Death threats. Severe assaults on students and staff. A Tucson Unified high school with so many discipline issues that a confidential source says the School Resource Officer feared for his life.
Credible confidential sources and Tucson Police documents paint an alarming picture at Palo Verde High School on the east side. The former Tucson Police Chief -- Roberto Villasenor -- called it -- "a school with no consequences." As TUSD is currently reworking its discipline policy, 9OYS investigative reporter Valerie Cavazos digs deeper into the district's major changes in discipline practices that have led to actually new problems inside a school that has made great progress in other areas.
It's an "Against All Odds" story that had many in the community cheering in 2014. Palo Verde High Magnet school made an incredible turnaround. Once a failing school Palo Verde skyrocketed to an "A" in just a few years. And Principal Eric Brock -- a former Titan, led the way.
Cavazos: Did you think you were going to be able to do this -- to turn this school around?
Brock: I don't think any of us could say. We had to think it. We had to know it -- believe it -- and we believed in the kids.>
Word of Palo Verde's inspiring success and open enrollment led to an influx of new students. And then things took a turn for the worse as TUSD changed to a more lenient discipline policy -- that included restorative practices -- to reduce suspensions and expulsions district wide.
But sources say some students took advantage of it.
Take a look at the data of low level incidents in 2014/15 -- reported in the Incident Detail Reports.
Tardies -- 139
Leaving school grounds without permission -- 92
Disruption -- 125
Defiance or disrespect towards authority -- 235
In the 2015/16 school year -- those reported incidents dropped dramatically -- 2 of them to 0.
But TPD says the behavior continued.
In a letter to Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, former police chief Roberto Villasenor wrote: Some students "welcomed a school with no consequences."
A group of students "became empowered" and acted with "complete disregard towards school staff and the School Resource Officer."
Villasenor wrote: "We experienced numerous assaults of fellow students."
Sources say after the school bell rang students roamed the halls with no fear of tardy violations -- and sometimes that led to bloody assaults.
Police reports we obtained show a handful of students walked or ran into classrooms and punched students in the face. Also a few bloody fights between students erupted during class as students watched.
Villasenor wrote: the school continued to withhold or minimize discipline, which further fueled students' negative attitudes.
And in one case the violence spilled off campus. A massive fight at a nearby McDonald's caught on cell-phone last September. Documents show -- 10 students in all.
And the violence continued the next day inside the school. Police reports show "a massive fight" on the 1st floor between classrooms with a crowd of about 50 students.
The next day police returned. Palo Verde was put on lockdown after reports of a teenager with a gun. A search ended with no weapon found.
Assistant Superintendent Abel Morado told KGUN9 then and again this week that the district was investigating what could be causing the issues. "We're not going to be put in a position where our schools are unsafe."
Cavazos: "Did you know though the behavior problems were starting to escalate?"
Morado: "There was a time period it was evident there was some escalation. We were seeing evidence on several days and some of different parties."
Cavazos: "If you're seeing escalation, aren't restorative practices built to prevent that from happening?"
Morado: "We were trying. We were addressing students either we knew were involved or friends involved. We were addressing students and their parents."
Then came the death threats. Rumors of a hit list surfaced with names that included the TPD School Resource Officer.
Guns, assaults, death threats. The SRO feared for his life and alerted his superiors.
It wasn't just the students and SRO in danger.
Villasenor wrote: "Students began directing their threats and disrespectful behavior towards school staff" and staff "experienced numerous assaults."
For example, a substitute teacher is dealt a powerful blow near his kidney in class. A student running away from a classroom fight assaulted an Assistant Principal that left her left hand bruised and swollen.
Under state law hitting school staff is aggravated assault, but T-P-D reports show administrators told the S-R-O that "staff did not wish to prosecute per TUSD policy." KGUN9 asked Morado about that policy. Morado said he needed more time to investigate. So while a half dozen criminal assaults took place, according to Tucson police, the assaults on staff do not appear in the Incident Detail Report.
Sources say when the SRO addressed the alarming safety issues with the principal, Eric Brock, he said his "hands were tied" and the district doled out the discipline.
Tucson Police had enough and TPD brass met with a district administrator.
Abel Morado. Sources say TPD brass told Morado that the progressive discipline and restorative practices were not working on some students. The district needed to hold students accountable and not sweep the severe discipline issues under the rug.
"We were able to describe and discuss things were looking at and basically comparing notes and the discussion surrounding what it is we're trying to do regarding matters of discipline and what our approach to that was," said Morado to KGUN9.
Then came the startling revelation, sources say. The district administrator said TUSD is behind the 8-ball. Sources say Morado expressed "grave concern about the district hemorrhaging students. The district is in danger of becoming insolvent and needs to keep kids in class to maintain funding."
"The intent of that statement was to draw the context and look at the surrounding factors involving the issues that are current in this school district," said Morado told KGUN9.
But the sources tell me the intent was clear. It was about discipline and the need to reduce suspensions and expulsions.
Tucson Police put the school district on notice. Fix it or the police department will pull the School Resource Officer from Palo Verde.
"I don't recall that, but that doesn't mean that wasn't said. I just don't recall that," Morado said.
But sources say that demand got the district's attention. Sources and documents show massive fights stopped, suspensions increased and arrests declined.
TUSD is currently working on a new discipline policy -- a Code of Conduct -- it hoped to roll out at the start of this next school year. "We felt we needed more time. And we needed more time so the training takes place ahead of unrolling something as complex and as important as the Code of Conduct," said Morado.
Morado says the new discipline policy could be unveiled either in January or the start of next school year in 2017. So what does that mean for this upcoming school year? Morado says the district will continue to operate as it did last school year.