Is Keene High School “broken”? That suggestion has been offered on local radio in the past week, and while it might be a bit alarmist, there are clearly problems to be addressed — among them student achievement, truancy/absences, violent behavior, staff resignations and questionable leadership.

And while the coronavirus pandemic may have exacerbated things, the roots of some of the biggest issues sprouted well before.

There’s no question the two-year pandemic has exacted a toll on schools — students, their families, teachers and staff — that will continue to be felt after the powers-that-be have declared a return to “normal.”

So it was little surprise to see some regression — in test scores, truancy and more — for Keene schools in the state Department of Education’s most recent district “report card.” Still, some of the numbers were alarming. Math proficiency was down starkly across the district, compared to the year before the pandemic hit; in some schools by a lot more than the statewide drop.

Another troubling find: At Keene High, truancy — missing at least half the school day unexcused — went from a very respectable 1 percent in 2019 to a whopping 47 percent last year. Statewide, the rate rose just 6 percent.

Test proficiency is easy to correlate to the difficulties of remote learning – and instruction. Truancy, and other adverse behaviors, might also be attributed to the pandemic. Bad habits formed during more than a year of schooling at home, for example.

Truancy is a worrisome behavior, both because it represents time missed from classes and because it speaks to a lack of caring enough to participate. But it’s not the only such indication. There have been increasing reports of acting out at Keene High — it was a major topic at the Keene Board of Education candidates’ night last month and has been raised at recent board meetings.

Assistant Superintendent Brian Campbell, to his credit, acknowledged the bad student behavior and said it can’t necessarily be attributed to pandemic dynamics.

“It could be physical, it could be rudeness, it could be disrespect, it could be student-to-student, it could be student-to-adult, just behaviors you would not want to exist in a school setting and that would affect the overall learning environment,” he told The Sentinel’s Rick Green. But he also indicated it’s a recent phenomenon, which is not the case. Well before anyone had heard of COVID, teachers had been complaining of students being violent with staff and each other. This is not new, although it could be worsening.

In the past two weeks, we’ve seen multiple protests at the school by students and parents, and one district resident wrote to The Sentinel, claiming knowledge of a racial attack. Because school officials routinely hide details behind claims of privacy concerns, it’s hard to separate facts from hearsay. But it’s evident many students and their families have lost faith in the high school’s leadership, and perhaps with the district as a whole.

One issue cited is the loss of staff and faculty. Here, we suspect the pandemic has played a part, as teachers and staff have been among those on the front lines throughout. They’ve also been under attack by the GOP-controlled Legislature and the Sununu administration’s Education Department. Still, well-liked and respected staff leaving can send a message to students that Keene High isn’t a desirable place to be. At a demonstration last week, one student held up a list of at least eight teachers who’ve left recently.

Others carried signs worrying for their safety in the school, and one asked simply: Who represents the kids?

That protest came on the heels of another, held days earlier, in which, by some unconfirmed accounts, Principal Cindy Gallagher was reportedly in a physical confrontation with a student, and which resulted in student suspensions, a letter to parents and the cancellation of a second planned protest.

All of this culminated in Tuesday night’s school board meeting, at which new member Randy Filiault requested Superintendent Robert Malay’s resignation. That went nowhere, as the board refocused the conversation on students’ disruptive behavior, and vowed to have staff crack down on the bad apples causing all the problems.

No real discussion was had of teacher resignations, nor of the actions of staff. Not much was said, despite Filiault’s request, about any failings on the part of the administration.

Seeking such a wholesale change as the resignation of the district’s top administrator is likely an overreaction to a week of unfavorable coverage and community complaints. But it is discouraging that of all the issues facing the school, the one the board chose to highlight was bad behavior by what they themselves described as a very small percentage of students.

That amounts to willfully ignoring the forest for the trees.

At a time when top state officials are trying everything they can to entice parents to send their kids anywhere other than public schools, Keene School District leaders instead risk helping that cause.

Who represents the kids indeed?

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