Waves of black and gold stomped and cheered from the student section of the Como Park High School gym as the girls' basketball team took the court. The November night was chilly, with the first signs of winter. Still, fans came out to support the team that, last year, made it to the state championship.
But not even an hour into the game, tension zipped through the air. The court cleared. Some boys shoved their way down the stands to the gym door, and soon police officers appeared in the lobby.
There was about to be a fight. And in the crowd, there was an almost-palpable exasperation. Again?
Como Park High School made headlines multiple times last year for student violence, including a string of fights in the fall and an alleged student assault of a teacher in the spring. The school became a flash point as St. Paul teachers negotiated a new contract — an example of the district's unsafe conditions for teachers, some said.
With every incident, Como students and teachers pushed back, saying there was more to their school. This year, at that basketball game, they seemed determined to move forward.
An announcer got on the mic. "If y'all want this game to continue we cannot have — this night is called African American family night and it's called 'it takes a village,'" he admonished.
Parents cheered. The school's principal and other administrators were already out in the lobby — later police said the fight that appeared ready to happen never materialized. The student section didn't even seem that interested in what was happening as they sang along to songs on the loudspeaker. "Let's make sure that the village protect each other. Can I get an amen?" the announcer asked.
He got an amen.
Many teachers at Como say the school feels different this year, citing a new discipline strategy based on "restorative practices" intended to prevent outbursts and additional staff in the hallways.
But even last year, this school tucked in a quiet corner of north St. Paul never saw itself the way outsiders did. On a sunny fall day, science teacher Dylan Adair stood behind the building with a group of students and staff, digging a grave for the just-deceased class tarantula.
A student lit a bit of sage in a Native American prayer ritual. It was the kind of earnest moment that outsiders wouldn't normally see, and Adair said last year he fought to remind students of this side of themselves, "I was a cheerleader at that time for our students, like, 'Hey you guys, we can go, let's keep going. That's not who we are,'" Adair said.
Fellow science teacher Kathy Kahn called the Como she's known for 26 years a neighborhood school. "It's had that feel forever. When I first came here it was a little bit of a blue-collar, working class school." Kahn said the school has changed demographically — 20 years ago it was almost half white students, and now it's about a third each Asian/Pacific Islander and black students, with about a quarter white.
The 1,307 total students make Como larger than two other regular high schools in St. Paul, but to many it's "the small school", and a family tradition.
"It provides really strong roots when you can talk to your parents about a teacher that they also had," said English teacher Allison Hartzell, a Como high school alum. Hartzell said her mother and other family members went to the school, and she has students with similar legacies. "Teachers get to know families, you get to be really one-on-one, first name basis with people's parents."
Senior Eduardo Mendoza said his parents didn't go to the school, but now he heads up Como's popular Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps military leadership program. "The way you build a team is to get close with each other, you have to know each other. In our JROTC class, you end up getting really close with these people," he said, noting that the program helped him find a niche at the school.
For others, the niche is Como's Advanced Placement classes or a four-year business program called Academy of Finance, where students even have matching sweatshirts.
Still, last year's violence was real — St. Paul police filed 46 reports for incidents labeled fights, assaults or weapons at Como Park High School in 2014 and 2015. That's topped by Harding and Humboldt high schools in St. Paul, with 50 and 57, respectively.
Taking population into account, St. Cloud's Tech high school and Duluth's Denfeld were also on par with Como in those years. The figures may represent policing culture or school culture — or likely a mixture of both.
"I don't want to say it's a non-issue as a parent, but going to school and booster meetings, other meetings and seeing all the events that go on and all the amazing students and amazing teachers — these fights are isolated incidents," parent Aaron Kerr insisted. Sitting in his living room with son Jackson, Kerr almost couldn't stop naming things he loves about Como.
Jackson added, "To anybody who's debating whether or not to send their kid to their inner-city school ... I'd like to tell them, take another look. There's a lot more there than just the exterior appearance."
Senior Zarina Sementelli took a slightly more sober view. She disagreed with the portrayal of Como as exceptionally violent, but saw it as part of a larger, long-term neglect of the school. "If you go out to Edina or Hopkins or something like that, the school is just a lot cleaner, it's just, the resources are phenomenal compared to Como," Zarina said.
Those points may be connected. It's impossible to tell what causes violence, but Como lost the equivalent of four full-time staff this year in budget cuts. Bigger classes can make it harder for teachers to identify students who need help. Como also has only one social worker for all non-special education students.
Principal Theresa Neal said this year she's focused the resources she does have on restorative practices, where teachers take out time to talk in a group with a class and build up relationships. Supporters say it can help prevent behavior problems, and the method can be part of discipline. "Our expectation for this year is, how do we build community?" Neal said.
Como is also getting a $35 million facelift starting this summer, with a new athletic field and building updates.
Still, that's cosmetic. Zarina said for her, school pride comes from something deeper.
"I'm proud because I can change the dynamic of what Como should be," Zarina said. "If I go to Como and people see me being successful and being a part of the community, then it's like maybe all Como kids aren't that bad."