The scene in the cafeteria, captured on a student’s iPhone, is bedlam. Tables and chairs overturning, boys and girls pummeling each other remorselessly, a few staff trying to pull them apart.
Parents and students say that long-standing — possibly ancient — beefs between two groups of neighborhood kids, one from Rittenhouse, the other from Riggs Park, led to the melee May 5. Tensions between the neighborhoods have compromised safety at the Northwest school and left them fearful about what will happen on the streets this summer without some resolution.
One evening this week, about twenty Riggs parents and students gathered in the multipurpose room at the Riggs LaSalle Recreation Center to describe what has been a difficult school year.
“You know how many meetings we’ve had like this since September?” asked Darice Stevens, mother of 16-year-old twins.
They freely concede that their children “are no angels,” as one said. Some, like Stevens’s son Davon, have been suspended by school authorities for fighting. But they also say their kids are consistently taunted, jumped or robbed by Rittenhouse rivals — some no longer in school — who gather across the street from Coolidge’s front entrance in the afternoons. Alex Gales, a senior, said he worries about making it to the Takoma Park Metro station after school.
“They walk to the station to fight us,” he said.
Other incidents take place at sports events. Some parents said they have had to change their work schedules to drive groups of kids to school. Geraldine Dyson said her son Joshua, a junior, has been taunted and threatened for over a year.
“I’m sorry I ever signed up for Coolidge,” she said.
On a table near the door is a pile of e-mail correspondence dating to January. It’s to and from every key player in the system: 4th Police District Cmdr. Kimberly Missouri, Assistant Chief Diane Groomes, Principal Thelma Jarrett, Instructional Superintendent Bill Wilhoyte, Friends of Bedford chief George Leonard, whose group is running the school on a contract with DCPS, and acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson. The parents are scheduled to meet with Henderson today.
Leonard and Jarrett did not respond to requests for comment. Cmdr. Charnette Robinson of the D.C. police patrol service and school safety bureau, said in a statement that police have “worked diligently with the school administration regarding matters occurring at Coolidge SHS,” meeting with groups of students and parents.
Opinions are all over the map about who’s listening and who isn’t. Some Riggs parents blame Jarrett for failing to take control of the problem.
“It’s really getting bad. The administration at Coolidge is not doing its job,” said Stevens.
But Terry Goings, Coolidge parent coordinator, said Stevens and other parents need to look in the mirror. He said it was Joshua Dyson who triggered the cafeteria fight by seating himself at a Rittenhouse table. Someone from the Rittenhouse group responded by sitting on a Riggs table, Goings said.
“To tell you the truth, the principal has done all she could and really went over and beyond to work with Ms. Dyson’s and Ms. Stevens’s kids,” he said. “Their kids are the ones that keep stuff going on.”
Goings said none of this, sadly, is new. These and other neighborhood beefs are so old, no one remembers how they started.
“You’re talking about something that’s been going on since I was going to school there,” Goings said. He graduated in 1977.