FARGO — A desperate cry for help from a Fargo teacher highlights in harsh details the conditions at one middle school and the need for change in teacher-student relationships.
An email that a Carl Ben Eielson Middle School teacher sent to district administrators says students and staff are not in a safe learning environment.
“On a daily basis we have students running the halls, swearing at teachers in defiance, and causing fights,” sixth-grade teacher Lisa Kieselbach wrote in her April 22 email, which The Forum obtained through a public records request.
Kieselbach invited district administrators, who report that they’re aware of the situation and are tracking behavior accordingly, to spend a day in the school to observe. She described dire conditions in restrooms and hallways.
“I’d suggest visiting the boys bathroom on the first floor. You might find graffiti on the walls, written in human feces,” wrote Kieselbach, who teaches social studies and language arts. “I can suggest observing in the hangar. You will see a steady flow of students skipping class, running by the resource officer, or telling an adult to F*** off."
“Enough is enough. We are burnt out. We are discouraged. We are giving up. Good teachers are out of options,” Kieselbach wrote. “In addition, some teachers feel like our administrators may retaliate for speaking up, and I want to be sure people feel comfortable to speak the truth about what is happening here."
During this year's contract negotiations, the district’s teachers union is asking that administration not punish teachers who speak out about safety and behavior concerns, said union president Jennifer Mastrud.
“We are asking for protection. We know that is a fear for many of our teachers,” Mastrud said.
Although the email came from a Carl Ben Eielson teacher, the district's two other middle schools have their share of misbehaving students. Numbers of student behavior incidents were available for this school year and last. Statistics for prior years were not readily accessible, the district said.
For instance, during the 2019-2020 school year, Ben Franklin Middle School had the most behavior incidents with 4,532, Carl Ben Eielson had 3,628 incidents, and Discovery Middle School saw a total of 908 incidents.
“There are many factors that can contribute to negative student behavior,” said AnnMarie Campbell, a district spokeswoman. “We do know that we are seeing a higher number of students starting school with more adverse childhood experiences that may result in additional needs to provide social, emotional and wrap-around services to students and families.”
Teachers and administrators work directly with students on behaviors every day, Campbell said. The district’s plan for Carl Ben Eielson is the same as other schools, which includes reviewing data and working with school leaders to provide needed resources, she said.
“Normal is a hard standard, as volume and frequency vary from building to building and from year to year,” Campbell said.
'It breaks my heart'
During this school year, with the fall semester split between remote and in-person classes, Carl Ben Eielson saw the most incidents of student misbehavior among middle schools, with a total of 1,989. Ben Franklin had a total of 1,603, and Discovery had 597.
At Carl Ben Eielson, staff reported 216 cases of major defiance, 101 fights, 136 cases of inappropriate language, 23 instances of bullying, three drug cases and three weapons brought to school.
At Ben Franklin, staff dealt with 66 cases of major defiance, 54 fights, 33 cases of inappropriate language, 11 cases of bullying, eight drug cases and four weapon cases.
At Discovery, staff reported 58 cases of major defiance, 17 fights, 31 cases of inappropriate language, eight cases of bullying and no cases of drugs or weapons.
One of the weapon cases occurred May 7 when a Carl Ben Eielson student reportedly brought a BB gun to school. The student was suspended and could face further discipline.
The BB gun episode raised the concern of south Fargo resident Eric Eisenlohr, the husband of a paraeducator at Carl Ben Eielson, who publicly criticized the district’s response during a school board meeting on May 11.
“I’m not here because she asked me to be here, I’m here because I am concerned about the working and learning environment at Carl Ben. Over the years there have been countless times where my wife has told me that she, along with other staff, have had to break up fights,” Eisenlohr said.
“Students have been caught vaping and kissing in the bathrooms, and it breaks my heart when she comes home from school and she’s in tears because of the children that are out of control. And there seems to never be anything done about it,” Eisenlohr said.
Kieselbach said in her email that she sees frustration and fear in her students’ eyes. When she calls for an office escort, nobody arrives. The in-school suspension room is “overflowing,” she wrote.
“We need help. Not next year. We can’t wait that long. Our students deserve the best education right now,” Kieselbach wrote.
In a later interview, Kieselbach told The Forum she met with Associate Superintendent Bob Grosz to discuss her concerns, and she hopes to meet with Carl Ben Eielson’s new principal, Brad Franklin, soon.
“We have a culture that is falling apart, and our school systems are a part of that," Kieselbach said.
In 17 years of teaching, five years at Carl Ben Eielson, Kieselbach has never experienced daily disruptions from students like she has seen since after students returned to in-person learning in January.
“It was immediate chaos,” she said. “Our kids were living in a pandemic, and at home they had all these freedoms and many of them weren’t doing work on their off days and all of the sudden we’re asking them to come to school and a structured setting. Our downfall was that we didn’t prepare them to come back together."
At 5-foot-2, Kieselbach said she is tough, runs a tight ship and has low tolerance for misbehavior, but is considering a move as the school year is set to wrap up on Thursday, June 3. She doesn’t dare go to the third floor where the students are taller than her, she said.
Some students are experiencing trauma in the home and bringing it to class, which is nothing new. “What is new is to begin saying students with trauma shouldn’t be held accountable for their behavior,” she said.
“There is no way to make Carl Ben Eielson look rosy, but I love this place. This is a good school," Kieselbach said. "My intention by sending that email is to say we need help. This is such a big issue, and we all have a role."