Restorative discipline is an increasingly popular practice for addressing student behavior in schools. According to the Texas Education Agency, which promotes the relationship-building approach on a statewide level, it aims to foster “belonging over exclusion, social engagement over control and meaningful accountability over punishment.”
Jesse Espinosa said he’s seen some of the benefits at Waltrip High School, which like the rest of Houston ISD has encouraged the practice over the last few years. But the longtime director of the Waltrip Ram Band, who graduated from the school in 1995, also has seen a turn for the worse in the campus’ overall behavioral climate.
“Since I’ve been working there, I can recall times where if there was one or two fights a semester, that was a lot,” said Espinosa, who began teaching at Waltrip 17 years ago. “The last several years, I’ve seen the general discipline of the school just deteriorate. Some of that has to do with some of the going times with the district not wanting to be as strict with the students.”
Espinosa and others involved with Waltrip are wondering if it might be time for some tougher love. Campus safety was among the concerns expressed by a group of students and parents who spoke at the HISD school board meeting April 11, and those concerns were amplified two weeks later.
HISD said multiple students were involved and some were injured in an April 26 melee in the gym that was captured on video and shared on social media. According to Espinosa and multiple Waltrip parents, it was one of at least three fights on campus that day and led to ambulances being called to the school.
Multiple parents also said they did not receive any sort of communication about the incident from Waltrip or HISD administrators. Those parents said they received automated emails and voicemails late last semester, when there was a threat of gun violence on campus that proved unfounded.
The mother of a Waltrip magnet student in 11th grade, who asked to remain anonymous, said her child is zoned to Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center and is considering transferring back there.
“A lot of parents are concerned and worried,” she said. “We’ve had no problems the last two years that we have been there – none whatsoever. This year just has gone crazy.”
HISD, after acknowledging the fight in the gym and saying it does not condone such behavior in an April 26 statement, has declined to answer several follow-up questions about the number of fights on campus that day, the root causes, the extent of the injuries to students, the response by school staff or security procedures at Waltrip.
Espinosa and multiple Waltrip parents said they think the influence of gangs might be contributing to an increased number of student altercations. They also said the school’s new lunch schedule this year, in which all of its 1,800-plus students eat during the same hour, has created a climate that makes it difficult to supervise students and control their behavior.
At the April 11 school board meeting, Waltrip student Jason Teyuca complained that an overcrowded cafeteria forced some students into the gym and others to eat on the floor. The Waltrip parents who said there were multiple fights April 26 also said they all occurred during the lunch hour.
“The 17 years I’ve been there, this is the third time that’s happened and the third time it’s been a failure,” Espinosa said of having one lunch period for all students. “Each time that it failed in the past, kids were all over the place.”
Marlo McClung Perez, a Waltrip parent and president of its parent-teacher association, said first-year principal Michael Niggli already has pledged to add a second lunch period next school year. She also said Niggli has ordered new security cameras for the campus and put together a 15-person security team.
While saying the principal is taking steps to address safety concerns on campus, Perez also said the situation is not as severe as some claim. Perez said there was only one fight at Waltrip on April 26 – the one in the gym that was captured on video – and that there have only been a few this school year.
Perez also said there are “no gangs” on campus.
“If I for one second thought my kid was in harm’s way, he wouldn’t be at Waltrip,” Perez said. “But he’s at Waltrip. He’s not going anywhere.”
Waltrip School Support Officer Jason Bernal, in an April 24 statement released by HISD, said Niggli was addressing the concerns expressed by students and parents at the April 11 school board meeting. Bernal also said Niggli was committed to Waltrip and its community, having moved his family into the neighborhood while working with the school’s feeder campuses.
Espinosa and Perez also said they are committed to improving the conditions at Waltrip and encouraged others to do the same. For Espinosa, that starts with improving student outlooks and behavior, which he said is a concern of many teachers on campus.
“Waltrip’s still a good school. I would want somebody to know that,” Espinosa said. “There needs to be some more parent involvement. There needs to be questions about transparency and clarity of what we’re really trying to do, not just in our words but in our actions. We need to absolutely make the kids the center of our discussion and plans of what we’re doing to better the school.
“Otherwise, the efforts made at those other campuses, like Frank Black (Middle School) or Durham (Elementary) or Oak Forest (Elementary), those kids are going to go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter that we have million-dollar homes around us. They’re going to skip us, because we’re not cleaning up things the way we should.”