Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park. File photo

Content warning: This story contains discussion of suicide, bullying and violence. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 800-273-8255 and the Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HELLO to 741741. Both services are free and confidential.

During its regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 9, the District 209 school board held a moment of silence for a 16-year-old Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) student who died by suicide earlier in the day.

In a YouTube video, District 209 Supt. James Henderson and Elizabeth Martinez, PMSA’s principal, said that administrators leveraged a range of social and emotional support for students in the building.

“We have a crisis team in place to provide counsel, resources and even a listening ear to anyone who needs support,” Martinez said in the video. She added that “counselors, social workers and mental health professionals are ready to assist” students.

The principal also said students at all three schools can call or text (844) 670-5838 to speak anonymously with a licensed mental health professional.

But some parents and district employees have voiced concerns about whether the district has the capacity to provide adequate support for grieving students as fewer staffers attempt to deal with increased fights and widespread complaints of bullying, among other safety concerns.

“Currently, PMSA has no social worker and no PMSA building-specific special education case manager,” said Connie Paprocki, a licensed school counselor who works at PMSA, during the Nov. 9 board meeting.

“There seems to be the belief that successfully testing into PMSA cancels the social emotional at times clinical and special education services students may need. This is simply not true,” she said.

Paprocki said the number of students entering PMSA who need Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans — both of which are targeted, intensive programs developed for students with particular learning and behavioral needs — “grows each school year,” before urging the district to invest in a social worker and a building-specific special education case manager for PMSA.

Paprocki’s concerns about understaffing have been raised before by other staffers in the district, including Nicole O’Connor, a counselor at West who has spoken about the issue at public meetings hosted by individual school board members earlier this month.

O’Connor said she has a case load of 300 students and has also heard workload complaints from first-year social workers. O’Connor said when she brought the issues to administrators, she was disciplined.

Tameka Howard told board members on Nov. 9 that her daughter, who attends Proviso East, has been a target of constant bullying this school year. Howard said her daughter has been slammed by security guards multiple times and once had to be taken to the hospital.

“This school is out of control,” she said. “It’s so out of control. There are fights every day … [Students] can’t learn.”

Denise Alvarez, the parent of two students who attend Proviso West, said during a phone interview on Nov. 13 that her sons have only been in the district for a year, but have had two different principals and multiple social workers.

“Social workers don’t call you back — their voicemails are full,” Alvarez said, before addressing the turnover rate among support staffers.

“They have such a high turnover rate, that you really can’t ever complete anything with anyone,” Alvarez said.

Jaleel Anthony, a 2019 graduate of West, said he remembers a roughly six-month span between late 2018 and early 2019, when three 15-year-old Proviso East students died by suicide. The students were part of a suicide cluster in Maywood — about five suicides happened in the village within 12 months.

“In the last two years, we’ve had multiple students murdered, students who passed by overdose. The frightening thing I’ve heard is multiple students feeling bullied,” Anthony said. “That’s a big issue … I’ve been asking since I was a freshman, ‘Can we get more security?’”

Anthony then gestured to police officers who were in the back of the Proviso East auditorium, where the Nov. 9 board meeting was held.

“I see [Cook County Sheriff ’s] officers in the back,” he said, before saying that he thinks that the district’s approach to student safety and social/emotional wellbeing is “not proactive, it’s reactive.”

The lack of security guards at East and West has been a source of widespread concern among parents, students and district employees.

A former dean at West who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that deans no longer exist at West and that the school has lost about half of its security guards — going from roughly two dozen last year to around a dozen this year.

It’s mind boggling to me … Nobody calls back. It’s a shame and I hate that my kids go there.

Denise Alvarez, parent of two Proviso West High School students

The complaints about understaffed schools in the district have been widespread among employees since Supt. Henderson implemented a major district-wide reorganization in February.

In board meetings since then, Henderson has explained that the changes were made in order to make district operations more efficient and more in line with pandemic realities. For instance, on Nov. 9, amid complaints about the lack of IT staffers in school buildings, Henderson said the goal is to make sure that IT operations can be delivered remotely.

The district has also made some steps to shore up security issues within the schools. On Nov. 9, the board voted 6-1 to bring back the school/community liaison officer program to East. A liaison officer from the Maywood Police Department had previously been a fixture in the school before the position was removed a few years back. West never got rid of its school liaison officer, who comes from the Hillside Police Department.

Board member Claudia Medina, who voted against the measure, said the presence of a police officer in the school will only add to an environment of fear.

“There is a definite fear within the Latino community of the officers,” she said. “The students’ fear is real, the parents’ fear is real and I think that there needs to be other options.”

Other measures the district has implemented to address safety issues in the high schools include a parent advisory group and a Parents on Patrol initiative, which will allow parents to patrol the hallways at East and West before, during and after the school day. In another YouTube video uploaded on Nov. 12, Supt. Henderson said he’s gotten more than 50 parents to volunteer for the initiative, but is looking for more participation.

During the Nov. 9 meeting, Alexander pushed back against what he said is the wrong narrative about the district. “You’re saying our kids are out of control,” he said, addressing parents, teachers and community members who had voiced their complaints earlier in the meeting. “Well, if that’s the case, instead of talking to this board, go talk to the parent.”

Alexander said that “everything’s flowing” in the district, referencing what he said has been improved communications illustrated by a weekly informational newsletter that the superintendent sends out each Friday.

To some parents in the district, however, the reality is much different. Alvarez said, although she did receive a communication informing her about the suicide of the PMSA student, she has not gotten regular information about the routine fights and other major incidents that have happened at West — only cell phone videos of fights that her children show her.

Alvarez said she’s had a hard time getting in touch with district and building administrators, along with social workers. She said her sons have also been verbally abused by some teachers. The mother of two lamented that she doesn’t quite know where to turn.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” she said. “I’ve called several times about these behavioral things [and have only gotten] voicemails that were full. Nobody calls back. It’s a shame and I hate that my kids go there.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.