TUSD DISCIPLINE CRISIS: New TEA president says ‘nothing’s been fixed’ and is working to hold district accountable

Published: Jun. 12, 2023 at 6:50 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Discipline issues in Tucson Unified School District are set to be discussed at a Governing Board meeting on Tuesday, June 13.

And 13 News Investigate has learned union teachers plan to show up in force.

New Tucson Education Association President Jim Byrne said he is trying to boost membership as the union works to hold the district accountable.

The district is once again reworking its Code of Conduct.

13 News investigator Valerie Cavazos launched an investigation back in 2016 that revealed serious breakdowns in the system.

The district first denied the severity, but in 2019 the board adopted a new Code of Conduct.

Now the district said it’s not working -- it no longer addresses behaviors that changed during the pandemic.

And Byrne said he’s working to ensure the revision will do a better job in fixing the problems plaguing schools.

Fights escalated when students returned from remote learning during the pandemic.

Large-scale brawls last school year caught many in the district off guard, including Byrne.

Byrne teaches social studies at Cholla High and said he knew something had to change, so last summer he and other teachers started to examine long-standing issues at schools.

“We started doing work, trying to listen to staff and figure out what burning issues might be there,” he said.

13 News launched an investigation in late 2021 that revealed ongoing and escalating behavior issues at some middle and high schools.

Educators reported students being more violent and aggressive.

By the end of the school year in 2021, some students and teachers appeared before the board.

“How are we supposed to remain protected at our schools if adults aren’t even partially prepared for what could happen?” one student asked.

Another student said the board should “address the problem at the root, not just respond to violent actions as they arise.”

A teacher told the board “It has been made abundantly clear to me that my students feel unsafe and I think serious changes are needed as soon as possible.”

But it’s taken time, the district formed committees, conducted surveys, and held forums to figure out the problems and come up with solutions.

Meantime, Byrne said, it was more of the same the entire school year with a few more twists.

“I don’t think people were as prepared for this coming year, where we saw a lot of interesting behaviors,” Byrne said.

Behaviors, he and others thought, were just kids being off-kilter for a day.

But more and more teachers reported students becoming more disrespectful and defiant.

“You know, our students will just sort of get that out of their system and everybody will sort of course correct,” Byrne said.

But those one-off days turned into weeks and months.

In one high school this year, Byrne said there was inappropriate disrespectful language, including incidents of students putting hands on staff.

When asked why it happened, Byrne pointed at the lack of punishment.

“I think there’s not enough at the start -- an understanding that if the behavior continues, here’s the set of consequences that are gonna come your way,” Byrne said.

Byrne wasn’t as sure when asked what it happened.

“I don’t quite know,” he said. “I know they (the district) made an effort trying restorative practices and that just frankly -- it did not get rolled out correctly.”

TUSD told 13 News in 2021 some administrators were not recording as many lower-level incidents.

Byrne said those lower-level violations can often lead to higher-level ones when there’s minimal intervention.

“A number of us within were like nothing’s been fixed,” he said.

13 News requested an on-camera interview with TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo, but he sent a statement instead saying in part “we are excited about the recommended revisions to the district’s Code of Conduct. Our recommendations seek to strike a balance between ensuring that our teachers have the safety, respect and authority needed to make learning the primary focus of time in the classroom -- and our goal of addressing problematic student behaviors in a way that teaches better decision-making.”

Now Byrne is leading the way in devising a plan to hold the district more accountable, but he says the union needs a louder voice.

In order to tackle the new problems, he believes he needs a bigger base with new people.

“That has the energy capacity, envision and passion to take on these new issues,” said Byrne.

Trujillo’s Full Statement