educators, things are better than they seem to be in the media,” he said. “But there’s a lot of growth that still needs to happen, and there’s a lot of healing that still needs to happen.”

About a third of Brockton High teachers have been on the job for fewer than three years, Morris said, adding his group will offer tools to help build trust with students.

“In talking to Brockton educators, things are better than they seem to be in the media.”

Devin Morris

Teacher layoffs over the summer deepened existing problems at Brockton High, students said. Facing an $18 million budget shortfall, district leaders cut roughly 130 teachers and staffers across all its public schools. The high school lost about 40 positions.

“The biggest issue in my mind is, we need more teachers,” said Katzki, the sophomore who has spoken at school committee and community meetings.

“It’s high school so of course it’s stressful,” she added. “You’ve got your own drama and family problems and life problems and then you have your classwork.”

She said teachers do a lot to support student mental health, and that while the school employs mental health counselors, not enough of her peers know about their services. (District leaders said 31 faculty members provide mental health support at Brockton High, including referring students to therapists or other providers outside the school.)

The Brockton High School entrance on Belmont Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Brockton High School entrance on Belmont Street. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Last fall, when a teacher called out sick, school leaders struggled to find a substitute instructor. Students said they’d often get sent to the cafeteria, with less supervision to stop some students from filtering into the halls and fighting.

Riley McEvoy, a senior, said he and his peers spent many class periods in the cafeteria.

“There was a day where I had first, second, third, fourth and fifth [periods] all off,” said McEvoy.

This spring semester, McEvoy was happy to report that his cafeteria days dwindled after the school’s new principal took over in January.

‘I personally think he’s a cool dude’

Soon after becoming Brockton’s third principal since 2021, Kevin McCaskill said he jumped into solving problems.

McCaskill and his team hired extra security to monitor hallways and exits. He and other district leaders began exploring stricter cell phone policies, a possible community mentorship program and potential solutions to avoid putting students in the cafeteria. They’d seen some improvements around teacher coverage after previous leadership revamped the substitute teacher system.

“I came in with open eyes and open ears,” he said during a recent interview. “I knew what was expected, I knew what I was going into.”

And yet McCaskill said the most important thing he’s done so far is get to know the students.

“I’m greeting students every single morning outside,” he said. “Greeting them while they’re walking in the hallways, making good eye contact.”

“I think when students feel like they’re seen and they’re heard and that they count, they tend to act a little different,” he added.

Brockton High Principal Kevin McCaskill stands in a hallway at the school. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Brockton High Principal Kevin McCaskill stands in a hallway at the school. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Several of the students interviewed for this story said they appreciate their principal’s positivity and enthusiasm.

“I personally think he’s a cool dude,” said Johnson, the eleventh-grader. “When I first met him, he already had a good impression. He was saying, ‘good morning’ [and] ‘how are you?’ “

As McCaskill moves forward, he said he plans to keep listening to students and community members who share his interest in moving the narrative away from the fights and toward the school’s future.

“In my 36 years, I have never seen a school this comprehensive,” he said, “where you have just programming, humanities, arts, music, theater, the advanced courses the students are taking, clubs, the athletic programs.

“The possibilities are endless.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that leaders before McCaskill revamped the substitute teacher system.

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