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Recovering from assault, principal says ‘fresh start’ for Harrison Center needs more support

Monica Fabre is troubled by the thought that had her new vision for Harrison been fully embraced and supported, her assault by a student could have been avoided.

Last week, a student at Harrison took their frustration out on a shatterproof window in the hallway at the end of the school day. Harrison is the district's only special education Level IV setting serving high school students.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Still recovering from a Dec. 7 assault at Harrison Education Center that left her with a concussion, two black eyes and a swollen face, Principal Monica Fabre spends the majority of her time within the confines of her home.

She’s learning to cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic headaches that set in after a 17-year-old female student, after refusing to leave the school’s cafeteria, grabbed Fabre by the hair from behind, knocked her down and punched her repeatedly in the face.

But flashbacks aren’t the only thing plaguing Fabre’s mind. She’s also troubled by the thought that the incident — had her new vision for Harrison been fully embraced and supported by district and school staff — could have been avoided altogether.

“What makes my attack so personal is that I know that the steps and the plans to help the children were not even considered,” she said.

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Recruited to rebuild

Minneapolis Public Schools recruited Fabre from Louisiana in 2014 to help rebuild Harrison — Minneapolis’ only program for high school students in a special education Level IV setting, where those with extreme emotional and behavioral issues are taught away from the general student population.

According to the district, Harrison is currently serving 47 students, a number that’s constantly changing because students enter and exit the program throughout the year. African-American students account for more than 90 percent of the student body, with the vast majority being male.

The recent push to “fresh-start” the school, a process that began by requiring all staff in the building to reapply for their positions, can be traced back to two major pressure points: a 2014 external audit of the district’s special education programming that found MPS lacked the capacity to effectively provide even basic programming to its special-education students, along with a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division last March to investigate and possibly even close the program.

The district sought Fabre’s leadership because she had recently turned around one of Louisiana’s lowest performing schools, which had been notorious for its high volume of discipline issues. 

Principal Monica Fabre
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Principal Monica Fabre

When she came on board January 2015, she believed that the district truly would support her new vision for Harrison. After all, “the nation is watching Minnesota,” she said, noting the glaring racial disparities in the Twin Cities.

The program had undergone its first complete overhaul nearly 20 years ago, when a new building was constructed for it in North Minneapolis. (The school’s elementary counterpart, River Bend Education Center, is across the parking lot.)

Two decades later, Fabre saw that the building itself sent the wrong message its students.

“When I walked in the door, not only was the building designed to be a prison, but they told the children every day when they walked in they were prisoners. These were hanging on racks with children’s’ names,” she said, holding up one of the bright orange bags students were instructed to leave their personal possessions in during the school day. “This was purchased with district funds. The school colors of Harrison are not prison orange, they’re black and gold. So the first thing I did was replace those.”

Early changes

Her mission to strip Harrison of its prison-like characteristics and low expectations extended well beyond the front doors. Under her direction, students began eating breakfast in the cafeteria, rather than having their meals delivered on carts to their classroom. She also built in more time for the students to socialize during lunch and ensured her growing high school students were no longer being given elementary meal portions.

To strengthen students’ trust in on-site staff, she relocated the school’s security officer away from the front door, and designated herself the sole authorizer of future calls to the police.

Other changes aimed at improving school culture included trading in locked doors for a hallway monitor and pass system, getting rid of break-out spaces “where children were sent and often chose to go to sleep on the floor with the lights out,” Fabre said, and getting away from the use of treat-based incentives for behavior and academic performance.

These adjustments translated into some significant milestones at Harrison, including a drop in out-of-school removals — when a student is sent home from school and misses a day or less of school — from 296 in the 2013-14 school year to 216 last school year and only 60 so far this year.

Last May, four students graduated, compared to just two in the five years prior; and students received letter grades based on academic achievement, rather than points based on effort.

This past fall, students participated in the Minnesota History Day competition and received honorable mention for their video documentary project.

“They completed an annotated bibliography, taped interviews, wrote questions and got honorable mention … all on their own,” Fabre says. “They were labeled incorrectly. These are gifted children.”

Mounting resistance

Despite her initial optimism, Fabre says she quickly found herself expending energy defending key elements of her vision that were met with resistance by her superiors and a few teachers.

Her trust in the district’s ability to serve as an ally began to diminish almost immediately. Upon starting at Harrison, Fabre says she felt her expertise had been undermined when the district unexpectedly hired a white consultant to help guide Harrison’s overhaul. She said she was further offended that they insisted on paying her an assistant principal’s salary until they hired a white female principal to work at River Bend, at which point she was able to negotiate a pay raise commensurate with her title.

While she was able to build a team of paraprofessionals and teachers who had largely bought into her expressed plan for Harrison, she says a handful of teachers made a habit of resisting many of her requests that involved more paperwork and effort.

Constantly being pulled outside of the school to negotiate with adults who weren’t on board, she says, left her feel increasingly disillusioned and isolated. As a newcomer to Minnesota, it was an added dynamic she hadn’t fully anticipated.

“I expected people to be ready for change,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, not as a student, a parent, and definitely not as an educator. I have never seen so much unwillingness to change, so many adults being protected by bargaining units.”

Harrison Education Center
Harrison Education Center

Listing a few examples of the proposed changes that never gained traction, she pulled out stacks of material now stored in totes at her house: a behavior matrix created specifically for the students of Harrison, good-news referrals and postcards, a professional development reading titled “Special Education and the Mis-education of African American Children: A Call to Action,” and literature like “Other People’s Skin” and works by Frederick Douglass.

When she asked her staff to go through the metal detectors upon entering the building, as students are asked to do, she says the same small faction of teachers resisted. She says they also shut down her push to have teachers create individualized lesson plans that were more responsive to each student’s learning styles and abilities.

Her greatest concern, however, involved the incomplete status of her students’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs), intended to monitor their progress. “I went over every [student’s] document, explaining that we could not perform the function of transformation until those documents were rewritten,” Fabre said, noting she circled blatant examples of where information had been copy/pasted from another student’s IEP plan.

She insisted, to no avail, she says, that each IEP and intervention plan be rewritten, with parent input and personalized benchmarks for students.

Asked about this, Rochelle Cox, the district’s executive director of special education, said, “We’ve been continuing to work on that. … I appreciate all of the effort our families, staff and substitute principals have put into Harrison. I think people were doing what they thought was best for the kids.”

Healing in private

Since the Dec. 7 assault, communication between Fabre and the district has been sparse as Fabre continues to recover from the attack. 

Fabre has made it clear that she believes the student should be held accountable. Lashawnte Simone Bright, now 18, was charged in a juvenile petition with felony third-degree assault and gross-misdemeanor fourth-degree assault of a school official. 

In Fabre’s opinon, however, her assailant’s actions are indicative of a much larger concern she has with the district’s ability to effectively support Harrison students. In an at-home interview with MinnPost, she said she’s confident in the blueprint she brought to the table last year, but doubtful the district has truly bought in on her vision. 

Prior to the interview, Fabre added, she was contacted by district staff who had been made aware of her intent to go on record. “They advised that they wanted to write my answers, to which I responded, ‘My many talents include speaking. I don’t need anybody to speak for me,’ ” she said. “It was stated they were only looking out for me because they were concerned I would say something that would jeopardize my future. That made me feel revictimized. I was assaulted and now I’m being threatened for merely wanting to speak the truth.”

In response, the district told MinnPost, “In January, when media began inquiring about the December incident, Communications offered the same support that is provided to all staff, which is preparation for interviews, written key messages and in-person support during interviews. Like with all individuals, Communications also provided a reminder of data privacy laws protecting students and staff. This same support was offered before the MinnPost interview, but was not utilized.”

“Our focus has been and will remain on supporting the students and staff of Harrison and ensuring stability during a challenging time.”

Forging ahead at Harrison

Since Fabre went on medical leave, the leadership at Harrison has been in flux. Considering this is a school where district staff say that something as seemingly minor as a deviation in the lunch menu can trigger student outbursts, it’s something that the district has rushed to address — first with a temporary principal, then a five-week stint led by Cox until the appointment of Interim Principal Carol Markham-Cousins. It also provided access to Safety and Security and support staff on an as-needed basis, the district said. 

In addition, “When the district learned long-term plans to support Harrison were necessary, more consistent administrative support was put in place and staffing structures were adjusted to support both staff and students,” the district said.

“It was a setback, absolutely,” Cox said of the assault on Fabre. “Dr. Fabre brought a vision. We looked for a long time for a principal, involving the community, staff …. She really was the heart and spirit of this place, so it was a setback for us. You find pieces of her here. She interviewed every staff member, so everyone has bought into [her] vision. I think they carry that forward, as we wait for her return.”

With Fabre’s return date still unknown, these interim leaders are forging forward, enhancing some existing initiatives and implementing new ideas as well. Cox says the focus on personalized learning is still very much alive in the building, where educators are putting lots of thought into how they group students in classrooms.

She says they’ve also continued to expand mental health services provided in-house by partnering with an outside organization and enhancing lines of communication with parents.

The sparsely furnished break-out spaces that Fabre eliminated are being replaced with three new themed “safe spaces,” outfitted with art, gardening and music sensory outlets for students who need to take a break to self-regulate.

Regarding classroom instruction, Cox says they are in the process of rolling out a new batch of electives that students will take during the last 40 minutes of each day. “Last hour is really challenging,” she said, adding that staff members hope things like gardening, cooking, weight training and spoken word, which were identified with student input, will help keep students engaged.

“All those help with the social emotional learning pieces and behavioral piece,” she added.

Students are also given the opportunity to explore career and trade skills through modules housed inside the school’s work-based lab. Here, the student-run coffee shop will soon be adding fresh-baked cinnamon rolls to its menu.

Under Markham-Cousins’ interim leadership, Cox believes things will continue to move in a positive direction.

“What she’s really brought to the table for us is this restorative piece. It’s really her area of expertise. She brought some community partners on board,” Cox said, noting staff have also been talking a lot about mind-body connectedness under Markham-Cousins’ leadership.

“While restorative work has always been a part of Fabre’s work as well, Carol brings a piece to the table that has renewed that since Dr. Fabre has been on leave.”

Fabre remains concerned

Fabre may not have stepped foot inside Harrison since December, but that doesn’t mean she’s out of the loop. Tracking the new changes at Harrison through conversations with staff members and school newsletters, she’s concerned that things are actually regressing.

In her opinion, the newly instated electives are more of a response to the burnout of a few teachers than the needs of students. Student needs in basic areas like reading should be addressed first and foremost, she says.

The percentage of the Harrison student body that’s proficient in reading has hovered around 8 percent for the past few years.

Pulling up an email sent out to Harrison parents, Fabre broke down the new school schedule with a critical eye. Administrators are now starting each day with a 40-minute advisory period that starts at 8 a.m. Then, from 8:40 to 1 p.m., students have core instruction, minus time spent at lunch.

In reality, Fabre says, students aren’t getting enough quality instruction time because many don’t actually enter the building until closer to 9:30 a.m., at which point they have little core instruction time left before lunch and their afternoon elective.

At this point, Fabre feels Harrison is in need of a more drastic overhaul, one that involves systemic changes at the district level and perhaps even a new building.

“I don’t care about conforming. I am a servant leader, a change agent,” she said. “A change-agent leader comes in to identify broken systems, completely demolish them, clean them out and rebuild. That’s my intent. That’s what I was hired to do.”