There were no arrests, no protests, no pepper spray and, most importantly, no violence at Tolman High School on Friday. But after a series of surreal events at the Pawtucket high school – that began with a fight between a police officer and students on Wednesday and culminated on Thursday with police pepper spraying a student protest and arresting eight people – life didn’t quite get back to normal either.
Some 300 students were absent to start the day. There was an extra police officer inside, two police cars outside and two extra administrators on hand. Additionally, the school was in a state of what Superintendent Patti DiCesno called “shelter in place.”
“Students got to go to class, they got to go to lunch like normal,” she said. “But if they had to leave the room,” they needed an adult escort. This measure, DiCesno said, was actually unrelated to the events that played out on Thursday. “We were concerned … there’s other situations that have nothing to do with this that are going on with another city. There was chatter on twitter last night, it was kind of one city versus another city.”
This, plus yesterday’s events, left the entire Tolman community understandably apprehensive about the school day. “I think when they first came in this morning they were a little on edge,” she said of the students. About the teachers, she said, “Until we had our 7:30 meeting, I think they too were a little in shock and nervous. I think you could almost feel their relief after that half hour meeting.”
The students, too, relaxed, DiCesno said. “As the day went on when they got into a routine. By the end of the second period they felt like it was okay.” Even the number of absences dropped to about 100 by 9:15, with 20 being more normal.
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Ten students met with her and Mayor Don Grebien at City Hall in the morning, which DiCesno said was very productive.
“Students were allowed to speak about all of their concerns, why they were afraid, what they were upset about and what they thought needed to be changed,” she said. “We’re hoping that this core group of kids can now be the voice of concern for students and for their safety and what they feel is the violation of their rights.”
There will be a “student-driven” assembly on Monday for the entire student body to ask the ten students about their meeting with the mayor. DiCesno said she hopes the group that met with the mayor joins forces with the existing Young Voices group at Tolman.
“If we can get these kids to join together then they can self advocate within their own building,” she said. “So what I would like to see them do is bring school policy to the school committee.”
DiCesno says the school is taking extra care to ensure that the students “feel like they are being heard.”
“We’re also going to provide time in school day for our street workers to work with the kids … to peacefully protest,” she said. “How to do this with a true message instead of chaos so there is a sense they are being heard.”
For Friday’s school day, she said, “we wanted two extra administrators, not more police presence, because we wanted people who could say you need to talk about this, let’s bring them over here because we have a little room set up.”
She didn’t comment on the incident, but said the officer involved was not unpopular with the students. He has been at Tolman for a year and a half and there have been no other incidents. “Even some of the students who may be angry about the incident will tell me in the same conversation ‘but I really like him.'”
She defended the concept of school resource officers, saying, “There are many more pluses in having a relationship with an SRO, but that determination will be made once the investigation is over and once the police department does it’s investigation.”
But she added, “Everything is on the table in that the kids are going to have a say … and I think as time goes by the students will get a little less uncomfortable and intense and they will be able to make good decisions about their school, about what they need and want. Right now we need to get them to feel safe and trust us that we are going to listen to them.”