While a recent student assault at Milford Central Academy illustrates the potential for violence in Delaware’s public schools, authorities say those types of acts are a rarity.
Statistics reported by the state Department of Education show that 5,726 students, or 3.88%, statewide were involved in acts of violence in the academic year of 2020-21. Those acts are defined by a federal entity and range from terroristic threatening to assault.
In schools in Kent and Sussex counties, those incidents ranged from involving just below 1% of the student population to a little over 7%.
The biggest issues facing law enforcement who work in schools are students bringing guns on campus, rising gang activity in middle schools and possessing vaping devices containing marijuana.
When it comes to defining violence, however, school administrators and law enforcement utter a refrain similar to that of Indian River administrator of student services Preston Lewis.
“There have been no allegations of violent felony crimes within the 15 Indian River School District buildings housing nearly 11,000 students (this year),” he said.
In Milford, the serious nature of the incident Nov. 22 was an outlier in the district, said Milford police Sgt. Robert Masten, who has served as a school resource officer for approximately seven years there.
“We are fortunate at Milford that we rarely see violent acts, and when we do, actions are taken to prevent future issues,” he said.
“Those actions could be the use of a juvenile civil citation, criminal arrest, school discipline, mediation between the parties involved and steps taken to assist the students involved with decision-making if a future conflict arises.”
Overall, Milford superintendent Dr. Kevin Dickerson said, “We are fortunate for the outstanding student population we serve in our schools and their willingness to contribute to a positive school environment.
“Our overall disciplinary offenses have trended lower for the first part of (this) school year in Milford High School, and data remains relatively consistent with past data in our elementary schools. We have experienced a slight rise in overall disciplinary offenses with our middle-level students.”
He continued, “We have more counseling and support staff in our schools than ever to help assist our students work through conflicts in appropriate ways and support our students with their various mental health, trauma and other socioemotional needs in addition to their academics. School staff and administration, with the support of our families, have worked very hard to promote supportive, safe and positive school environments.”
Dr. Dickerson also said the few issues in recent years have been confined to the student population, and staff haven’t been the targets of the violence.
When physical altercations do occur in Indian River, Mr. Lewis said, staff members are likely to break them up within seconds. Inappropriate behavior may take many forms, and discipline is meted out by a school principal and/or vice principal.
While Cape Henlopen School District superintendent Bob Fulton said, “We are fortunate that violence has not been a common occurrence in our buildings,” he added that “we also recognize that continuing to have the appropriate support systems for our students is imperative. Our district has methods in place to address and prevent issues, including restorative practices, proactive circles, restorative circles, and we have also implemented the Leader in Me program at all of our elementary schools.”
Website details data on violence
In the Delaware Report Card — a site outlining educational data for state residents at reportcard.doe.k12.de.us — acts of violence occur “when a school contacts the police regarding specific crimes dictated by the federal Office of Civil Rights.” In 2019, 4.81% of students — 7,051 — were involved in violence, it states.
An “act of violence” may not involve an injury and could include an incident such as a fight between two students, according to the Delaware Department of Education. Terroristic threats, fighting and offensive touching are the largest examples of violent acts, according to DOE.
School district percentages for the number of students involved in acts of violence ranged from a low of just below 1% of the student body to 7.22% in 2020-21.
Delaware’s districts reported the following, according to the DOE report card: Capital (7.22%), Laurel (5.61%), Seaford (3.29%), Lake Forest (3.13%), Indian River (2.87%), Milford (2.6%), Smyrna (2.47%), Caesar Rodney (2.13%), Cape Henlopen (1.78%), Woodbridge (0.91%), Sussex Tech (0.91%) and Polytech (0.91%).
In the 2021-22 year so far, Capital had 20 students involved in incidents of violence. To compare, the numbers were as follows in other districts: Caesar Rodney (15), Milford (five), Lake Forest (14), Smyrna (five), Cape Henlopen (37), Laurel (22) and Indian River (17). The numbers for Seaford, Woodbridge, Sussex Tech and Polytech were not available.
Delaware State Police has the pulse of student behavior statewide, as 32 troopers work in 13 different school districts as school resource officers. There are 23 trooper SROs in New Castle County, six in Sussex and three in Kent.
DSP covers the Lake Forest and Caesar Rodney school districts, along with Polytech High School. Troopers do not staff Lake Forest Elementary and W.T. Chipman Middle School.
Sussex districts staffed by DSP include Woodbridge, Cape Henlopen (except Rehoboth Elementary), Indian River and Sussex Tech.
Several other schools and districts throughout the state also employ municipal officers as their SROs.
Student fights are almost daily occurrences in many high schools, DSP said. Also, youth gangs are beginning to emerge in some middle schools and “definitely” in New Castle County high schools.
And while physical altercations occur in many schools, the biggest rise in offenses is possession or consumption of illegal drugs (particularly marijuana), most involving vaping devices and THC.
Meanwhile, DSP pointed to Sussex County in particular as experiencing a rise in gun-involved threats of violence.
“So far this school year, we have had 17 threats,” said Sgt. Kristin Smith, youth aid supervisor for Troop 4 in Georgetown.
“If anyone breathes a word of shooting up the school, bringing a gun to school, we act swiftly. The SRO and youth aid detective will contact the parent/guardian, meet with them, go to the house and do a consent search (or search warrant) to ensure the student does not have a weapon or access to one.
“The student and their parents are educated on the seriousness of the threat and the ramifications.”
Acts can imply ‘underlying issues’
In 10 years as SRO at Dover High, Cpl. Demetrius Stevenson, a Dover police officer, said he’s discovered two firearms, three airsoft guns, approximately a dozen knives and roughly half a dozen dangerous instruments (like Mace).
While there’s typically a rush of violent acts as students return to the high school from summer break, Cpl. Stevenson said, “The start of this school year seemed to have more activity than other years due to students coming back to school from a 18-month pandemic, dealing with life traumas that may have occurred during the pandemic, as well as the lack of social interaction during that time.
“It appears many of those issues have since stabilized.”
Dover police have SROs in five schools and are joined by constables in others.
Generally speaking, according to Dover police spokesman Sgt. Mark Hoffman, many of the investigations into the incidents over the past couple years “uncovered underlying issues, such as trauma, unresolved conflicts/tensions due to not attending school during the pandemic, etc.”
The best strategies to lessen violence from students, Cpl. Stevenson said, is for “students to be part of the solution. Build rapport and relationships with your students, gain trust. Once you obtain the aforementioned, you’ll know the heartbeat and pulse of your school climate as soon as you walk through your school doors.”
While there’s no push to make arrests, at times they are inevitable, Sgt. Hoffman added.
“It is not the goal of the police department, the school resource officers or the schools to make arrests that could potentially affect a student’s future,” he said. “However, there are some offenses in which a criminal arrest needs to be made. Oftentimes, those arrests involve an act such as assault/fighting, drug or weapon-related offenses.
“When appropriate, the school and school resource officers will work together to address student misconduct.”
When it comes to bullying concerns, Sgt. Hoffman said, “School discipline and guidance typically handle bullying situations and investigate them. SROs will provide assistance as needed but only get involved when necessary.
“Generally speaking, the frequency of incidents involving social media/technology seems to be an increasing issue.”
Smyrna police have two SROs working within the district. One officer is full time at Smyrna High, while the other covers Smyrna Middle School and four other schools.
Smyrna police Lt. Brian Donner, who serves as the SROs’ immediate supervisor and was an SRO himself, said violence in Smyrna schools is rare.
“We typically have only a few weapons complaints a year,” he said. “The most prevalent offenses involve minor fights that don’t involve injuries, and these are most often handled by school administration as a code of conduct violation.”
The trend in violence remains stable, Lt. Donner said.
“The beginning of the school year saw a small uptick in fights,” he said. “We expected this as these kids are all still adjusting to the social strain of being left home from COVID-19. Many students haven’t seen each other in person for a year or more, and this can lead to new conflict or to old conflicts boiling over.”
The spark for violent issues, by and large, is that “youth are not well equipped generally to deal with conflict,” Lt. Donner said.
“Because of this, they often need adult intervention to help them work through conflict. Conflict with the absence of adult intervention is typically what leads to violence.”
SROs have plenty of eyes in the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and parking lots to help avert trouble before it escalates, Lt. Donner added.
“The students in the Smyrna School District do not tolerate violence as part of their culture,” he said. “Because of this, we are almost always made aware of issues before they become more serious.”
Cyberbullying incidents are seeing the highest increase in all levels of schools, said DSP Sgt. Daniel Salfas, Troop 2 SRO supervisor in New Castle County.
“Every aspect of social media accounts — Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, to name a few — can be used within any and all schools, and most students use those social media platforms to spread false accounts and target specific students,” he said.
“Many students know how to use, for the most part, untraceable IP addresses and stay anonymous due to YouTube videos that show specific ways how to hide yourself on social media.”
Sgt. Mark Gaglione, the youth aid supervisor for Troop 3 in Camden, said bullying incidents usually don’t require DSP intervention.
“We have seen some cases of bullying, but usually, these cases don’t rise to the level of police involvement,” he said. “The few that have (have) resulted in troopers taking action for harassment.”
A statewide bullying investigator that is assigned out of the Attorney General’s Office is contacted to assist in cases reported to police and schools. That individual typically contacts the families and works with them to reach a resolution.
There’s a new TikTok challenge monthly, and DSP noted one where students damaged bathroom items, such as soap dispensers and fire alarms, while recording. Criminal mischief incidents involving school property, along with physical assaults that are recorded, are among current student behavior concerns, according to authorities.
When an offense occurs in Milford, the Juvenile Civil Citation Program is the first option if a student in trouble is eligible.
“JCC is a program where a student can avoid criminal action and complete a series of requirements set forth by the program administrator,” Sgt. Masten said. “From my experience, this has been a great tool for SROs to address an issue, while helping the student in the long run.”
When discipline is warranted, Dr. Dickerson said, there’s a wide range of options, “from warnings with parent/guardian contact or counseling services to out-of-school suspensions, dependent on the nature of the offense. Our discipline deans, in collaboration with our school administration, determine consequences through our Code of Conduct.”
Violent confrontations are often spurred by verbal arguments or a physical altercation on occasion, Sgt. Masten said. Unfortunately, he said, bullying is sometimes a factor in conflicts involving students.
“The causes vary, but we do find when looking at any incident that social media may have played a part, or a third party who wants to see a conflict,” he said.
Also, he said, “Almost all conflicts are a result of an ongoing dispute between the parties involved and would not be described as random. Though, on occasion, there may be an incident in which it’s difficult to find a reason as to why it occurred.”
Police and staff can fend off potential violence by developing positive relationships with students, Sgt. Masten said.
“These relationships are a very good preventative,” he said. “We find in many cases, if a student has a conflict with another student, they will reach out for assistance before the problem escalates.
“When we can be proactive, it’s a benefit to everyone.”
The STOPit app “allows for an anonymous reporting platform for our students, and we have found it to be helpful,” Sgt. Masten said.
When an investigation is warranted, the sergeant added, Milford students tend to divulge valuable details, if available.
“We have a great student body at Milford, and we find the students are very helpful with our attempts to resolve an issue in most cases,” he said. “The students want a good school climate as much as anyone.”
Dr. Dickerson described the district’s relationship with the SROs as great and said they have “helped us prevent serious discipline offenses, as well as respectfully (handling) serious offenses when they occur. The greatest value of our SROs is that they are another impactful resource to support students and assist in maintaining a safe school environment.
“Our SROs have been outstanding with building positive relationships with our students and providing them with another caring adult supporting them. Their positive relationships with our staff and community are of great value, as well.”