Violent incidents, including a schoolwide fight at an alternative school that ended in 10 arrests and a cop in the hospital, sparked passionate discussion at Thursday’s East Baton Rouge Parish School Board meeting, including a small protest held just as the meeting was starting.

“We can’t do what we need to do because the classes are being disrupted at every turn,” said Valencea Johnson, president of the local chapter of the Association of Educators, one of two teacher unions in the parish.

In addition to a few union members, members of Step Up Louisiana, a grassroots, social justice-oriented nonprofit, joined in as a show of solidarity with the union.

Maria Harmon, co-founder of Step Up Louisiana, traced recent problems, including the March 8 brawl at EBR Readiness Superintendent’s Academy, to the failure of the school system to make good use of its social workers and mental health professionals to help kids before they are sent to that disciplinary school.

At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, school system leaders offered assurances that they are taking the latest events seriously and working on solutions.

“Make no mistake about it, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and our School Board is going to move steadfastly in ensuring that our schools are always safe and productive places for our students to learn and our employees to work,” said Board President Dadrius Lanus.

Thursday’s agenda included proposals for a new Violence-Free Workplace policy, which are common at Louisiana colleges and meant to head off possible violence perpetrated by employees. It was approved unanimously. Also on the agenda were minor revisions to policies about how members of the public conduct themselves on school property and the use of cellphones by students at school. Those two policies were postponed until a future meeting to be determined.

“Some will say the change in policies (being considered) tonight is a Band-Aid,” Lanus said. “I will say it’s a step in the right direction and one that shows we are not going to stand for violence happening inside of our schools whether that pertains to our students, our parents or even law enforcement.”

Superintendent Sito Narcisse was out of town Thursday, attending an education conference sponsored by The Council of Great City Schools. Narcisse, however, left behind a video apologizing for his absence and addressing the issue of the day.

“We will not condone physical violence or even threats to our staff,” Narcisse said.

Narcisse noted that the incidents at schools “almost always manifests themselves outside or our walls in some form.” Given the far-reaching nature of the problem, the superintendent said he has been striking up partnerships with an array of local institutions to deal with various aspects of the problem, including the offices of Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and District Attorney Hillar Moore as well as anti-truancy groups in Baton Rouge.

“It will undoubtedly take a collective effort to address this issue with continuity and vigor,” he said.

Narcisse said he aims to develop a comprehensive plan that will address problems “at every level, from the living room to the classroom.”

The student misbehavior is occurring as Narcisse has accelerated a shift from traditional school disciplinary practices to one that gives students lots of chances to avoid suspension and stay in class.

A district strategic plan that Narcisse helped craft after he took over as superintendent in 2021 calls for the number of students suspended, both in and out of school, to shrink by 3 to 5 percentage points every year. The overall rate during the 2021-22 school year was 12%, down from an average of 16% per year for the five preceding school years.

Almost every school suspended fewer students, some far fewer. For instance, at University Terrace only 3% of children were suspended in 2021-22 compared with an average of 28% before.

Johnson, who is a librarian at Sharon Hills Elementary, said disruptions remain a regular occurrence.

“We had a couple of fights today,” Johnson said. “And we had a couple of fights yesterday and that was a half day.”

The other big teacher union, the Federation of Teachers, did not take part in Thursday’s protest.

Angela Reams-Brown, president of the local chapter of that union, said she understands the concerns, saying she’s particularly keen on having more school resource officers in schools.

“We agree that there is a problem with student behavior and violence in the classroom,” Reams-Brown said.

She applauded some schools for taking proactive action to head off incidents. For instance, she said Woodlawn High was right in bringing in law enforcement recently to prevent a rumored student fight, and said Liberty High was smart recently in changing its schedule to prevent fights in the bathroom during class time.

Nevertheless, Reams-Brown traced some of the problem to school administrators, and even fellow teachers, who are not doing their jobs or are failing to properly document problems when they arise.

Johnson questioned changes instituted last summer to the student handbook that downgraded the initial consequences of some infractions, including arson, which she noted is a “a felony charge in real life.”

Reams-Brown sat on the committee that helped devise the current handbook. She defended the changes, saying that schools have to work to find ways to keep kids in school, not put them out.

“When we get rid of students, we’re getting rid of dollars,” Reams-Brown said. “We can’t get rid of students and think we can keep going. When the kids go, the schools go.”

Money also was on the mind of Narcisse on Thursday. In his taped comments, he urged people to vote on March 25 when East Baton Rouge Parish voters will consider renewing for 10 more years four property taxes that generate more than $80 million a year to support Baton Rouge public schools.

Her criticisms aside, Johnson said that renewing those taxes are critical, saying that school security will deteriorate, not improve, if they fail.

“Not only do we need this, but we need more funding,” Johnson said. “We need more funding for mental health, more money to make sure these schools are secure.”

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

Email Charles Lussier at and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.