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Bristol Elementary teachers raise concerns about ‘unsafe conditions’

BRISTOL ELEMENTARY STAFF stayed after school for several hours last week to help one of their colleagues clean up her classroom, which was left in disarray following an incident involving a student. Similar incidents this year have created a climate of fear and anxiety at the school, prompting teachers to speak out at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. Photo courtesy of the Mount Abraham Education Association

BRISTOL — A group of Bristol Elementary School teachers banded together to raise concerns about safety issues at the school during Tuesday night’s MAUSD board meeting in Bristol.

Teachers spoke of incidents in recent days and weeks when “children were hiding and crying in fear and staff members were injured. Hallways were cleared and students and staff remained in the learning space they were in with the doors locked.”

They referred to the school as a “place of unrest” where “a general sense of helplessness and fear has permeated our school.”

The full statement, which was shared with the Independent earlier today, is included below.

STATEMENT BY BRISTOL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STAFF

Date: October 12, 2021

To: MAUSD Board Members

From: Bristol Elementary School Staff

Re: Failure to Ensure Safety at Bristol Elementary School

My name is Andrea Murnane and I am a Second Grade Teacher at Bristol Elementary School. I am speaking to you this evening on behalf of BES teachers and staff and the Mount Abraham Education Association to share the dire safety issues at BES and ask that you take swift action to address them. The staff at BES are here united together to say that our school is not safe. Existing policies have repeatedly put students and staff in harm’s way. The status quo is simply not sustainable.

We are here before you because our prior, repeated efforts to address these critical safety concerns at lower levels have so far been unsuccessful. There is a process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement for addressing work-related issues and we believe strongly in that process. We have attempted to use that process to address the unsafe conditions that students and staff are experiencing in our school. In this instance, that process is simply not timely and responsive enough to deal with the immediacy and severity of our safety concerns.

Last Thursday, October 7, the safety situation at BES became so volatile that two classrooms were relocated to alternate workspaces, and one classroom was severely damaged. During these incidents, children were hiding and crying in fear and staff members were injured. Hallways were cleared and students and staff remained in the learning space they were in with the doors locked.

Later that same day the staff at BES spoke with Superintendent Reen for over an hour expressing our concerns and fears. Many staff members remained at school that evening until 7:00 p.m. helping a teacher reassemble her classroom.

The following day, Friday, October 8th, there were at least seven “Secure the Hallway” calls from the office, in which staff and students were instructed to immediately enter classrooms and lock their doors.

In this school year, students are unsafe, the staff is unsafe, learning environments and learning tools have been damaged, classes are displaced from their room to alternative – and inadequate — workplaces, learning for all grade levels has been disrupted, student work is ripped from the hallway walls and a general sense of helplessness and fear has permeated our school.

We are strong supporters of trauma-informed interventions for addressing students in crisis, including those exhibiting violent and destructive behavior. However, in order for these practices to be effective and safe for students and staff, they must be accompanied by adequate staffing, training, resources and appropriate procedures for their implementation.

Therefore, we are asking you to take immediate steps to address this situation. Specifically, we are asking for you to implement the following remedies and policies:

1. Provide for the safe removal of students who endanger the safety of themselves, other students or staff to an alternative and safe workplace until their behavior has been assessed by a professional mental health crisis team   (ACCESS), parents/guardians have been contacted, a meeting with parents has been scheduled, the classroom teacher and staff members have been apprised of the situation and the child has remained calm, safe and in control for 24 hours after the episode.

2. Provide 1:1 behavioral support for students who endanger the safety of staff or students at BES.

3. Provide a clear plan for immediate response in situations in which a student endangers the safety of staff or students.

4. Ensure that all staff who work with students who have displayed unsafe behavior are made fully aware of the behavior plan and kept up to date on any changes.

5. Ensure that the classroom teacher is involved and given voice in the development and implementation of the behavior plan.

6. Ensure that proper procedures are implemented to bring an end to violence so that all students can learn in a safe and appropriate environment.

7. Hire a licensed mental health professional to assist with the current situation, provide training to staff and be available to help and consult with the staff at BES.

Our school has become a place of unrest when it should be a safe haven, a trusted place where children and adults learn and grow. We need your help. We ask that you take immediate action on this serious and dangerous situation.

Respectfully,
BES Staff

 

IN DETAIL

After teachers at Bristol Elementary School raised school safety concerns in a public statement at Tuesday night’s Mount Abraham Unified School District board meeting, Mount Abraham Education Association co-vice president Sarah Mangini followed with a statement cataloguing some of the damage and dangers experienced or observed at the school.

Mangini described an atmosphere in which students and teachers have feared for their safety, property has been damaged, and learning has often being interrupted.

Some of the concerns expressed Tuesday night echoed those that have been shared in other school districts around Vermont, including at Monday night’s meeting of the Addison Central School District board, which was apprised of a concerning climate at Middlebury Union Middle School.

A COMPUTER AT Bristol Elementary School that was damaged during a recent incident at the school.

Mangini’s full statement is below.

An overview of recent safety- and behavior-related incidents at Bristol Elementary School, compiled by Sarah Mangini using input from staff at BES, October 12, 2021

This summary is intended to show trends and examples of recent events at Bristol Elementary School (BES), without identifying students and staff who are involved.

Examples of incidents that have caused physical harm to individuals (both students and staff):

• Physical harm to students: students have been scratched, bitten, and punched. They have had objects such as scissors and rocks thrown at them. In addition, students sometimes come close to harm’s way when a student shoves classroom furniture.

• Staff members have been bitten, spit on, kicked, punched, urinated on, hit by thrown objects, etc. They have also been verbally threatened by students. Some have had to lock themselves into a room in order to be safe.

Examples of property damage at BES:

• Physical damage to the building: holes in the walls, baseboards ripped off, reinforced safety glass chipped by thrown rocks, etc.

• In recent days, vehicles parked in one of the school parking lots have been damaged (scratched, dented by rocks, etc.).

• Classroom materials are getting destroyed (student Chromebooks, projectors, bookshelves, school landline phones, electrical cords, etc.), and furniture has been damaged (e.g., metal chairs dented).

• Expensive music equipment is getting destroyed. For example, the school piano has been damaged beyond repair. Until it is replaced (at a cost estimated up to $2,000), there is no piano available for use by students.

• Students’ and staff’s personal belongings are getting broken (water bottles, staff cellphones, etc.).

• Items used by custodial staff are getting destroyed (e.g. fans, Wet Floor signs).

Effects of these events on student well-being:

• Students who directly witness such events are showing signs of being very afraid. When a classroom is under attack, before students are evacuated to safety, some are crying. Even when the situation in a particular classroom is under control, hearing a “clear the halls” announcement triggers fears for some affected students because they are afraid of being targeted by a student.

• In the two school days following an especially traumatic event last Thursday, 11 students (on Friday) and then 12 students (on the following Monday) were absent from school in a particular grade. (For reference, a typical absence rate is 2-4 absences per grade level).

• There have been instances when a group of students have had to remain locked in their classrooms in order to keep a threatening student away from them. This subjects other students to screaming, banging on or kicking the classroom door, and hearing obscenities yelled at them.

Effects of these events on student learning:

• Literacy, math, and other lessons have been cut many times when one or more students has caused a major disruption in the classroom. Such events interrupt other students’ learning.

• Classes such as art and music have similarly been disrupted by student actions. Even when relocated to another learning space, students can often hear noise from the student who is causing a disruption.

• Students who receive specialized instruction as part of their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) sometimes miss part or all of their scheduled small-group or 1-on-1 instruction as a result of “clear-the-hall” announcements.

• When a student is in an escalated state and moving around the building, the decision is made to “clear the halls” in order to protect that student’s privacy and also maintain safety. However, BES recently experienced a day with at least 7 “clear the hall” announcements, with subsequent notifications that people could not move throughout the building. This resulted in a total of at least 14 such announcements—which means 14 interruptions to learning.

Effects of these events on other students in the building:

• Student recess and lunch times occasionally get cut short, due to “clear the hall” announcements or decisions to clear kids off the playground. Similarly, outdoor P.E. classes have, at least on one occasion, ended early because the instructor did not want upper-grade students to witness a younger student who was causing a disruption.

• Upper-grade students have expressed that they’re worried about their younger siblings’ safety whenever the clear-the-halls announcement is made.

• When doors to shared/common spaces are locked for safety reasons (to keep an escalated student out), other students can’t readily access the rooms. For example, it’s harder to come browse for books in the school library when the door is locked.

Effects of these events on staff:

• Classroom teachers whose classrooms are destroyed are distraught. One recently needed to re-enter her room to get her car keys, but a student was still in there causing major damage to everything in the room. She said that she needed to get her keys, but was afraid that if the student saw her, that student would come after her.

• In some cases of students’ physical aggression toward a staff member, the staff member’s clothing has been ripped or otherwise destroyed.

• Well-qualified, talented teachers are wondering whether it’s time to quit.

In closing, I realize that the information presented tonight might take many on the school board by surprise; this may be the first you’ve heard of the issue. For that reason, I strongly encourage the board and our teachers and staff to find a way for information to be shared on a regular basis. Perhaps each month, at one of the board meetings, we employees could share highlights of our work with students, as well as some of the general challenges that we have faced.

I am hopeful that, moving forward, we can find a way to ensure that Bristol Elementary School is a safe and welcoming environment for all students and staff.

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