Worcester schools fumble chance at anti-violence program

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Of the 98 eligible Massachusetts high schools that applied for involvement in an anti-violence program offered by Attorney General Maura T. Healey’s office in cooperation with the New England Patriots, 98 were chosen to participate, it was announced last week.

That number is eight more than originally planned, according to the Attorney General’s office, which rejected only three non-public schools and accepted the entire balance of applicants to ensure maximum impact.

None of the five eligible Worcester schools applied.

“Schools submitted a form in which they were asked to describe how [Game Change: Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership program] would benefit their school,” the AG’s office told the Sun in an email. “We did not receive any applications from public high schools in Worcester.”

State and team officials announced the $650,000 program — which will send two adult representatives from each school for a three-day training session next month — on Sept. 15, when former Superintendent Melinda J. Boone was at the helm of the school department.

At the time, the AG’s office contacted four high schools in the city individually by phone with details of the program and, according to the Attorney General’s office, the Superintendent’s office was contacted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Interim Superintendent Marco C. Rodrigues, who was Chief Academic Officer in September, wrote in an email Monday evening, Dec. 14, that he “was not aware of this program from the AGO.”

Marco Rodrigues

Courtesy of Worcester Public Schools

Worcester Public Schools interim superintendent Marco Rodrigues

On Monday afternoon, Worcester Public Schools communication specialist Jen Roy said Rodrigues “was trying to do the research to find out the answer” as to why none of the high schools in Worcester applied. She reiterated her answer Tuesday.

Healey’s office said it conducted outreach to schools across the state, including Worcester, by phone, through notifications to all superintendents through the education department, and through the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to its member schools across the state.

School Safety Liaison Robert Pezzella said last week that he received no notice regarding the program, but didn’t dismiss the notion that the school department received the notice, but either didn’t communicate it or it was overlooked.

“We’re looking for these kind of opportunities all of the time, especially when it comes to anti-violence programs. The more anti-violence programs we have in our school, the safer our school becomes,” Pezzella said.

In an email to the Sun, School Committee member Brian O’Connell wrote last week: “I was very discouraged to learn that Worcester had not applied to implement Game Change in any of its schools. This is definitely our loss, and a denial to Worcester students of a program which I believe would have benefited them.

“Frankly, I am concerned that, in our school district’s unrelenting focus on statistics — MCAS and PARCC scores, attendance rates, dropout percentages, etc. — it can lose sight of certain opportunities available to it to keep Worcester students safe, and to equip them with the values and personal relations skills which will be vital to them throughout their lives.

Brian O'Connell

Courtesy WPS

Brian O’Connell

“I will ask our [i]nterim [s]uperintendent for a report, and a rationale, as to our failure to take advantage of what would have been a fine opportunity for us, and for our students.”

Patriots owner Robert Kraft was in Worcester last Tuesday for the dedication of the Myra Hiatt Kraft Memorial Footbridge at Elm Park and to donate $100,000 each to Worcester Technical High School and WPI.

Kraft’s wife, Myra Hiatt Kraft, was from Worcester and her father, Jacob Hiatt, has an city  elementary school named after him.

In a press release to announce Game Change, Kraft said, “We are honored to partner with Attorney General Healey to help teach young people about safe and healthy relationships. This is a priority for our team, and we are dedicated to supporting both prevention and access to resources for survivors.”

The program and training will be conducted by Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), run by the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. The program also includes online tools for schools and further evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the training.

O’Connell added, “I am impressed with all that I have read and learned about Game Change. Clearly, the focus on building healthy social relationships, on encouraging positive attitudes and behaviors, and on preventing teen dating violence, domestic violence and sexual assault addresses a pivotal concern for contemporary students.

“The sports-themed curriculum, and use of athletes as trainers, will help to draw and keep the attention of students on the vital lessons taught through the program. I particularly like the emphasis on training of students as peer leaders, who will be taught to guide younger students regarding respect for others.”

In early November, the Attorney General’s office awarded Worcester with $25,000 to fund the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. The funding will go toward two local nonprofit organizations that will work directly with the city’s high risk young men and will kick off this Spring and end next December.

The two nonprofits that will be awarded the grant money have yet to be named.

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