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Alton High fights spur new security measures and community focus on conflict resolution

In the foreground and out of focus is a close up of a white man's face. Behind him and in focus is an older White woman, who has a shaved head and who is wearing a red t-shirt and sunglasses. She is holding a sign that says "Alton teachers love our students and their safety"
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Pat Van Walleghen, a special eduction paraprofessional at Alton High School, attends a rally outside the Redbirds' football game Friday in Alton. The rally followed a week where multiple on-campus fights at the high school moved administrators to cancel in-person classes for two days.

Alton High School students are returning to class Tuesday after student violence prompted administrators to close the school two days last week.

A series of fights involving multiple students broke out Wednesday at the school. Administrators canceled classes on Thursday and switched to remote learning on Friday.

Now, as students return, the district is adding metal detectors and more staff in hallways between classes to increase safety. Teachers and families say they are also looking for ways to help kids deal with conflict productively.

A typical Friday night home football game in Alton fills the neighborhood around the stadium. But last week as the sun began to set, only district staff and family members of the students on the football team, marching band and cheer squad were invited to attend the game.

Stephanie Baur and Jackson Deal, 16, watch the Alton High School marching band perform the national anthem through a fence on a nearby sidewalk.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Stephanie Baur [top left] and Jackson Deall, 16, watch the Alton High School marching band perform the national anthem from a sidewalk outside the stadium Friday in Alton. Baur's daughter Grace Gibbons, 17, is in the marching band. However, Baur decided to stay outside with Deall who, because they are Gibbons' friend and not a family relative, was denied entry to the game. “Grace has been there two years and this is the first time [violence in the school] has been an issue,” Baur said. Deall added, “I don’t know why the school thinks adding all this is gonna make things better… Still gonna be fights.”

Across the street from the stadium, Mike Batchelor sat in his sister’s front lawn.

“Everyone's heartbroken by it,” Batchelor said. “This isn't our city that we're used to.”

Before kickoff, teachers gathered, holding signs with messages supporting students and wearing red, the school’s color. As families began to file in, they said they were disappointed about the violence and that it had affected the game this way. Incidents like those last week are out of the norm at the high school, they said.

Shalinda Wallace said she's frustrated for her son on the football team.

“He's upset because it was supposed to be senior night,” said Wallace, a graduate of Alton High School. “We put a lot of preparation into tonight. So, you know, we had to kind of alter our plans. But we’re rolling with what we got.”

Parents and other family members said they were glad to see the increased security at the school, but many said there is more to be done. Florita Foster, a mother of four kids in the district, said both parents and teachers need to talk to the students more.

“No one's seeing what's going on,” Foster said. “I think a lot of it stems from trauma, you know, something going on in the home or something that has already happened or something that trickled down from the parents down to the children.”

Other districts have seen similar incidents of student violence in the first few weeks of school. On Friday, a fight at Vashon High School prompted St. Louis Public Schools to cancel a scheduled game against Cardinal Ritter College Prep.

The torso of a school resource officer. He is wearing a red t-shirt, over which is a black vest with "police" written on it. The vest front holds various pieces of equipment, and he also has a yellow taser on his belt.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
An Alton School District resource officer stands guard at the entrance to the football stadium on Friday in Alton.

After the pandemic isolation, students are still learning productive ways to resolve conflict, said Bobby Rickman, a teacher at the high school and president of the Alton Education Association.

“We're not only teaching them in class about science or math or reading,” Rickman said. “We're also teaching them about how you work as a society and how you interact with each other.”

Rickman sees a nationwide problem of students dealing with stress and anxiety, but not having the tools to deal with it. He said alongside security measures, teachers need to be better trained to identify mental health issues and help provide resources students might need.

Making sure that students have outlets to talk and that they know their parents and teachers want them safe would be key goals to the healing process, Rickman said.

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.