Education News

MAUSD board turns away distraught parent

I should be able to feel like I can have a voice and be able to find out how on earth do I even get my message to you (the school board). Because if it’s this hard to even get my message out, then how will it ever get fixed?
— Bristol parent at MAUSD School Board meeting

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Unified School District Board chair Dawn Griswold refused to convene an executive session Monday night to hear testimony from a distraught parent who alleges her child was sexually harassed at Bristol Elementary School.

Griswold said she couldn’t convene an executive session because it was too late to alter the meeting’s agenda. After conferring with Superintendent Patrick Reen in private, and trying unsuccessfully to reach the school board’s attorney, she suggested the parent come back another time.

The parent had filed a formal complaint with the school district on Nov. 10, requesting an investigation into what she alleges were “unwelcome sexual advances, physical assault and other contact of a sexual nature” experienced by her child and at least four other children at the school.

According to the complaint, Bristol Elementary staff were made aware of the issue in September and a school counselor assured the parent the school was “aware and mindful of the need to supervise this situation during recess.”

But more incidents were reported by multiple students in November, the complaint states. As a result, the parent said, her child has expressed concerns about returning to school.

Frustrated with the response she received from district administrators, she appealed to the school board.

“When I saw the placeholder (for an executive session) on the agenda, I thought, ‘Maybe that’s my chance, to be able to come and express something that I really, really need to talk to all of you about,’” the parent told the school board near the end of Monday night’s meeting, after Griswold had declined to hold the executive session. “But instead, it’s all politics and this and that, and I don’t even have a chance to talk about what I really need to talk about. I shouldn’t have to come back.”

The parent began to weep.

“I should be able to say it now, when it matters,” she continued. “And that is the problem. As a member of the public it should be very clear how to get the help that you need. In schools it should be very clear how kids can get the help that they need.”

She acknowledged the school board has constraints.

“But I should also be able to feel like I can have a voice, too, and be able to find out how on earth do I even get my message to you,” she said. “Because if it’s this hard to even get my message out, then how will it ever get fixed?”

At a school board meeting last month, the board invited a parent to share her concerns during a pre-planned executive session as an alternative to speaking about her child during the public comment period, which Griswold said was not allowed.

Board member Krista Siringo of Bristol alluded to that instance during the board’s self-evaluation process at the end of Monday’s night’s meeting.

“I don’t understand…,” Siringo said, but then trailed off. “I mean, I think it’s really hard to be here and hear these things and not have any opportunity to get any info, and it puts board members in a really not very nice position. And I don’t know why we didn’t have … why that wasn’t thought about. And I’m frustrated by that.”

TOUGH YEAR

The district, like many around Vermont and the rest of the nation, has been struggling with behavior issues as students return to school on a full-time basis after remote or hybrid learning during the first year of the pandemic.

In October, Bristol Elementary teachers appealed to the school board for help with unsafe working conditions after an incident involving a student resulted in heavy damage to a classroom there.

Earlier this month, a Mount Abraham Union High School student was taken to UVM Medical Center after a physical attack by another student in the school.

School officials have pledged more resources and help for students in need, but some district residents are wondering why these incidents keep happening.

At Monday night’s meeting, Bristol parent Bill Mount raised concerns about yet another incident at the high school, involving what he described as one student’s intentional public humiliation of another student in the school cafeteria.

“We’re going on a month since that first meeting regarding a violent outburst at Bristol Elementary School,” he said, and “parents have yet to hear any clarification or implemented planning that would address the original two-day event, and certainly nothing to address these new events.”

The Bristol parent who tried to speak directly to the MAUSD board Monday night told the Independent she would try again, and hoped she would be given the opportunity to be heard at a special executive-session-only school board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 17, after the deadline for this edition.

But Griswold told the Independent on Wednesday morning that “the meeting scheduled tonight is for another issue and we can’t hear from” the parent for a procedural reason. The special meetings are warned for “Confidential attorney-client communications” and “a grievance hearing.”

Also on Wednesday morning, Assistant Superintendent Catrina DiNapoli notified the parent that she had received the Nov. 10 formal complaint and that the district had opened an investigation into the allegations, to be conducted by Bristol Elementary Principal David Wells and School Counselor Laura Emilo.

IT’S EVERYWHERE

The Agency of Education is well aware of heightened behavior concerns, AOE Coordinator of Behavioral Supports Tracy Harris told the Independent earlier this month.

“It’s a statewide concern,” Harris said. “Students and families are in crisis, and the pandemic has exaggerated the traumas that people were dealing with pre-pandemic.”

If Harris could wave a magic wand she would “let people know that we’re not talking about bad kids,” she said.

“These are the same kids we’ve always been teaching, loving, going to church with. They’re struggling.”

And schools are understaffed, she said.

“If we had the staff we used to have we’d be better able to cope with the behavior issues we’re seeing.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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