Seeds Of Change

By Rich Shea — March 01, 2001 28 min read
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Four years after the death of a teacher who was assaulted on campus, educators in Lowell, Mass., are reaping the rewards of disciplinary efforts aimed at aiding, not punishing, students.

Built nine years ago, in what was once a premier industrial city, the 700- student James F. Sullivan Middle School looks typical. It’s a massive, boxlike structure sitting on a few acres of hilly land in the midst of a middle-class neighborhood. Composed chiefly of brick-colored cinder blocks, it does, however, offer a few unique traits-the green window frames, for example, and the diamond-shaped accents that punctuate the building’s façade. But one detail is more notable than the rest.

At the base of the school’s flagpole is a garden, which, each spring, is overrun with flowers-crocuses, tulips, irises, and daffodils. But by mid-October, there aren’t nearly as many signs of life; in fact, the ground begins to glaze over with frost, the soil to tighten its fingers into a fist. Standing sentinel over the garden is a slab of granite that braves the elements 12 months a year. Inscribed in its smooth surface are these words: “McHugh Peace Garden, Dedicated Oct. 23, 1997. ‘It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it and work at it.'-Eleanor Roosevelt.”

“The Lowell schools were not in disarray, but there were some major discipline problems happening,” says Kevin McHugh, holding a picture of his brother.
—Sarah Evans

Before he died, David McHugh worked at Sullivan, which is located in Lowell, Massachusetts, 30 miles north of Boston. As “behavior modification specialist,” he was a combination guidance counselor, social worker, and disciplinarian responsible for supervising an in-school-suspension program. But four years ago, something terrible happened to McHugh at Sullivan, something that forced district officials to tackle a discipline problem that many Lowell residents felt had reached a boiling point.

“It was the spark that made things go faster,” George Tsapatsaris, the district’s former superintendent, says of the incident. “I think what it did was make the [school] committee more aware of what they wanted to do.”

Back then, the committee’s plans to deal with discipline weren’t much different from those being considered by districts across the country. In the mid- to late-1990s, roughly 30 out of every 1,000 teachers and 40 out of every 1,000 students were victims of violent crimes in schools each year, according to the 2000 Annual Report on School Safety. Published by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, the report states that, over the past several years, the number of violent crimes has actually decreased. But the fact that 60 percent of the nation’s medium-sized schools, like Sullivan, still report at least one criminal incident each year is not reassuring.

Perhaps even more discouraging is the perception, so prevalent in these post-Columbine times, that schools are unsafe. In the fall of 1997, Sullivan’s reputation was such that one teacher, applying for a job at the time, recalls a colleague saying: “Are you kidding? You are never gonna make it in that school. The kids are crazy over there.”

Middle schools, of course, are easy targets, in part because many people consider adolescents unteachable. So it’s not hard to imagine a violent incident, like the one that took place at Sullivan, crippling a school. But Janet Patti, a former middle school administrator and co-author of the book Waging Peace in Our Schools, says that a healthy recovery is not inconceivable. In fact, if executed correctly, a recovery operation not only heals wounds but also makes a school stronger and, thus, more secure. But you need the right tools. “So much of it,” Patti says, "[depends on] leadership of a school and the building of a community.”

When I visited Lowell last October, I discovered that a districtwide effort to curb disciplinary problems at the middle schools indeed had succeeded, thanks in no small part to an alternative-school program named after McHugh himself. But it was at Sullivan that I witnessed a unique leadership effort, one that puts the responsibility of running a school into the hands of administrators, teachers, and students alike.

Blond, moon-faced, and exceedingly polite, Valerie Cowart is the kind of teacher you want working for you if, like Sullivan’s principal, Paula Hutton, you’re trying to instill self-confidence in students. “I want to commend you,” Cowart, a music teacher, tells about 20 7th graders after they’ve finished singing Christina Aguilera’s “I Turn To You.” “I want to applaud you,” she adds. “That is not an easy song.”

About half the class is minority students, mostly Hispanic and Asian, and everyone is dressed simply: white shirts, tan khakis, sensible shoes. A year ago, the district instituted a dress code, which began at the elementary school level and has now moved up. Its author is Kevin McHugh, a Lowell School Committee member and David’s brother.

‘'It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it and work at it.’

Inscription by
Eleanor Roosevelt
in the McHugh
Peace Garden

Kevin announced his candidacy for the committee in February 1997, a month before his brother was assaulted while breaking up a student fight on Sullivan School grounds. But even before the incident-in which David was kicked and badly bruised-Kevin had decided to make discipline his number one campaign issue. “The Lowell schools were not in disarray, but there were some major discipline problems happening,” he explains.

Tsapatsaris, who served as superintendent from 1991 until June 2000, says that prior to the assault many of those problems were being dealt with. As early as the late ‘80s, when the minority dropout rate at Lowell High School was excessive, the district put together an alternative program that, over the next 10 years, kept 100 potential dropouts in school, he notes. So, with that problem solved, he and the school committee turned their attention to the middle schools, where parents were expressing concern about the safety of their kids.

“I’ve always maintained—and I do to this day—that the kids have always been safe,” Tsapatsaris insists. But even he admits that each school had “a group of troubled kids” that parents and staffers were looking to send elsewhere. And, off the record, others have said the discipline problem was caused, in part, by the implementation of a desegregation plan in the early ‘90s.

Since the mid-19th century, when Lowell was a textile-producing giant, the city has attracted working-class immigrants. Historically, each ethnic group—Irish, Greeks, Portuguese, and later Cambodians and Hispanics—has gathered in a particular neighborhood, with schools just as homogeneous. The desegregation plan, which turned neighborhood schools into regional facilities serving various ethnicities, discarded a centuries-old tradition. And rumors of tension and fistfights in these new, much larger buildings worried parents. So the school committee began making plans to create a middle school alternative program.

Which leads to this question: Were Lowell’s middle schools, in the early and mid-'90s, really getting out of hand? Even if the answer is no, the assault on David McHugh put an end to the debate. And that’s when Paula Hutton—who had a wealth of experience in urban schools—was hired. She began working at Sullivan in August 1997, five months after the incident took place. From the time she arrived, she says: “I had to tell teachers that there are different styles of discipline in this world. And there’s a clear-cut difference between discipline and punishment. And if they were focusing all their energies on external discipline, perhaps they were working very hard, but at the wrong thing.”

The sky’s the limit: Valerie Cowart leads a music class at the Sullivan School.
—Sarah Evans

Cowart, in her music class, is doing what Hutton considers some of the right things-praising her students and encouraging them to participate. And on the walls of her scrubbed-clean, brightly lit room are banners offering positive reinforcement: “Yes, You Can"; “I Believe In You"; “We Will Not Give Up On You"; “I Shall Use My Voice For Song.”

The last one, aside from being subject appropriate, is part of the Sullivan School pledge, written by a staff member shortly after McHugh’s death. Repeated every morning during school announcements, the pledge was debuted the same day the McHugh Peace Garden was dedicated. It goes like this:

I shall use my hands for peace, not pain. I shall use my heart for love, not hate. I shall use my voice for song, not slurs. I shall strive each day to grow and learn. I shall live my life so all will gain.

In the role of school committee member, Kevin McHugh sometimes visits Sullivan, where, he says, there’s “a sense of order in the building” that did not exist before Hutton arrived. But he’s still haunted by what happened to David, who was known to most as “Jake,” a reference to the Blues Brothers, one of his favorite bands. There were four McHugh brothers in all, and they grew up the sons of a postal worker and a secretary in a modest home, in which Kevin and Jake shared a room.

Last August, when I first interviewed Kevin, he recounted for me what he said was Jake’s version of the incident that shook the McHugh family and, to some extent, all of Lowell. On March 27, 1997, Jake was on bus duty, helping supervise the departure of a few hundred kids on a drizzly afternoon. When two girls started fighting, Jake boarded their bus to calm them down. He then spotted, on a nearby hill, another fight, this one between four boys. So Jake sprinted off the bus and up the incline, which was slick with rainwater.

On the walls of the scrubbed-clean, brightly lit room are banners offering positive reinforcement: “Yes, You Can"; “I Believe In You"; “We Will Not Give Up On You"; “I Shall Use My Voice For Song.”

While trying to pull the kids apart, he slipped and fell to one knee, yet continued to hold on to two of the boys, Hispanic kids in their midteens, according to Kevin. “And then he says one of them pushed him on the shoulder, and he fell over to his back,” Kevin added. “ ‘And the next thing you know,’ he says, ‘I was getting kicked.’ ”

The incident ended with Jake blacking out from a seizure. Later, newspapers reported only one kick delivered by one boy, who was 14 years old at the time. But that’s not what Kevin believes happened. Jake, he told me, “remembered getting kicked multiple times.”

By more than one person? I asked.

“More than one person,” he said. “They were coming from all different directions.”

At 39, Kevin is a sturdily built man whose thinning, dark-brown hair is offset by sky blue eyes. He looked at the floor before continuing, then finally added: “This happened on a Thursday afternoon, and I happened to be in the hospital that Thursday night. I was the only one in the room at the time, and he showed me the bruises.” Kevin hesitated for a moment. “And they were all over his body,” he said, biting his lip. “I was outraged. I was, I was truly . . . " Tears welled up, his lips quivered. “Excuse me,” he said.

Kevin told me later that Jake suffered a handful of seizures after the incident, the last one—the one that killed him—a grand mal in his home on August 12, 1997. Only 34 at the time, Jake left behind a wife, Ellen (who declined to comment for this article), and a 2-year-old son, Brendan.

Oddly enough, Paula Hutton and John Gonsalves, Sullivan’s assistant principal, began work at the school the very day that McHugh died. At 50, Hutton has an impressive résumé—a master’s degree in education, 13 years of teaching, seven years specializing in reading and curriculum, another seven as an administrator. And she rarely sits still. “Did you bring your roller skates?” Gonsalves asked me as I prepared to shadow Hutton, who wears glasses and loose-fitting outfits. “She’s actively involved,” Lorna Wilmott-Grant, one of Sullivan’s special ed teachers, told me. “I’ll be in my room, and she’ll just walk in and see how things are going.”

Written by one of Jake McHugh’s colleagues, the Sullivan School pledge often serves as the centerpiece of school functions.
—Sarah Evans

The Sullivan School is located in Lowell’s Belvidere section, which was once home to the owners of the city’s textile mills. Today, it’s a middle-class neighborhood populated with Cape Cods as well as mansions; but like all Lowell schools following the desegregation plan, Sullivan serves a regional zone, meaning parents get to choose between it and two other middle schools (out of a total of nine in the district). Each school has a theme-Sullivan’s is “communications"-as well as an ESL strand, in this case, Spanish. Hence the school’s 35 percent Hispanic population, which includes Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and Dominicans. Fifty-three percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price meals.

What most distinguishes the post- from the pre-McHugh-incident Sullivan is the schoolwide discipline program—evident, in part, in the administrative office area. Gonsalves’ and Hutton’s offices sit side by side, just across the hall from the school’s small, windowless, in-school-suspension room, which accommodates four students at a time. It doesn’t need to be any bigger because at Sullivan the days of the Behavior Modification Center, still in use in middle schools across the district, are gone.

Hanging in the lobby is a banner that reads “Respect and Responsibility.” It’s a phrase that is repeated endlessly at the school.

Each school’s administration decides how a center is structured, according to Tsapatsaris. But the basic idea is this: Install a behavior modification specialist in a classroom, then have that person serve as counselor to troubled kids. The centers, Tsapatsaris says, are not supposed to be dumping grounds where any kid who causes a problem is sent. “The best solution,” he suggests, “is to work problems out at the classroom level.”

But, a few years ago, that may not have been the case at Sullivan. Kevin McHugh says he heard from Jake that, in the mid-'90s, most kids who got into trouble were quickly sent to the office, then shipped to the BMC, where Jake had to handle up to 30 kids on his own for an entire day. “He would tell me that there was no control, no leadership,” Kevin says of the previous administration. “I don’t mean to be mean, but there really wasn’t—to the point where [Jake] had no periods off.”

Tim Golden, a fellow school committee member who, like the McHughs, grew up in Lowell, heard the same from Jake. He believes, however, that the BMC, when properly structured, is effective. A full-time police officer, Golden told me: “People say, ‘Well, we don’t want to look at [the BMC] as a punishment.’ I want it to be a punishment. Because [the students are] acting up, that’s what it is.”

Not everyone concurs. Harry Kouloheras, principal of the Benjamin F. Butler Middle School, passed on the BMC. Instead, he used the Title I money that pays for the program to hire extra teachers, thereby reducing class size, which does not exceed 25 students at Butler.

“I think it’s only common sense that the fewer children you pack into a classroom, the less opportunity for conflict,” he explains.

Paula Hutton and John Gonsalves share the same philosophy: Every kid is worthy of the best.
—Sarah Evans

A year after arriving at Sullivan, Hutton did something similar; she eliminated the BMC and split counseling duties between her office and that of the school’s social worker, Bob Thompson, who told me he supervises no more than a few students at a time. Otherwise, he roams the school’s corridors, sometimes counseling kids on the spot, and meets with students informally over lunch. Hutton was able to make this change because she’d begun to train her teachers—with help from student-centered books like Discipline With Dignity, As Tough As Necessary, and The Skillful Teacher—to defuse potentially problematic situations in classrooms. Her bottom line: Every action has a consequence.

Take Tommy, for instance. He’s sitting in the in-school-suspension room today, a Tuesday, because, although he was sent home yesterday—for verbally threatening a teacher—he returned to school without a parent, who has yet to be reached on the phone. Tommy (whose name has been changed) is a good-looking 8th grader who seems sweet enough; but privately, Hutton tells me he has a terrible temper and was shuffled between schools before ending up here. She handles Tommy gently, however, and for my benefit, queries him about his past. She first asks him if he’s always been a special ed student.

“No, I started in 7th grade,” he says.

“What would you do to get into trouble?”

“Talk, and get into fights when people made fun of me stuttering.”

“Are you doing that here, getting into those fights?” Hutton asks.

“No, not yet,” Tommy says.

“Why not?”

“No one’s made fun of me yet.”

“Do you think this place is different?”



“Kids are nicer.”

“In what way?”

“They don’t make fun of you.”

Hanging in the lobby, where two signs—one in English, the other in Spanish— welcome visitors to Sullivan, is a banner that reads, “Respect and Responsibility.” It’s a phrase that is repeated endlessly at the school and has been since Hutton and Gonsalves arrived three and a half years ago, when, right away, they noticed signs of trouble.

“I saw a lot of physical things that made me wonder what had gone on here,” Hutton recalls. “The school was only a few years old, but the paper towel dispensers and stuff like that in the bathrooms had obviously been replaced. . . . There were windows that were cracked and broken, handles broken off.”

Most veteran teachers I talked to said the school was not nearly as bad as the press and others had claimed, and they refused to say anything negative about the school’s former principal, Lorraine Burgoyne, who did not return calls for this article. Off the record, however, parents and even some Lowell educators said they felt she was not equipped to handle the school.

‘I’ve talked to many administrators facing crises in other schools, and they all said they never thought it could happen here.’

Ronald Stephens,
Executive Director,
National School Safety Center

Donna Renaud, who has a son at Sullivan and whose daughter, Kimberly, was a student there before and after the incident, did speak on the record, saying that prior to Hutton’s arrival, the school “was very disruptive; it was very disorganized. I can remember Kimberly coming home and saying, ‘We can’t use the sinks now because the kids have pulled the faucets right out of the sinks.’ ”

Even more problematic, as far as Hutton was concerned, was the “angry body language,” displayed by the students that first day of school, just two weeks after Jake McHugh died.

“Oh, yeah,” Gonsalves concurs. “There was no trust at all, no faith in adults, or each other.”

“It was like a sense of hopelessness,” Hutton says. “It was very sad.”

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center, which tracks violent incidents and provides safety tips, says the Sullivan situation—a teacher being assaulted, then dying later—is rare. But the effect on students can be debilitating. “If the faculty and staff [are] not safe,” he says, “you can only imagine the impact that has on the students.” And principals often aren’t prepared to adequately allay fears. “I’ve talked to many administrators facing crises in other schools, and they all said they never thought it could happen here,” Stephens explains.

That fall, however, Hutton and Gonsalves knew their shared philosophy about middle schoolers would serve as a basis for recovery. “Adolescents are like sponges, in that they take their whole self-concept by the feedback they get,” Hutton says. “So, if they get [negative] feedback, they’re going to start thinking strange things about themselves—I’m not worthy, or whatever. And we just go around assuming everybody’s worthy of the best.”

So, while the principals instructed a team of teachers to plan a memorial for Jake McHugh, they also jump-started a program that would, as Hutton put it, create a “power shift,” providing teachers with leadership roles, students with responsibilities.

The name tags were first. Staff and kids were told not only to wear them but to create them, using personalized touches that said something about their lives. Now one of many Sullivan traditions, the IDs are worn for a month, so that teachers and students can get to know each other while they do something else unconventional: make rules together.

“In order for kids to want to obey the rules,” Hutton explains, “they have to have a part in making them.”

In September, each class creates, debates, and writes down its rules. Then, during the first monthly Respect and Responsibility assembly—which mixes critiques of student behavior with reports of good deeds—each grade agrees on a list of 10 or so regulations. Break any one of them during the school year, and you have to pay the consequences, which range from a public apology to suspension.

‘In order for kids to want to obey the rules, they have to have a part in making them.’

Paula Hutton,
James F. Sullivan
Middle School

Told about this program, Janet Patti says: “That’s fabulous. That’s what you need—a democratic system, among teachers and students.” An associate professor at the Hunter College School of Education, she insists that all kids should be involved in the process; otherwise, alienation leads to feelings of resentment. “The key is having the teaching staff learn it’s not about power over [someone],” she says. But nationwide, most educators are trained to make rules and force students to follow them, no questions asked. “They don’t learn about creating an equal learning environment with kids,” Patti says.

Hutton, however, is trying. Aside from training teachers, she allows them to run their own grade-level teams and a mentor program, which is supervised by senior teachers. Many staffers have left Sullivan since her arrival, and some complain about the extra paperwork and hours, but the program has paid off in many ways. The parents I talked to, for example, are happy with the school environment. Some particularly applaud the addition of extracurricular activities—including homework and Scrabble clubs, day- and weekend-long nature outings, a handful of sports programs, and a yearly sojourn by the 8th graders to New York City.

Priscilla Partyka, a longtime PTO parent who remembers only a basketball program before Hutton’s arrival, says the new administrators are facilitators. She mentions the New York City trip as an example. “When we first said it, it was pie in the sky, but [Hutton] kept saying: ‘Go for it. If you guys can pull it off, go for it.’ ”

As tight-lipped as many veteran teachers were about change, newer staff members praised the Sullivan approach during my visit. Gayle Wood-who teaches academically challenged kids, including repeat 8th graders-focused on the high expectations reflected in a curriculum that emphasizes the development of literacy skills. “We’re not saying, ‘Oh, these poor kids, they’re from the city, they can’t do anything.’ We’re not saying that at all,” she stressed. “It’s more like: ‘This is what you need to do when you’re at the Sullivan School. This is what’s expected of you.’ ”

John Sievens, a young phys ed teacher, told me that Respect and Responsibility goes a long way. “It works,” he said. “I use it every day. As soon as a kid acts out in my class, I can say: ‘Are you respecting me? Are you following through with your responsibility?’ And they know exactly what I’m talking about. They know the consequences.”

The author of the Sullivan pledge, a veteran phys ed teacher named Kathleen Sachetti, admitted that she bristled at many of the changes at first. But now she believes that “treating kids with dignity” has raised the bar for the staff. “I think people who are here want to do a great job,” she said. “There’s almost like a tiny bit of competition, I think, at times, to make sure you’re up in the higher echelon of teaching.”

It’s October 18, about 2:30 p.m., and Kevin McHugh is giving me a tour of Lowell, which in many ways looks like it did in its heyday, when the city was a textile-producing mecca employing more than 10,000 workers weaving a million yards of cloth a week. The reason McHugh is able to drive his car along cobblestone streets, past Dickensian red-brick buildings, and over bridges that span a still-healthy network of canals fed by the Merrimack River is that, back in 1978, downtown was saved from the wrecking ball.

By the 1960s, the mills, which had been around since 1822, were closed, and the city was practically a ghost town. But a group of politicians, businessmen, and activists formulated a plan to turn Lowell into a city-sized museum showcasing industrial America. So a request was sent to Washington, D.C., where one of Massachusetts’ senators at the time was Paul Tsongas, a resident of Belvidere. The Lowell National Historical Park was soon established, and it, along with a technology boon initiated by the Wang computer company, revived the city. It certainly convinced natives like Kevin McHugh to stick around.

‘The reason I like to live in Lowell is one thing: There are a lot of innovative thinkers, people not saying, ‘I’m down in my dumps. Poor me, poor me.’ We keep saying, ‘What can we do to make this city better?’ ’

Kevin McHugh,
David McHugh’s brother

“The reason I like to live in Lowell is one thing: There are a lot of innovative thinkers, people not saying, ‘I’m down in my dumps. Poor me, poor me,’ ” he explains. “We keep saying, ‘What can we do to make this city better?’ ”

One institution he feels fits that description is the Brady School. McHugh pulls into its parking lot and leads me into a sturdy, century-old building fitted with hardwood floors, banisters, and ornate heating grates. Although we haven’t made an appointment, the school’s director, Cathy Keane, invites us to sit in her small, glass-walled office overlooking the main lobby and two large classrooms.

This building is home to the David “Jake” McHugh Alternative Program for troubled middle schoolers. First conceived by Tsapatsaris and the school committee in the early ‘90s, the program got its start at the Riverside School in the fall of 1997, when it was named for the recently deceased McHugh. Riverside accepts only 7th and 8th graders and no special ed students. But Brady’s program, which opened in the spring of ‘98, accepts all kids, 5th through 8th grade.

“It’s a very structured program, not a lot of choice,” Keane, a handsome, dark- haired woman, says as about 20 kids, most of them boys, line up in the hallway outside her office. They’re marched single-file into a classroom by two men, one of whom—Hal McAllister, the school’s bespectacled social worker—joins us in Keane’s office. Each of the district’s nine middle schools may send up to five students to Brady at any one time. There’s room for 47 students, but Keane says she has 35 at the moment. Participants stay 30 to 90 days, depending on their progress. Each school day, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (concurrent with most working parents’ schedules) is dedicated to rigorous academic study.

“It’s a very structured program, not a lot of choice,” Cathy Keane says of Brady.
—Sarah Evans

For many kids, Brady is it; it’s either the McHugh program or expulsion. So structure is crucial. “A majority of the kids referred here are socially unacceptable in a lot of their behaviors,” says McAllister. “You really have to start from ground zero. Just in their basic mannerisms, a lot of kids blurt out, they’re very impulsive, and those are the conditions that have led them here.”

One of the school’s most useful tools is “the Brady dollar,” which isn’t actually a dollar but a checklist. Each student starts the day with a dollar and loses “money” for infractions ranging from failing to do homework to destroying school property. Those who consistently hold onto 85 cents or more are rewarded with adultlike responsibilities, such as tutoring fellow students. If the amount drops to just a few cents, however, “you’re not allowed to talk; you can’t go out to stretch-you know, you don’t have any privileges,” Keane says.

Jerry Mintz, executive director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, a nonprofit that specializes in educational alternatives and works with hundreds of schools, isn’t a fan of Brady-type programs. Alternative schools, he believes, should cater to individual tastes and talents. “The traditional system [of public schooling] doesn’t work for a lot of kids,” he explains. “And it’s not the kid’s fault.” He rejects a military-style approach and believes districts that seek short-term solutions to bigger problems are missing the point. He admits, however, that there aren’t enough alternative programs in public school districts, period, and that individual teachers, in small enough classes, can have a positive impact on kids.

Keane feels that’s exactly what’s happening at Brady. Each student, when he or she is ready to be mainstreamed, picks a staff member who serves as a sponsor, or guide, while putting together a “green folder,” which contains a homework contract, an anger-management plan, and a written assessment of how far the student has progressed. The folder serves as the basis of a student’s presentation at his or her old school, where teachers, principals, and parents make up the audience.

‘As soon as a kid acts out in my class, I can say: ‘Are you respecting me? Are you following through with your responsibility?’ And they know exactly what I’m talking about.’

John Sievens,
James F. Sullivan
Middle School

Tsapatsaris calls the programs at both Riverside and Brady “a complete success.” And, indeed, the district reports that of the 60 or so students who have been sent to Riverside—students who would have been expelled otherwise—only a handful failed to stay in school after being mainstreamed. Keane reports an 80 percent success rate at Brady.

Harry Kouloheras, the Butler Middle School principal, told me he’d like to see the program expanded so that schools could send five kids from each grade. As it stands, he said, the program has “the long-term effect that kids now know: ‘Hey, you fool around, you might not be here next week. You might be at [an alternative] school, and you’re gonna have to earn your way back.’ ”

Other measures—the BMCs, for example, and the presence in each school of a “resource,” or police, officer, someone who teaches classes and gets to know the kids—have helped reduce the number of discipline problems in Lowell’s middle schools. But, just as important, they’ve helped mitigate the fears that plague a school community after a senseless loss. Tsapatsaris, who now works as a consultant for the district, says: “The perceived problem at the middle schools is no longer a topic of concern.”

Earlier that October day, before McHugh and I visited Brady, I was sitting among a large crowd of 5th graders in the Sullivan School theater, awaiting the start of the Peace and Justice Day ceremony. Every October, a team of 8th graders welcomes the school’s newest students with an event honoring Jake McHugh. As the lights dimmed, a video montage consisting mostly of local news footage recalled the first such ceremony-the dedication of the garden, kids singing, teachers and local politicians watching as John Gonsalves delivered a speech.

As poignant and moving as the annual tribute is, Kevin McHugh is still seeking closure. After Jake died, the charge against the 14-year-old who’d kicked him was bumped up from assault to manslaughter. But in June of 1998, the state medical examiner’s office revealed that one of its coroners had failed to conduct a routine exam on a tissue sample from McHugh’s body. The test eventually revealed the presence of heart disease, which meant that Jake’s fatal seizure could not be linked solely to a kick in the head. While the McHugh family disputed this claim (and continues to do so)—saying that Jake had no record of a heart problem—the former Sullivan student was sentenced to two years in a juvenile prison facility.

Resting in peace: A fallen educator is remembered throughout the school year.
—Sarah Evans

Kevin McHugh isn’t sure how his brother’s story will end. But he does know the answer to this question: Would Jake have been assaulted four years ago had the district’s new discipline measures been in place prior to March 1997? He says no, that one or two of the boys probably would have been in alternative schools. And Tim Golden, his fellow school committee member, concurs. But other folks in Lowell say they can’t answer that question, and a few are convinced that what happened to Jake could happen to any educator anywhere.

Whether that’s true, the McHugh incident now serves as a teaching tool of sorts. Last October—after the 8th graders had sung songs, acted out lines from the school pledge, and promised the 5th graders they’d help them navigate the school year—the assembly, 300 or so strong, stepped outside and walked to the Peace Garden. There, someone had dug a shallow, horseshoe-shaped trench into which the 5th graders, one by one, dropped onion-shaped bulbs. Come spring, those bulbs will shoot stalks into the air and-joining hundreds of other flowers planted in the garden over the years-greet the world as pink daffodils.

“It’s a nice tradition to have,” Cathy Paquin, a 7th grade science teacher at Sullivan, said of the ceremony. “I think it’s nice for us not to forget that in this society-not particularly just this school-but in this society, violence is taking a big toll.”

There’s something else that shouldn’t be forgotten. Paula Hutton, the school’s principal, said of the tradition: “We want kids to learn that there is always another chapter; there’s always the rest of the story.”

Teacher Magazine’s coverage of middle schools is supported in part by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.


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Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
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Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

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