Education News

Bristol Elementary teachers beg for help

A CLASSROOM INCIDENT involving a student at Bristol Elementary School resulted in extensive damage to school and other property, including this laptop computer. BES teachers pleaded with the MAUSD board to take immediate steps to ensure student and staff safety at the school. Photo courtesy of the Mount Abraham Education Association

BRISTOL — A Bristol Elementary School teacher broke down in tears during Tuesday night’s meeting of the Mount Abraham Unified School District board as she tried to describe an incident she and her students had experienced the previous Thursday, Oct. 7.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This is just heartbreaking.”

A couple of her BES colleagues got up and stood beside her, offering support, and she continued.

“Around 2 p.m. (that day), we had to evacuate the classroom as a student entered the classroom in an aggressive manner and was throwing objects at adults and in the classroom,” the teacher said.

After they evacuated, “students expressed fears about their safety, their things, and their hard work in our classroom being destroyed,” she continued.

Upon re-entering the classroom 45 minutes later, the teacher discovered that damage had been inflicted to a projector, a closet door and instructional materials.

She locked the door.

Fifteen minutes later the student returned, “still escalated,” the teacher said, and tried to get into the locked classroom, slamming their body into the door, which “was visibly shaking,” and repeatedly saying “Open the door, you f***ing b****.”

“My other students were crying and screaming, and students were hiding under tables and in my classroom library,” the teacher said.

The following day, Friday, Oct. 8, the student in question was taught in a different area of the school building but tried “multiple times” to get into the teacher’s classroom during the day, prompting “clear the halls” announcements throughout the school.

“Now I keep the door locked at all times, and I have to stop instruction to let my students or other adults into my classroom,” she said. “Students gasp when they hear someone knocking on our door.”

Her students don’t feel safe, she said, and neither does she.

“This is not what I want my students to think about when they think about school, and this is not what school should be like.”

The teacher was one of roughly a dozen Bristol Elementary School staff, who in a show of solidarity attended the meeting wearing royal blue Bristol Bobcats T-shirts.

She was the third BES teacher to speak that night, and by the time she’d begun to tell her story it had become clear that the school has been plagued with behavior issues for some time now.

PLEA FOR HELP

The meeting’s public comment period began with a joint statement from Bristol Elementary School staff and the Mount Abraham Education Association, presented by BES teacher and MAEA union leader Andrea Murnane.

“We are here before you because our prior, repeated efforts to address these critical safety concerns at lower levels have so far been unsuccessful,” the statement said.

Staff said they have attempted to use the processes outlined in their contracts to address unsafe conditions in the school, but that process has not been timely or responsive enough, given the immediacy of their concerns.

Their statement outlines seven steps that need to be taken right away, including providing:

•  for the safe removal of students who endanger themselves or others.

•  one-on-one behavioral support for those students.

•  a plan for taking immediate action and communicating that plan to staff.

•  hiring a licensed mental health professional to help with the current situation.

“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,” the statement concludes. “We need your help. We ask that you take immediate action on this serious and dangerous situation.”

The full statement can be found here.

CHRONIC ISSUES

An additional statement was provided by BES teacher and MAEA leader Sarah Mangini, who shared an overview of recent safety- and behavior-related incidents at Bristol Elementary, including:

•  physical harm to students and staff, such as being bitten, punched or having objects thrown at them.

•  damage to buildings, classroom materials, furniture, music equipment, personal belongings, custodial supplies and parked vehicles.

•  negative effects on student wellbeing and learning as a result of unsafe conditions and the disruptions they cause.

•  negative effects on staff, some of whom “are starting to wonder whether it’s time to quit.”

Mangini’s statement encouraged the board and school staff to find ways of sharing information on a regular basis.

“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,” she concluded.

This statement can be found here.

BOARD RESPONSE

When time was up for the public comment period, MAUSD board chair Dawn Griswold offered a statement of her own.

“Sometimes when a situation arises in our learning community we often hear about it during public comment,” Griswold said. “Our next job is then to figure out how to address within our structures that we have in place to handle different situations. Our process guides us in how we deal with things, and sometimes people come to share their concerns because they are upset and they need more information, and the board needs more information too.

“It’s our job as a board to be a bridge for this information, and in order to be this bridge, we need to gather more information and process a clear communication to share what we can about what we can and what we’ve learned. One of the ways we learn about information is through our superintendent and our policy regarding communication and support to the board. While we might not have information right now, at this moment, our process has a way for us to get more information.

“I hope we can all take a deep breath and know that we will be working to share what we learned as soon as is reasonably possible. Thanks for coming and sharing your concerns about the safety and the student learning environment.”

Soon after, the board went into executive session, which lasted for three hours.

When the board returned, Griswold announced that the meeting’s original agenda, pertaining to facilities-related issues, had been scrapped.

She then explained, via another written statement, that Superintendent Patrick Reen would bring a team together to assess and remedy the situation, with input from classroom teachers.

“We understand that this is hard and stressful,” Griswold said. “We are committed to keep the conversation going. We ask that you please keep communicating with the board (and) we will do our best to keep the community informed.”

The brevity of the board’s statement, as well as its lack of specificity, provoked angry responses among some of the 35 people attending in person and the more than 100 who had tuned in via Zoom.

“As a parent I’m concerned to send my kids to school tomorrow,” one person said.

Another expressed similar concerns.

“Every day, going in, knowing that your 6-year-old does not want to be there because he does not know what is going to happen or she doesn’t know if she’ll be safe. She might be scratched. He might get punched. What do you tell those parents? We’re trusting you to keep our kids safe for seven hours a day and you’re not.”

A third commenter sharply criticized the school district for the way it communicated a student injury.

“Have you ever gotten a phone call that said ‘Your daughter’s face will not look the same when you pick her up?’ … I did. And you know what I was told? ‘Oh, we’ll look into it.’ Did you look at my daughter’s face when I sent you that picture,” the parent asked MAUSD officials. “Did you look at her face?” She then began to weep.

STUDENT PRIVACY

Board member Sandra Lee stood up and expressed sympathy with the speaker and acknowledged the frustration some community members were feeling.

“What I can tell you is, a lot of discussion (during executive session) was made about specific steps that are being taken,” Lee said. “Some of these steps cannot be discussed in public, because they have to do with particular students. It’s simply illegal.”

Lee was referring to the fact that Vermont schools must adhere to federal laws protecting the privacy of students and their records.

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

Earlier in the meeting, Griswold had notified community members that if a comment identified individual staff members or students, she would stop the commenter and have the Northeast Addison Television camera turned off — and she had done this once already in the meeting.

Because of these laws, Lee pointed out, the board was limited in what it could say about the steps being taken to remedy the situation at BES.

“I realize that these general statements are really difficult to hear,” Lee said, adding the board had hashed things out in executive session and established expectation for the superintendent and other administrators. “We did this statement because we have faith that the administration has heard from you, they understand this outpouring is very important, and that they are doing what they need to do.”

NEW PRINCIPAL

After the Oct. 7 incident at BES, Interim Principal David Wells, who’s been on the job for less than four months, sent out a memo to the school community, which was obtained by the Independent.

“Today was a tough day for our … students,” Wells wrote. “As our community knows, we are working hard to support the emotional needs of our students. We had two situations today where classrooms were disrupted. Teachers used alternative spaces while school and district staff responded to students in need. Even so, this was alarming to many of our students.

“Superintendent Reen and I met to discuss what occurred today. We both take this very seriously and will be implementing steps, beyond what has already been done, to support students and teachers at Bristol Elementary. I welcome any questions families may have and will share more information about the steps we are taking in the coming days.”

Wells, who is the third BES principal to serve under Reen over the past five years, did not attend Tuesday night’s meeting. When reached for comment Wednesday morning he politely deferred to the superintendent.

NOT ALONE

The social media response to the BES situation has been fierce, but one of the most common refrains is “this is happening everywhere.”

Indeed, the Addison Central School District board heard testimony from a substitute teacher Monday night, who described her recent experiences at Middlebury Union Middle School, a place she’d been warned by teachers to avoid (see story). The teacher, Fawnda Buttolph, told how administrators removed four out-of-control students from a classroom.

Buttolph recounted conversations with teachers who were actively seeking other employment, who were “vomiting every morning” before coming to work and were “afraid to walk down the halls.”

Other community members have suggested that such student behaviors should be expected, given the state of the world and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“After two years of disrupted or stalled learning, I think we should all be prepared for children to act out in ways that are indicative of trauma or developmentally inappropriate,” wrote Salisbury resident Nate Severy on the Independent’s Facebook page Tuesday night. “Life disruptions are hardest on young children. I have no doubt it is mentally and emotionally challenging to be a teacher in that environment. Let’s also not forget how those children who are acting out are feeling.”

In a comment to the Independent Wednesday afternoon, Reen spoke to the tremendous challenges faced by schools right now.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone in a really significant way,” he wrote in an email. “Students, families, teachers, and leaders alike. What we are seeing play out in our schools is reflective of the fact that our students who were struggling most before the pandemic are the ones that have been impacted most significantly by the pandemic. They need our help more now than ever.

“Identifying the appropriate supports for our students with the greatest needs is a really difficult task.

“Despite our efforts we have not yet identified the right combination of supports to ensure success for each of our students. We are making gains with most, and for those whom we are not yet meeting their needs we will remain diligent in our pursuit of the right support to help them be successful.”

In addition to Wells and Reen, the Independent also sought comments from Assistant Superintendent Catrina DiNapoli and Director of Student Support Services Susan Bruhl, but they did not respond in time for this story.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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