In July, WFAE’s Charlotte Talks held a public conversation on the city’s escalating murder rate. CMPD Chief Kerr Putney and other panelists talked about how there’s a lot of anger in people that has roots in their very early years. That made second-grade teacher Mechelle Vaughn stand up and say what she sees in her classroom.
"I’ve got second grade students in my class who are already on the trajectory to be incarcerated,” Vaughn said. “Many can’t read. They are behind. They are angry. When Chief Putney talked about the ability to pull a gun in a second, I have students who will hit other children in a second. They don’t know how to express how they feel.”
Vaughn has spent eight years teaching low-income students at schools in areas where many of the city’s murders occurred. The needs of her students were great, the resources limited and Vaughn was left feeling overwhelmed. So, this year, Vaughn changed schools.
She says she never intended to speak at the public conversation, but felt compelled to as she listened to panelists talk about violence. She says she’s watched many of her students gradually lose interest in school and become violent.
She worries about them headed for a life of crime. She told a hushed audience at the public conversation, “The alarm bell is sounding, it is just so loud. Right now it’s just the hitting and then it just spirals from there. I can tell you with certainty if I’m alive in 10 years I know whose names I’ll see on CMPD.org. It makes me want to cry. There’s not a year that I don’t cry because there’s nothing that I can do.”
Vaughn reflected on that night a few weeks later. She says when she stood up and spoke that night, “I was feeling for real children who I’ve taught. Every time they swing their fist, every time they use inappropriate language with adults, every time they’re assaulting one another, all of those things are a cry for help.”
She’s talking about students at Druid Hills Academy where she’s taught for the past three years. It’s a PreK-8 school that has seen some improvement but—less than a third of students pass state exams. CMS considers all of its students as low income; many are victims of generational poverty and live transient lives. Vaughn says they have a right to be angry.
“They don’t quite know how to say 'I’m hurting, I feel unsafe, we’re so unstable at home, my mom hasn’t been home in three days, I don’t like living in foster care separated from my sisters and brothers and the children I’ve taught and served.' They live this every day,” she said.
Vaughn says she talked to students one-on-one, gave them hugs when needed. She says a lot of them needed this attention often, like the little boy she describes whose father was incarcerated and he lived with his grandmother.
“Another parent was around and able to support but didn’t and that bothered that student a lot, and this child was bright but when you talk about that fuse of anger over the simplest thing, curse out a teacher in a heartbeat, never did that to me, hitting other classmates but again all of that stemming from not knowing how to deal with my situation,” she said.
Vaughn says she made significant progress with that student, through talks on acceptable behavior and listening to him. Her eyes glistened with tears as she thinks about the students who are still struggling.
“I love those kids and if I can give my kids the ability to read, write, think I know I’m giving them a chance, however, if they don’t know how to function socially, none of that’s going to matter, but yeah, it’s tough, yeah,” she said, shaking her head and pausing to wipe tears on her cheeks.
Eventually, Vaughn says the pressure of the job got to her.
“My husband finally said honey you’ve got to take a break. I’ve never heard you speak so negatively about things that were going on and I was like you’re right. I’m a very positive person and when I started to become negative I knew the environment was getting the best of me,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn left Druid Hills to teach at another school. Her former boss, Druid Hills Principal Raymond Barnes, praised Vaughn for the things she accomplished while a teacher at the school.
"I do think many of our students are better off because she was on their educational journey,” Barnes said.
Barnes says he recognizes its grueling work for his teachers to wear many hats. He says the school has a coaching program to help teachers deal with stressful situations. As a Project Lift school, Druid Hills does get some extra resources. They have a total of eight counselors, social workers and behavior specialists. Most schools the size of Druid Hills have about half that number.
On this day, Barnes approaches a distraught-looking elementary student in the office and asked him what happened. The students said he didn’t know and ignores Barnes’ other questions. But Barnes says answering one question is progress because four years ago, he says that student would have remained silent and angry.
A teacher tells Barnes he hit a girl. Barnes asks the teacher to have his father pick him up.
“I know his father and if his dad doesn’t come I’ll go to his house after school today and talk to him under the tree and tell him this is what we’re dealing with and we’ll continue to work on it,” Barnes says.
He says they have to meet Druid Hills’ students where they are, with different approaches tailored to their needs.
But Vaughn says she still felt she wasn’t doing enough and it hurt to see that her students needed so much that she wasn’t able to give them.
Vaughn now teaches at Paw Creek Elementary in West Charlotte. Most of its students are low-income, 75 percent, but Vaughn says the school has fewer behavioral problems. And state data backs that up. Last year, there were 5.5 suspensions per 100 students at Paw Creek compared to 52.5 at Druid Hills. Paw Creek also has more racially diverse student population and it is a STEM school—all reasons she chose it. But Vaughn still thinks about her Druid Hills students.
“There are children who are really going through some serious things and as a community we have got to throw resources behind them because if we don’t it will be a ten year anniversary of the first talk about the murder rate in Charlotte and nothing will have changed if we don’t do something,” she said.
Vaughn says she will always teach in low-income schools and says she has not ruled out going back to Druid Hills one day. In the meantime, she says the larger community needs to realize just how much help students at schools like Druid Hills need.