HERCULES -- Escalating police calls, reports of bullying against students and teachers, and a vote of no confidence against the principal have put a spotlight on turbulent times at Hercules Middle/High School.
Although West Contra Costa school district officials began looking last month for two new principals to oversee the campus -- one for the middle school and one for the high school -- it could take more than a change in top management to turn things around at the suburban campus.
A year and a half ago, three students from Hercules Middle/High warned the school board about student and teacher unrest on the campus.
"I would like to inform you that this is your wake-up call," then-senior Justin Bautista Jones told trustees on Oct. 10, 2012. "Today, I would like to inform you that one of our teachers resigned because he was being bullied by his students. He walked into his class and there was lotion on the walls, computers were broken, posters were torn down. That is absolutely unacceptable and that needs to at least be addressed here today."
Since then, Jones was stripped of his district-funded membership in a prestigious Young Scholars program that helps students prepare for college.
In addition, a popular, award-winning teacher who spoke out about campus problems was involuntarily transferred and a transgender student was suspended and charged with battery for fighting with classmates whom she said had taunted her, even after she complained to the administration about the bullying.
About 94 percent of the high school's tenured teachers in February also voted "no confidence" in Principal Jen Bender, and police calls to deal with fighting and other serious issues at the campus are on the rise.
A combined middle and high school whose 1,730 students are 42 percent low-income, Hercules Middle/High sits amid bucolic, rolling green hills in an area known as Refugio Valley. But the mounting problems on the sprawling campus belie its tranquil setting.
Although the complaints over bullying and campus safety have been long brewing, the vote of no confidence -- along with the highly publicized fight in November between Jewlyes Gutierrez, a transgender student, and her purported bullies -- appear to have pushed the district to make a change in leadership at the school, a move that Bender agrees at this point is for the best. While Bender oversaw the entire school, the district has decided that is too big a job for one person.
The furor over the fight erupted just two months after the federal Office of Civil Rights reported it found rampant sexual harassment in the district after the gang rape of a Richmond High School girl in 2009, including sexual assaults, unwelcome touching, demands for sexual favors, sexually derogatory language and sexual harassment of students by employees.
At the time, district officials said many changes had already been made to address issues raised in the report. But the Gutierrez incident opened new wounds, and subsequent outcry from students, parents and some teachers suggested the district had not gone far enough.
At a Dec. 2 board meeting, several parents said their children had been bullied or had been unfairly punished after allegations of bullying. One mother said her son was expelled and became suicidal after he was falsely accused of sexual harassment at Hercules.
Advocates for Janet Headington, the award-winning teacher who started a Teacher Cadet training program and who spoke out about problems at Hercules, said the principal retaliated against Headington by reducing the program and submitting paperwork to have the popular teacher transferred to another school while she was on medical leave.
Teachers complained of a broader pattern with Bender in the no-confidence resolution, saying she lacked leadership skills and that she created a "toxic" environment at the school by unfairly punishing staff while failing to create high expectations for students. The principal told this newspaper the vote supporting the resolution wasn't a full vote of the school's union membership.
A review of police calls to Hercules Middle/High from Jan. 1, 2012, to March 31, 2014, by this newspaper suggests even deeper problems. Officers responded to hundreds of incidents during that time, including 150 fights and other disturbances, 108 reports of juveniles out of control and 33 drug investigations. There were five drunk-in-public calls, three calls for burglaries, two each for reported rapes and sexual assaults, and one each for arson and a suicide attempt. During one week in March, police officers assigned to the school found an unloaded BB pistol in a 15-year-old student's front waistband and responded to a fight between two girls in the PE locker room.
This school year, police Chief Bill Goswick said officers have responded to about 430 calls on or near the campus.
"Any time we have this many calls for service, it's going to concern me," he said. "We have to continue to track what's going on at that school and work with them to try to get these numbers down, and maybe be a little bit more proactive about what's going on out there. I think holding people accountable for what they do is very important."
Hercules City Councilman Dan Romero said some of the tension may be related to the district's decision to reduce expulsions and suspensions by using a restorative justice program that brings victims and aggressors together to discuss what happened, and ideally, take responsibility for their actions. Critics say the program wasn't implemented effectively and that victims often feel unsupported while bullies appear to get away with abusive behavior without serious consequences.
The number of expulsions and suspensions over the past two school years at Hercules has plummeted, while the number of police calls has gone up. In 2011-12, the school logged 12 expulsions and 160 suspensions. The next year, no students were expelled and there were only 70 suspensions.
In Bender's defense, Romero said it would be impossible for most principals to oversee nearly 2,000 students and staff members on a campus that includes both a middle school and a high school.
Bender, who started at the school in fall 2012 and was notified in March that she might be reassigned, said in a message posted on the school's website last month ¿that she decided to request a transfer "in the best interest of the students and staff."
"It is my sincerest hope that my departure will allow the school community to continue its focus on preparing students for success in both college and career," Bender wrote, adding that she would stay through the end of the school year.
In conversations with this newspaper, Bender said she and others have made efforts to promote tolerance on the campus. A Gay Straight Alliance club has formed, and in March the school held a health fair as part of a "peace week" that included information about a "No Place for Hate" campaign. That same week, the school put on a multicultural rally that included dances, poetry and songs reflecting students' cultural backgrounds.
But Kalla Graham, 18, said an assembly for the entire student body explaining the peace week theme could have been more effective than the health fair.
"You need to come together as a school," she said, "not just put out some tables at lunch."
Still, Graham and some of her classmates believe the campus has been unfairly portrayed as a problem school.
"Every school has fights," said Andre Roberts, 18. "But only Hercules has been making the news."
Tiffany Farmer, 18, who helped coordinate the annual multicultural rally, said she believes students accept each others' differences, but she said attitudes and friction between teachers and administrators affect everyone.
"It has to start at the top to work its way down to the bottom," she said. "And if there's frustration at the top, the bottom is not going to be good."
Recent surveys of students, parents and staff show the campus ranked near the bottom when compared with others statewide in areas of safety, violence and truancy. And a key effort to improve those rankings is in peril. In a message to the school community in March, Bender said the campus may lose a $125,000 grant that helps support the restorative justice program and school counseling efforts because of a lack of parental participation in an online survey required for the money.
Jones, the former student who issued the "wake-up call," said he was later told by a district employee that he "embarrassed" the school by speaking out at the board meeting. He said he was also told by the Young Scholars administrator who stripped him of his participation in the program that members are supposed to be scholars, not activists. Still, Jones hopes people will have the courage to speak up quickly if new problems arise.
"I think it's critical to have a dialogue with the community, because it is the community that's going to be responsible for holding the new principals accountable and making sure the issues we had with Ms. Bender don't re-enact themselves," he said. "Hopefully it will be a new chapter for Hercules -- finally."