Rampant racism, bullying and fighting have been disrupting learning at an east-side middle school, forcing the Tucson Unified School District to stage an intervention.

A task force has been assembled and emergency support is in place at Secrist Middle School after the district noticed a high rate of student discipline incidents and heard concerns from staff.

TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez deployed a team of central administrators to the school to collect data, observe classrooms and conduct focus groups over five days in November, during which students were heard hurling racial slurs at one another, using profanity toward teachers, threatening peers and teachers alike, and demonstrating high levels of aggression.

As a result, teachers estimated spending only about 40 percent of their time teaching, with the rest devoted to addressing student behavior.

Incidents reported while the administrative team was on campus last month included a bullying incident in which a child in a wheelchair was pushed off of a sidewalk; a classroom incident in which a student threatened to kill another student, then held a crutch as if it were an automatic weapon and pretended to shoot around the room; students making obscene, racist comments; kids walking out of class; and students throwing glass beakers, thumbtacks and other classroom supplies.

Disruptive, but not necessarily dangerous, incidents included “pimple popping of table partners” and tweezing the eyebrows of a sleeping student.

“Often, the students had overtaken the class, controlling the pacing of instruction,” said a report generated following the weeklong visit. “A lack of respect within the student population for each other, the adults and the school environment was observed.”

Describing themselves in “survival mode,” the vast majority of teachers reported that they were unlikely to return next school year and felt a lack of support from the administration.

The behaviors were not only taking a toll on teachers. Students who participated in focus groups said there were “too many fights” and too many disruptions.

Asked whether they felt safe, the majority said they felt “sort of safe,” but some said they didn’t feel safe at all.

A handful of families have withdrawn their children from the school.

The administrative team — made up by representatives from the Title 1, School Improvement, Special Education and Magnet departments — concluded that “immediate and comprehensive intervention is crucial if a safe and productive learning environment is to be established at Secrist Middle School.”

“Lots of fighting”

The situation at Secrist has put Cheryl Friauf, a mother of two, in a difficult position.

Her daughter, a seventh-grader, is an honor student with a good group of friends, but Friauf is now forced to consider whether her daughter will return to the school for eighth grade.

“She’s affected by what’s going on around her,” Friauf said. “The things that are going on that I hear about from my daughter is there’s lots of fighting, kids in class are being very loud and there doesn’t appear to be ways for teachers to handle it. The same kids are disruptive every day, but they’re still in the classroom.”

Despite her dissatisfaction, Friauf wants to see the school succeed.

“There are good teachers there that are trying really hard,” she said. “We’re hoping the district and administration will bring change and make it a good environment that we can be proud of rather than moving on.”

TUSD parent and Secrist PTA vice president Jeannette Huerta-Hurtado likely won’t stick with Secrist much longer.

All of the distractions have made it particularly hard for her child, diagnosed with ADHD, to concentrate. Daily fights have intensified his anxiety.

For safety purposes, one of his teachers has had to go against his education plan that calls for seating him at the front of the class.

“She moved him to the back for his own safety — there were kids throwing things at his back and dumping out his backpack, which is usually placed behind students’ desks,” she said.

Even considering leaving Secrist is hard for Huerta-Hurtado, whose older daughter went through the school and where she has volunteered her time and efforts for years.

Secrist Principal David Montaño believes that Secrist will meet the expectations of Friauf and other parents.

“My primary focus for Secrist and our students is safety and ensuring they receive the quality academics that they need,” he said. “We will be a model school for the district — that’s what we’re working toward.”

Montaño knows, however, that he cannot get there alone, which is what prompted him to seek support from the district.

He is in his second year leading the campus after serving in an interim capacity in spring 2014. Before that he was an assistant principal at Cholla and Rincon high schools.

Montaño inherited a school that went from serving 377 students to a population of 637 during the 2013-14 school year due to the closure of Carson Middle School.

Today, of the more than 500 students enrolled, nearly 87 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch — an indicator of poverty. The number of special-education students is larger than other TUSD middle schools.

Inconsistent discipline

Among the issues are things such as establishing procedures for when to send a student to the office for discipline.

A large number of students were routinely sent to the office for low-level offenses that should have been handled in class, causing others who were correctly referred to sometimes slip through the cracks and be returned to the classroom within minutes without intervention, said TUSD director of middle schools Michael Konrad.

That was due in part to the fact that there are eight substitutes in place who have no formalized training in classroom management, Konrad said.

That doesn’t account, however, for more seasoned, certified teachers who failed to implement consistent classroom procedures, follow protocol in referring students to the office or convey expectations to students.

Though the deficiencies are concerning, the focus now is on establishing shared expectations for what classroom instruction and behavior intervention should look like when discipline incidents occur, Konrad said.

“If we just said we’re going to turn around all of the staff and move all of the teachers out of the building, who are we going to bring in to replace them?” Konrad asked. “So the priority for the task force is making sure the training is there, the supports are in place so we do everything we can to turn around what is occurring.”

TUSD administrators continue to have a presence on the campus, with Konrad on site at least three times a week.

An “If/Then” document was developed, as requested by teachers, to help clarify how disciplinary issues should be handled.

TUSD has brought in an additional assistant principal — a veteran school leader who will serve as a mentor for Montaño. The district has also added a hall monitor, and a counselor will come in January.

There is also an effort to get the school fully staffed with certified teachers. In the meantime, certified teachers are working with substitutes on instructional best practices, classroom management and interactions with students.

Montaño welcomes the intervention.

“I see it as support and care for students,” he said. “We want the best for our community and our students, so having others come and look at our school, they can tell us exactly what we need to focus on and how much support we need.”

While the actions displayed on campus by students aren’t anything Konrad hasn’t seen before, what he did find disturbing was the frequency of it.

“I don’t know that there is going to be a specific date when suddenly things are different,” Konrad said.

“What I’m looking for is a continuous path to improvement. I already have staff talking about how it seems and feels better, but that needs to continue throughout the course of the school year before I feel comfortable with the work being done.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.