A large portion of the discussion during the April 25th informal school board meeting centered around violent bullying incidents that recently occurred at local schools and the lack of or inadequate notification to parents of students involved and school board members.
School board member Shannon Rodriguez launched the discussion stating that the school district is not informing parents about fights in schools adequately. She said that some of these altercations have been videotaped at schools by students and shared online. In the case she highlighted at West Hernando Middle School, it was fortunate that the 15-year-old perpetrator decided to show off online by posting the video of the fight.
Otherwise, the parents of the much younger student who was beaten up would never have known the severity of their son’s beating and humiliation. The school told them that it was a minor incident and the aggressor had just been having a bad day, even though a school staff member witnessed the incident. Rodriguez said the same students were involved in a similar situation earlier in the year, and the parents of the younger child filed an incident report, but nothing happened.
Superintendent Stratton agreed that there was a significant disconnect between what actually happened and what the school communicated to the parents.“What the teacher obviously saw, because you could see it in the video, did not get conveyed to the assistant principal. And from what I can tell, the assistant principal didn’t communicate or interview the teacher that saw it as well… The teacher that witnessed it has an obligation to step up and say here’s what I saw, and we have- we being administration, have an obligation to make sure we’re interviewing any and all, including the adults there. So that information was definitely, in my opinion, described differently than what actually occurred, and yet an adult saw it.”
School board member Mark Johnson described an incident that occurred a year ago at West Hernando Middle School, where a boy was pummeled from behind. A video surfaced showing a staff member watching the entire thing.
He said, “If that’s going on and it happened again, there’s something systemically wrong with the way they are communicating in that school or possibly within the whole school system. That needs to be corrected- that has to stop.”
Johnson relayed another incident that supposedly occurred on April 24 at West Hernando Middle School. He said that he had not vetted the accuracy of the story. In this situation, a girl was pushed a few times by a boy, and she swung at him to defend herself. He then punched her in the face, knocked her down, and spit on her. He said the girl was suspended for ten days. Johnson expressed concern for the girl’s punishment if it was true that she was defending herself. He also stated, “I don’t know if they’ll be a video coming out, but I don’t know why we didn’t get any notification of this. That’s what disturbs me.”
Superintendent Stratton said, “Just so we’re clear, we haven’t notified about every fight that’s occurred in the district… What we have shared with you, as you know, are those major incidents that involved EMS, fire department, police, staff members, major behaviors. I honestly don’t know if we’ll be able to keep up, letting you know about every single thing that’s happening like that- because I’m not sure the schools could keep up with that.”
Rodriguez stated that she doesn’t feel that school board members are even well informed about the major incidents, citing the recent Fox Chapel teacher issue that received nationwide attention. In that incident, a transgender teacher experiencing a mental crisis during school hours made statements that were perceived by some as threats against students. The teacher was removed and returned to the classroom in a matter of days, all without specific notification to parents.
Rodriguez said, “We don’t even know the big things because the big things that just took place that could have ended in a horrible outcome, we never were pervy to that information all the way through.”
She continued, “Getting one sentence line- like we get 50 of them a day on a thread – doesn’t tell us anything. When it’s something that serious, and it’s an altercation to the level that it was with this Fox Chapel situation, we should be the frontline- we are the frontline- we should be the first ones to know about it.” She said it’s their responsibility to make the right judgment calls, and ultimately it’s about the safety of the children.
Rodriguez asked the other school board members when they were informed about the Fox Chapel incident. Susan Duval and Linda Prescott stated that they were not aware of it until just before the school board meeting on April 10.
“That is a huge problem because, at the end of the day, that responsibility lies on us. Those parents are screaming at us,” Rodriguez remarked.
She went on to state that had she known the full details, she would have insisted that the teacher be removed from student contact immediately.
School board member Linda Prescott took a different stance on that. She said that Sheriff Nienhuis had described many times how competitive the School Resource Officer (SRO) positions are, receiving over 100 applicants for each post. She said she trusts the SRO who interviewed that teacher. “So at some point, Mrs. Rodriguez, they’re the experts. We’re not the experts,” she said.
Rodriguez asked, “Are you really kidding me right now?”
Prescott stated, “I am not kidding you. I am saying that that SRO- highly trained, experienced with threats of all kinds, made that decision. Was he the only one that made that decision? No, then we had the mental health licensed counselor who came in and also talked to that teacher. Again, none of us have the training that these people do. She did go home, and they did remove her guns as a safety precaution. So do you want to be called with every incident like this?”
Rodriguez said, “Yes. I do… When you say they are highly trained, well, shame on all of them that are highly trained because this was a serious situation that did not get handled the way it should have.”
“So no, I will never agree with you on this- that they’re highly trained, and we sit back and just take their word for it. It takes common sense… we don’t put those children at risk. It’s paramount that the safety of those children is first. When you’re removing guns from someone’s house, and you have a situation that was severe as that, no, it doesn’t take 24 hours before that person’s stable mentally to be able to take care of kids and hope that those kids don’t end up in a bad position… We have to be proactive, not reactive.”
Mark Johnson stated, “The highly trained SRO at Fox Chapel was the same SRO who was at West Hernando Middle School when that boy was pummeled, and it was originally related as a minor incident – that’s a fact.”
Both Johnson and Prescott said that it would be beneficial to review policy and procedures as it relates to any major incidents that occur within the schools. Prescott cautioned that they are only in charge of policy and procedures, while Superintendent oversees personnel.
Stratton said that he agrees with reviewing protocols and procedures, and he’ll get the board members all of the information feasibly possible.
Stratton stated that they are also going to review and set procedures for dealing with a Risk Protection Order (RPO). He said the district had never dealt with an RPO before the incident with the Fox Chapel teacher since it’s not an educational item- it’s in the courts. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re just sitting back and letting things just happen to us- that’s not the case.” He said he’d make sure the school board members are in the loop as much as possible.