Education News

MAUSD responds to crisis in Bristol

BRISTOL — School board members, staff, parents and community members were looking for answers when the Mount Abraham Unified School District board convened a special meeting this past Thursday, Oct. 21.

It had been nine days since a group of Bristol Elementary School (BES) staff had raised the alarm about unsafe working conditions in their school — detailing for the board at its Oct. 12 meeting incidents of violence and destruction at the hands of a few dysregulated students, describing a climate of fear in the building, expressing frustration with what they saw as a slow and inadequate response from administrators, and appealing to the school board for help. People wanted to know what was going to be done about it.

In the run-up to Thursday’s special meeting, the MAUSD board had posed a number of questions to Superintendent Patrick Reen, which he spent the beginning of the meeting trying to answer, with the help of BES Principal David Wells and Mount Abraham Union High School Principal Shannon Warden.

QUESTION ONE

What resources have been deployed already at Bristol and have any additional resources been added since Oct. 12?

The district made efforts during the 2020-21 school year to develop and implement support plans for students who were struggling the most at BES, Reen said. In addition to that, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) support personnel that had been intended to be deployed district-wide had “spent the vast majority of an extended period of time at a small number of classrooms in Bristol, offering support.”

The efforts were ongoing throughout the school year, he said.

“Admittedly, they did not eliminate the very challenging behaviors that we were seeing.”

In the spring, as BES was transitioning to an interim principal (Tom Buzzell had announced in March that he’d be leaving June 30), district officials met and agreed on the need for more staffing, Reen said. This past summer, the MAUSD hired two classroom behavior assistants and assigned 0.6 FTE (full-time equivalent) guidance counselor support to BES.

The district also hired a full-time social worker to increase support for elementary families. Before that, the district had had only one social worker, who was mostly focused on supporting students in grades 7-12.

“(New BES interim principal David Wells) and the SEL team members were meeting frequently to review plans, provide support,” Reen said, “and despite these considerable additions, early in this school year we continued to see challenging behaviors at Bristol.”

The district also started hearing concerns from teachers, Reen said. Then the Mount Abraham Education Association (MAEA), the teachers’ union, filed a grievance for unsafe working conditions.

By the time the grievance was filed, administrative meetings had already been scheduled or held to discuss the BES situation, Reen said. On the eve of the grievance filing, he added, BES Principal Wells had arranged for “support to be provided in one of those classrooms for the majority of each school day.”

Reen also pointed out that the grievance process was still ongoing when BES staff spoke up at the Oct. 12 board meeting.

It should be noted, however, that during the meeting’s public comment period, MAEA Co-president Elizabeth Maher noted “MAEA has been raising concerns about safety in the district to the administration for two years.”

QUESTION TWO

What further resources are needed to support teachers and staff?

After a series of meetings with staff, administrators and outside behavioral advisers, the MAUSD central office and Principal Wells developed a plan to provide more support.

“I can’t share all the details surrounding the plan, due to confidentiality, but I do want to make clear that there are also other processes that we’re required by law to follow before some of the actions can take place,” Reen said, adding that “those processes are under way.”

Reen did say the plan includes adding 3 FTE staff to support students, identifies “safe spaces where students can become regulated,” and “reassigns district resources to focus exclusively on supporting Bristol.”

The plan also involves “partnering more closely with at least three outside agencies,” including Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC), UVM-based Vermont Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, and Green Mountain Behavior Consulting LLC.

Some elements of the district’s plan to address issues at BES were already being implemented by the time of the Oct. 21 meeting, Reen said later in the meeting. Others will be initiated next month, and still others are considered longer range.

QUESTION THREE

Are there other, similar student or staff needs at any of the other MAUSD schools? What is the plan to address those needs?

Yes, Reen said, there are similar staff needs at other MAUSD schools, “though I would say perhaps not to the level as what we were seeing (at BES).”

Reen then explained the district’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports, wherein Tier 1 students receive regular instruction, Tier 2 students receive regular instruction and some additional targeted support according to their needs, and Tier 3 students receive regular instruction, targeted support and additional supports determined by “the intensive support team.”

In developing the response to issues at BES, the MAUSD admin team “recognized that there are really multiple supports that apply beyond BES to schools throughout MAUSD,” Reen said. “Once we address some of the immediate needs that we’re experiencing, we’re going to shift our focus to some of the longer-range work that can support all of our schools.”

QUESTION FOUR

Reen invited Mount Abe Principal Warden and BES Principal Wells to address the board’s fourth question.

What is the policy or practice for notifying families that students have experienced/witnessed something disruptive at school?

In mid-October, Warden sent out a “news blast” to families, explaining what “clear the halls” announcements meant and what processes they were meant to initiate.

The practice has been the subject of much public discussion this month, with some parents decrying the anxiety it has caused their children and some MAUSD officials insisting it is a necessary component of the district’s safety procedures.

Mount Abe has used the “clear the halls” process for “many years,” Warden said.

“We’ve used (it) a number of times this year — no more, really, than a typical year — and the reasons have been varied, including drills.”

Last year, the school even used it to deal with a plumbing leak that had flooded part of the building, she said.

(When she was later asked for data, Warden said “clear the halls” had been used at Mount Abe this year, twice for medical events requiring privacy, twice for behavioral reasons and once for a drill.)

“One of the added benefits of a ‘clear the halls’ is you go from having (a three- or four-person) administrative team … working on a situation, to every single person in your building putting eyes on students to make sure that they are in a safe location and that they are able to continue on with their day,” Warden explained.

None of this year’s “clear the halls” incidents at Mount Abe has lasted more than seven minutes, Warden said, and instruction is not interrupted during this time.

“If the ‘clear the halls’ were to go on for an extended period of time, I would share that information with families to let them know that there was an interruption to instructional time,” Warden said. “That has not happened, knock on wood, since I’ve been here.”

If an incident in a classroom posed safety concerns or was “troubling” for students, the school would communicate with the impacted students and their families, but not the whole school, she said.

But even then, the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act would prevent the school from communicating any information — including the “why” of a particular “clear the halls” incident — that could violate student confidentiality.

Interim Principal Wells also addressed the question.

“We have used ‘clear the halls’ (at BES) as well, and we’ve used it more frequently than we really would want,” he said. “Some of the occasions have been longer than what we have wanted, and on two occasions, I informed families because I felt … that it was a significant disruption to learning, and I wanted to offer the families some explanation.”

Deciding whether to communicate with families is “always a little bit of a tricky call because we do need to respect confidentiality,” Wells said. “(We want to) inform families to help them be aware and know that their children are safe, but we cannot give a lot of details, and sometimes, frankly, that leaves families wondering.”

MAUSD officials are planning to reassess “clear the halls” practices at BES, Wells said.

“We’ve used it for medical situations, and we’ve done it for students if they are dysregulated, but then there are other times where … it’s (students) going from one place to another, they’re totally regulated, there’s no risk of harm, and there’s really no reason to clear the hall and add stress to the rest of the building. So we’re trying to refine that practice as we work with our SEL experts to provide increasingly improved support for these students.”

When Wells was later asked how many “clear the halls” incidents BES had had so far this year he said he didn’t have the statistics, but it was “more often than (the five) at Mount Abe.” This fall it has happened multiple times in a week, he added, even multiple times in one day.

Indeed, a BES teacher has reported that on Oct. 8 alone, the school’s halls were cleared seven times.

“Which is why we’re pivoting our response,” Wells said.

Several community members insisted during the public comment period that school officials start collecting — and releasing — data related to “clear the halls” incidents.

QUESTION FIVE

What is the policy or practice when a student needs to be evaluated for safety to self or others before returning to school?

If a student at BES makes statements or exhibits behaviors that prompt safety concerns, Wells or a designee is notified, he said, and a process is set in motion.

A mental health professional — it could be a guidance counselor or social worker or CSAC staff — conduct a “triage evaluation.” If they find the student has a low risk of harming themselves or others, the district will work to provide supports, but if they are found to have moderate or high risk, they would be referred to CSAC’s 24-hour ACCESS crisis services — or the student’s guardian(s) could make other arrangements for an evaluation.

“Fortunately, at the elementary level the risk is relatively low … but still, we want to be more safe than sorry,” Wells said.

Mount Abe has similar protocols in place, Warden said.

For students who pose no or low risk, “we invite the family in and we have a conversation about what our concerns are, from a mental health angle, as opposed to a punitive one,” she said.

Students considered moderate to high risk are required to undergo a professional evaluation before they can return to school, and the Bristol Police Department is notified to coordinate a home visit to assess weapons access in the home.

The school uses a restorative approach when convening reentry meetings with students, Warden said.

“That includes a self-facilitated reflection on the impact that their behaviors or comments had on others or the school as a whole, as well as on their family. When appropriate, the student will make restitution with individuals impacted, including their family.”

Mount Abe collects and analyzes data, including anecdotal and digital network monitoring data, to identify and evaluate students who have more specialized behaviors or social and emotional needs, Warden said, “and we develop plans with support from the SEL team to implement and monitor (them), as a proactive step, so that hopefully we don’t get to the point where we are sending students with any sort of risky behaviors to ACCESS, or needing them to not be in school for a period of time.”

STAFF SHORTAGES

When the MAUSD board raised concerns about how the central office planned to juggle support staff among the district’s six school buildings, Reen said “conversations are already under way to acknowledge what’s going to be lost somewhere else to be able to reassign resources to Bristol.”

He also noted, “we can talk about adding all the bodies we want (but) they may well not be there to secure. The hiring conditions right now are not favorable.”

There are currently three student support positions open in the MAUSD, Reen told the Independent on Tuesday, one at BES, one at Mount Abe and one at Robinson Elementary in Starksboro.

These are not counting the 3 positions the district wishes to add as part of its response plan for BES, he said.

That response plan, he explained at the Oct. 21 meeting, “calls for the ideal. We may have to get creative in how we strive for that ideal in terms of finding the personnel. And some of the finding of personnel is wrapped into that partnership with outside agencies.”

That, too, may pose a challenge.

According to a VTDigger.org report last month, nonprofit counseling services in Vermont, which are often the source for school-based clinicians, are also struggling to fill positions — and have been struggling for most of the pandemic.

MAUSD’s school-based clinicians are provided through CSAC, which has been designated by the Vermont Department of Health to provide its programs in this region.

So for instance, while Bristol Elementary is normally supposed to be staffed with two school-based clinicians, the second one hasn’t always been able to be in place, Reen said at the meeting.

Regardless, Maher said during public comment, the MAEA objects to juggling support staff among schools.

“We do not support using possible challenges to hiring staff as an excuse for not attempting to increase needed staffing, and as a justification to move staff from other buildings where staffing is already bare bones,” she said.

OTHER QUESTIONS

Many board members expressed concerns about the policies and practices that prompted BES staff to speak out.

“The fact that we had to have the teachers come here, sort of circumventing the grievance process, because of the dire need they felt to communicate, points to a communication breakdown,” said Steve Rooney of Starksboro. “I’m hearing anecdotes that there’s a very poor communication bridge between the staff and the administration. There’s a culture that doesn’t seem to be really inviting communication across that bridge. I’m interested in seeing that that is improved.”

Dave Sharpe of Bristol, wondered if the school board needs to reassess a few things.

“I think it’s our responsibility to not just hear from the administration,” he said. “This isn’t just a two-way conversation: Are you doing your job? Yes you are, blah blah blah. This is about us being informed about the best way to run the schools, and the best way to run THIS school.”

Sharpe wasn’t surprised by what happened at the Oct. 12 board meeting, he said.

“I heard, before COVID, that there were issues with special ed and coaching, stuff going on over at Bristol Elementary School.”

He encouraged the board to listen more to the community.

“There are people who are afraid to come before the board in a public comment session, for fear of retribution, for fear of how their child will be treated in school, so they come to one of us in a private conversation,” he said. “Is that gossip? No, it’s a tiny red flag.”

TENSIONS FLARE

During the public comment period, Bristol resident Mary Dearborn, speaking “on behalf of a fast-growing coalition of parents and taxpayers,” presented a statement that was intensely critical of the school district’s handling of special education and student support services, as well as the  “disconcerting lack of communication exhibited between the central office and the governing board.”

When Dearborn referred to district administrators by their job titles and began detailing the frustrations recounted to her by coalition parents, she was interrupted by the school board.

“It is not appropriate for us to allow a member of the public to publicly disparage parents, community members, staff, board members or administrators,” said board member Krista Siringo of Bristol. “We very much want to hear from the community. If it is not possible to hear that in a respectful way that is not disparaging to any member of our community, then I plead with this board to end the meeting.”

After some back and forth between the board and community members, Siringo made a motion to adjourn, but after some more back and forth, including a statement from board member Sandra Lee of Lincoln, about why public meetings were not the appropriate venue for lodging staff complaints, the meeting calmed down and Siringo withdrew her motion.

Dearborn appreciated Lee’s explanation, she said, but insisted that parents have already filed complaints through the available channels. “They have tried to voice their concerns to these people, and they’ve been ignored. So what’s their next step? Maybe to hire a lawyer? They don’t want to do that. But they’re feeling ignored … they’re feeling like no one cares.”

(See Dearborn’s full statement here.)

COMMUNICATION

“The Mount Abraham Unified school District is committed to having strong communication channels with the public,” MAUSD board chair Dawn Griswold told the Independent on Tuesday. “The past few weeks have made it clear that we need to create more ways to get information from all stakeholders. This includes sharing information out and gathering information from community members and staff.”

The board intends to reconsider the kinds of data and information it needs to fulfill its role, Griswold continued, and it will also reevaluate its meeting protocols to find a more effective way to hear public comment.

“The Vermont School Board Association is planning a webinar in the near future to bring in experts to assist boards across the state with meeting management,” she said. “This challenge is not unique to our district.”

Griswold also shared with the Independent two documents she thought might be of interest to its readers, and added the board will create an FAQ around these issues on its website.

The document outlining the process for addressing public complaints about district staff can be found at tinyurl.com/MAUSDstaff.

Another document, “Parents’ Rights in Special Education Procedural Safeguards Notice,” was created by the Vermont Agency of Education and can be found by visiting tinyurl.com/VTEDrights.

“Across the state and country, there is significant concern about how best to address the social-emotional and behavioral needs of students in an effective, equitable and just manner,” Griswold concluded. “This concern existed before COVID and has certainly been exacerbated by it. MAUSD is committed to keeping our community informed and providing opportunities for input as we navigate these challenges.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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