Halfway through lunch period at De Vargas Middle School on Feb. 1, an announcement came over the
intercom directing all eighth-grade teachers to report immediately to the cafeteria.
One student was "screaming 'f— you,' at the top of his lungs" when De Vargas teacher Pat Dixon, who spoke to SFR on condition her real name not be used, arrived at the cafeteria, and several Santa Fe Police officers were on scene. Principal Diane Garcia-Piro and Assistant Principal Anthony Salcedo, who were both off campus at the time of the incident, showed up, and Garcia-Piro "told the kids something to the effect like they have to make better choices and that she respects them," Dixon says. "And at that point, several students yelled back at her that in fact [she] doesn't respect them, and they got hauled off into some other area."
According to Santa Fe Police Department Capt. Aric Wheeler and police reports, officers responded to a fight at De Vargas between two groups of students who had a disagreement; five kids were referred to Juvenile Probation and Parole for possible charges. The grandmother of a De Vargas student said in an anonymous voicemail to Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education Member Steve Carrillo that the fight was a "mini-riot" during which a teacher and security guard were punched and kids were threatened with a knife.
"I have never in my life been so appalled and disgusted and frightened," the grandmother said.
After the fight, a kid in Dixon's class gave her a note saying he was scared of being targeted next and wanted to leave campus.
The blowup at De Vargas didn't happen out of the blue. As SFR previously reported, teachers say fights have occurred more frequently there since former Vice Principal Jonathan Brannon was transferred to another school [news, Jan. 18: "Dangerous Mind"]. Last week, some De Vargas students started a petition to bring Brannon back, Dixon says. But after the fight, the school lost another faculty member who had earned students' respect. De Vargas teacher José Duran was put on leave after the incident, even though Wheeler tells SFR that Duran was neither charged nor accused of any wrongdoing and that he broke up the fight before it escalated.
Garcia-Piro would not comment on why Duran was put on leave. But he's not alone: Ortiz Middle School teacher Darryl Waller—who, according to his letter of resignation, was put on administrative leave after defending himself from a student's "physical and verbal assault"—is resigning effective Feb. 29 [SFReporter.com, Feb. 3: "SFPS Teacher Resigns, Citing Unsavory Practices"].
"A dangerous situation is developing in Santa Fe Public Schools," Waller wrote in his resignation letter.
SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez says it's not unusual for staff to be put on leave following a fight in order to protect both the students and faculty.
"When there's been an altercation or physical contact with a student, we sometimes place employees on leave while we investigate," Gutierrez says. "If parents hear this teacher grabbed this kid and did X, Y and Z, there may be truth in that; there may not be truth in that; but we need the opportunity to investigate," Gutierrez says.
Duran declined to comment for this story. BoE Vice President Glenn Wikle, however, didn't mince words when commenting on SFPS' decision to put Duran on leave.
"I can't understand why teachers would be off the job as a result of assaults instigated by students," Wikle writes SFR in an email. "It's not acceptable to allow violence to prevail."
Wikle also added a discussion item on middle school discipline to the agenda for the Feb. 7 board meeting.
After the incident, De Vargas teacher Mike Molinari circulated a letter among school staff, alleging that neither Duran nor any other teacher was interviewed before he was put on leave—only the students' side of the story was considered.
"This is disconcerting because…It appears that she trusts any student over any teacher, no matter who the student is and what their rap sheet is," Molinari's letter reads.
After SFR reported on Brannon's removal from De Vargas, Carrillo met with some of the school's teachers, who told him that De Vargas leadership "shifts the responsibility [for school security] onto the teachers, when this is clearly an administrative responsibility," Carrillo says.
Dixon says that, after the Feb. 1 fight, Garcia-Piro castigated De Vargas teachers in a meeting and blamed them for the incident.
"She basically said the reason the kids started this brawl was because of the letter [signed by De Vargas teachers Jan. 6 protesting Brannon's removal] and the newspaper article, that we were talking about the
newspaper article in our classes and stirring up their adolescent mentality to start this fight," Dixon says.
In Dixon's view, the real reason for the fight stems from tensions between Mexican nationals and native New Mexican Hispanic students, which have been simmering at the school since last year. Last week, Dixon says, things got out of control after the latter group wrote notes using anti-Mexican racial slurs.
Garcia-Piro vehemently denies blaming the Feb. 1 incident on the teachers.
"There is no way teachers could have been blamed for the incident in the lunchroom," Garcia-Piro says. "Teachers were not to blame for the incident in the lunchroom. That is not what I said."
Garcia-Piro would not comment on how she did explain the fight, saying she can't because "there's always potential for litigation in situations that are pretty involved like this."
Although the Jan. 6 letter—signed by seven De Vargas teachers—states that students are "clearly running the school," and SFPS acknowledges there has been no staff member to supervise the in-school suspension room since December, Gutierrez and Garcia-Piro say they believe the school is a safe environment for students and teachers. Garcia-Piro says De Vargas follows the SFPS code of conduct, with consequences for misbehavior ranging from parental notification to suspension. But Dixon says the vacancy in the in-school suspension room leaves teachers without options; with nowhere else to send kids who are acting out, the teachers have to simultaneously manage the disciplinary issues and continue to teach the class. Although Gutierrez says hiring someone for that position is a priority, Garcia-Piro says the vacancy shouldn't prevent teachers from controlling their students.
"Most students shouldn't be sent out of classrooms when there's good classroom management," Garcia-Piro says. She acknowledges that teachers are responsible for classroom management—but still claims that she's not blaming teachers for student discipline problems.
Carrillo notes that parents to whom he has spoken have unanimously praised De Vargas teachers' dedication and abilities. Dixon says Duran was one of the school's most popular teachers and was proactive in rewarding students for positive behavior. The letter that circulated after Duran was put on leave urges De Vargas staff to write letters supporting him, emphasizing "how valuable he has been to our staff over the years."
Gutierrez has a different solution to the problem: creating a new administrative position. A dean of students at De Vargas would "help with student discipline, with working with parents and engaging parents in finding the support they need in the community," Gutierrez says. She will not consider bringing Brannon back.
"Why they got rid of [Brannon] I will never know, but everything is just blowing up at that school," the De Vargas grandmother said in her voicemail. "There is no leadership; there is no control; I can't ever get a straight answer from Miss Garcia…That principal has got no control over those kids. Please, Mr. Carrillo, go over there; find out what is going on; get rid of the problem."
Carrillo says he will heed the call.
"I'm going to take action," Carrillo says. "I'm going to do what's necessary to save this school."