How a school that was once called ‘exemplary’ crumbled into one of the most troubled in America

Parents are opting to homeschool their kids or are moving to other districts rather than let their children face the violence plaguing the campus.

Brockton High School was profiled in “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” a 2009 study which examined how teachers banded together in their free time to reshape the curriculum and turn things around at the school 25 miles south of Boston.

Over about a decade, they developed a system where every educator — including gym teachers, art teachers and guidance counselors — worked to incorporate reading, writing, speaking skills and reasoning into their classes and sessions.

By the end of the process, Brockton went from a school where the unofficial motto was “Students have a right to fail if they want” to one of the highest-performing public schools in the country, according to a 2010 New York Times profile.

The video player is currently playing an ad.“We used to have a timeframe where people were traveling from across the world to come and observe how we manage a large school as well as we do, and produce the educational results that we do,” Cliff Canavan, a Brockton math teacher of 22 years, told The Post. “Things have changed.”

Kalani Washington’s mother, Kyanna (right), chose to homeschool her daughter instead of sending her to Brockton High School.

The school’s superintendent said the pandemic hit Brockton families hard, but blamed a Massachusetts law that prevents administrators from suspending students from class for the breakdown in discipline.

The situation at Brockton High, which has a student body of 3,600, was already deteriorating four years ago when Kyanna Washington’s daughter Kalani was preparing to go there.

So instead of sending her into the fray, she pulled her daughter out of the public school system and has been educating her herself.

“I wouldn’t let my daughter go there,” Kyanna said. “I seen two or three videos. You couldn’t tell who was fighting who. And I told my daughter, ‘You’re not going to this school.’”

“She knows kids that go there. She has her best friend goes there. And the child is scared. She’s just hoping to get through school every day,” she added.

The Washingtons are one of many such families. Brockton has lost nearly 500 students since 2020, a decline in enrollment of about 12%, according to Massachusetts Department of Education data.

Enrollment at public schools across the commonwealth has dropped a much smaller 3.5%.

The number of black students at the school is down 15%, while the white student population is down nearly one-third. The number of Hispanic students, meanwhile, is up 20%.

Canavan, whose arm was broken while breaking up a violent fight between two students, has seen that attrition playing out in real time.

A Brockton High School employee was hurt trying to stop a fight between two students.WWLP
A 2009 Harvard study examined Brockton High as a public education success story.Harvard

“I’ve been coaching cross-country girls for 20 years, and the cross-country team usually has some of the highest academic performing students. For the last three seasons in a row, I’ve lost half of my varsity athletes to other districts because the parents move the kids.”

Kalani, now 18, is right in step with her mother’s decision to keep her home and out of Brockton High.

“Kids have always been really hostile. That would be the correct word — very hostile,” she said.

“It’s hard being in school and wanting to learn and see your friends, when there’s so much drama, so much violence and negativity, even outside of the violence, things like the drugs.”

Even though she isn’t at Brockton High School, Kalani called it “nerve-wracking, very anxiety-inducing” to hear her friends who go there talk about what they see in the halls.

“Premeditated fights,” plotted over social media by beefing students, have resulted in organized “fight clubs” where students brawl on and off campus, she said.

Last year, a student was stabbed outside the school, Kalani said. And friends told her blood left over from fights sometimes remains dried on hallway floors for weeks.

“They’re worried about their safety, people bringing weapons into school,” she said.

Students at Brockton High School have been getting into frequent fights and filming them to post on social media.boston25news

Brockton Schools Superintendent Mike Thomas, who has been on leave this school year following a medical issue, believes the current situation was brought on by a conflation of factors exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and its effect on Brockton’s lower-income families.

“Brockton was hit hard by the pandemic. A lot of the students’ parents lost their jobs, and it affected the kids a lot,” he told The Post. “I think a huge part of it is you got students that are dealing with a lot of mental health issues, and it causes a lot of the misbehavior.”

About 70% come from low-income families.

“As we came back to in-person across the country, I don’t think anybody realized the toll that pandemic took, especially on kids,” he said.

“I think that’s a direct correlation to what’s happening now.”

But Thomas, who was present throughout the turnaround process featured in the 2009 study, believes the genesis of the current behavior issues began before the pandemic with the passage of Massachusetts’ Chapter 222 student disciplinary law in 2012.

Brockton High School Superintendent Mike Thomas has been on leave throughout this school year.

The law was intended to make suspension a last resort for student punishments — but teachers have complained it left them helpless to enforce discipline and that no additional funding was provided to help teachers deal with troublemaking students.

“The state put this law in, but it never came with any funding,” Thomas said.

He added that Chapter 222 only made sense if it came with money for alternative academic programs for troublemaking students “so you get to the root of why they’re behaving like they’re behaving.”

“I don’t think throwing kids out of school solves the problem, but there’s got to be consequences,” Thomas said.

“People have to be held accountable and there’s got to be programs … but again, those things cost money.”

Brockton’s discipline problem gained national attention this year when the Brockton School Committee asked Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey to send in the National Guard to ramp up security and supplement staff in February.

Healy’s office denied the request and instead ordered a state-funded “safety audit” to study the problems at the school.

Parents, students and community members have reported that fights in the school have become rampant, while stampedes of students rushing to film the fracas and post it on social media have resulted in injuries as people are swept up and trampled in the fray.

Brockton teacher and former coach Cliff Canavan. His arm was broken stopping a violent fight last school year.Boston Globe via Getty Images
Parents and community members outside Brockton High after the school committee asked for the National Guard’s help.Boston Globe via Getty Images

Illicit drug use among students has also been reported, as has sex in empty stairwells and classrooms, and off-campus brawls to settle schoolyard scores.

“The challenges Brockton High School is facing are nuanced and complex, and the school is moving day by day toward improving its culture,” Brockton public schools said in a statement. “An essential part of meeting our goals — which have no true ‘finish line’ but rather are an ongoing and everlasting effort — is having stable leadership.”

Despite the problems facing Brockton, Thomas, Canavan and others repeatedly praised the efforts of the great majority of their students and the dedication of the school’s staff.