School Climate & Safety

Seeds of Change

By Rich Shea — March 07, 2001 21 min read
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What happened to guidance counselor Jake McHugh that day in Lowell, Mass., may have cost him his life. But it also helped the city mend its middle schools.

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 distinctive 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.”

Before he died, David McHugh worked at Sullivan, which is here in Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston. As a “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 at Sullivan, something that forced district officials to tackle a discipline problem that many Lowell residents felt had reached a boiling point: McHugh—a husband and the father of 2-year-old Brendan—was beaten while attempting to break up a schoolyard scuffle.

“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 [Lowell school] committee more aware of what they wanted to do.”

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 member of the city’s school committee and David’s older brother. Kevin announced his candidacy for the committee in February 1997, a month before his brother was kicked and badly bruised. But even before the incident, Kevin had decided to make discipline his No. 1 campaign issue. “The Lowell schools were not in disarray, but there were some major discipline problems happening,” he explains.

Tsapatsaris, who served as the superintendent from 1991 until June 2000, insists that prior to the assault, many of those problems were being dealt with. “I’ve always maintained—and I do to this day—that the kids have always been safe,” Tsapatsaris says. But even he admits that each school had “a group of troubled kids” that parents and staff members were looking to send elsewhere. And others have suggested that 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 that 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 as Sullivan’s principal 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.”

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, Kevin McHugh recounted 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 involving four boys. So Jake sprinted off the bus and up the incline, which was slick with rainwater.

While trying to pull the kids apart, he slipped and fell to one knee, yet continued to hold on to two of the boys, both 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.” Then Jake told Kevin: “And the next thing you know, I was getting kicked.”

‘If [teachers] were focusing all their energies on external discipline, perhaps they were working very hard, but at the wrong thing.’

Paula Hutton,
James F. Sullivan
Middle School

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, Kevin said, “remembered getting kicked multiple times” and by “more than one person. 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 said later that Jake suffered a handful of seizures after the incident, the last one—the one that killed him—a grand mal seizure in his home on Aug. 12, 1997. Only 34 at the time, Jake left behind a wife, Ellen (who declined to comment for this article), and his 2-year-old son.

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 English-as-a-second-language 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.

But what most distinguishes the post- from the pre-McHugh-incident Sullivan is the schoolwide discipline program—evident, in part, in the administrative-office area. Assistant Principal John Gonsalves’ and Principal 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 other middle schools across the 16,300-student district, are gone.

Each school’s administration decides how a center is structured, according to Tsapatsaris, the former superintendent. But the basic idea is this: Install a behavior-modification specialist in a classroom, then have that person serve as a counselor to troubled kids. The centers, Tsapatsaris says, are not supposed to be dumping grounds where any student 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 students 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 Lowell school committee member who, like the McHughs, grew up in Lowell, heard the same from Jake. He believes, however, that the Behavior Modification Center, when properly structured, is effective. A full-time police officer, Golden says: “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.”

‘I saw a lot of physical things that made me wonder what had gone on here.’

Paula Hutton,
recalling her first days working at the school.

Hutton disagrees. A year after arriving at Sullivan, she eliminated the BMC and split counseling duties between her office and that of the school’s social worker, Bob Thompson, who supervises no more than a few students at a time. Otherwise, Thompson 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 one 8th grade boy, for instance. He’s sitting in the in-school-suspension room on a Tuesday morning in October, 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. He seems sweet enough; but Hutton says he has a terrible temper and was shuffled between schools before ending up here. The principal handles the boy gently, however, and queries him about his past. She first asks him if he’s always been a special education 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,” he 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 3½ 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.”

Several veteran teachers 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. However, a few parents and Lowell educators said they felt she was not equipped to handle the school.

Donna Renaud, who has a son at Sullivan and whose daughter, Kimberly, was a student there before and after the incident, says that before 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.’ ”

‘There was no trust at all, no faith in adults, or each other.’

John Gonsalves,
Assistant Principal,
recalling what the school was like after McHugh’s death.

Even more problematic, as far as Hutton was concerned, was the “body language” displayed by the students that first day of school, just two weeks after Jake McHugh died. Hardly anyone smiled, and most of the students avoided making eye contact with one another or the teachers and administrators. It was sad, Hutton recalls, because feelings of trust were almost nonexistent."Oh, yeah,” Gonsalves concurs. “There was no trust at all, no faith in adults, or each other.”

Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., 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 says.

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 administrators 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 students 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 the first month of the school year 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 formal apology to a teacher or a whole classroom, to suspension for any number of days. Told about this program, Janet Patti, an associate professor at the Hunter College School of Education in New York City, says: “That’s fabulous.”

Patti says all students 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.

Aside from training teachers for the Respect and Responsibility program, Hutton allows them to run their own grade-level teams and a mentor program, which is supervised by senior teachers. Many staff members have left Sullivan since her arrival, and some who are still there complain about the extra paperwork and hours, but the program has paid off in many ways. Several parents, for example, say they are happy with the school environment, and 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 trip by the 8th graders to New York City.

Although no specific figures were available on student discipline referrals for the Lowell district, teachers interviewed for this story at Sullivan and other schools are convinced student behavior has improved. John Sievens, a physical education teacher, credits the Respect and Responsibility program at his school for that improvement. “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.”

It’s Oct. 18, about 2:30 p.m., and Kevin McHugh is driving through Lowell, which in many ways looks as 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 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.

‘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,
Brother of David McHugh

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, business leaders, and activists formulated a plan to turn Lowell into a city-size museum showcasing industrial America. Eventually, the Lowell National Historical Park was established, and it, along with a technology boom initiated by the Wang computer company, revived the city.

And that revival 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,’ ” he explains. “We keep saying, ‘What can we do to make this city better?’ ”

One institution he feels models that attitude is the Brady School, home of the David “Jake” McHugh Alternative Program for troubled middle schoolers.

McHugh pulls into its parking lot and heads into the sturdy, century-old building fitted with hardwood floors, banisters, and ornate heating grates. Although he doesn’t have an appointment, the school’s director, Cathy Keane, welcomes him to sit in her small, glass-walled office overlooking the main lobby and two large classrooms.

First conceived by Superintendent Tsapatsaris and the school committee in the early ‘90s, the program got its start at Riverside Middle School in the fall of 1997, when it was named for the recently deceased Jake McHugh. Riverside accepts only 7th and 8th graders and no special education students. But Brady’s program, which opened in the spring of 1998, accepts all kids in 5th through 8th grade.

“It’s a very structured program, not a lot of choice,” Keane, a dark-haired woman, says as about 20 students, 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—then joins Kevin McHugh 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 runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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.”

‘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,
Physical Education

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 on to 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, the executive director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, a nonprofit in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., that specializes in educational alternatives, 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 says. “And it’s not the kid’s fault.” He rejects highly structured approaches and believes districts that seek short-term solutions to bigger problems are missing the point. He admits, though, 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 students.

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.

Tsapatsaris likes to tout the programs at both Riverside and Brady as “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 since the fall of 1997. Over the same period, Keane reports an 80 percent success rate at Brady, which means eight of every 10 students who left the alternative program managed to stay in their regular schools.

Before McHugh visited the Brady School that October day, a crowd of 5th graders had gathered 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 Assistant Principal 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 had 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 Jake’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 that claim (and continues to do so)—saying that Jake had no record of a heart problem—the former Sullivan student was sentenced to just two years in a juvenile prison facility.

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. 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.

‘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.’

Sullivan School pledge,
written by a staff member shortly after McHugh’s death.

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, says Principal Hutton: “We want kids to learn that there is always another chapter; there’s always the rest of the story.”

Education Week‘scoverage of middle schools is supported in part by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Seeds of Change


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