Fisher Hill School employees still on leave after state investigation

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2018 2:59:46 PM
Modified: 11/27/2018 10:00:51 PM

ORANGE — The principal of Fisher Hill Elementary School is still on paid leave after the state Department of Children and Families found nothing to the allegations of neglect and abuse against her after a weeks-long investigation.

Fisher Hill Principal Maureen Donelan said she wants to return to work, and does not understand why she is still on paid leave. She received a letter from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) dated Nov. 2 stating the investigation was complete and allegations against her were “unsupported,” requiring no further action.

“My understanding is that I was placed on leave because I was removing students from the classroom who were aggressive towards other students and staff and engaging in unsafe, assaulting behavior,” Donelan said. “I have always followed our district written policies and procedures so I’m very surprised by this sudden change.”

A spokesperson for DCF confirmed on Monday that the investigation was complete, but by law cannot share the confidential findings.

In addition to the DCF investigation, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is looking into allegations of abuse while the school conducts its own internal probe. Until all investigations are complete, the four staff members involved will remain on paid leave, said Orange Superintendent Tari Thomas.

“Parents and staff have wonderings about various specifics, however since these allegations involve our students, as well as a number of staff members, the details must remain confidential,” Thomas said in a statement. “We always put the safety and the security of our students first, and we internally investigate any allegations of misconduct thoroughly.”

Thomas attended a Nov. 19 School Committee meeting, where about 30 people voiced their concerns about a disorderly and dangerous school environment at Fisher Hill. Some parents allege their children are scared to go to school, with one keeping their child at home to avoid violent classmates. Others say students have been stabbing each other with pencils, threatening teachers and causing disruptions in class that cause “frequent evacuations” of classrooms.

“My heart broke when I heard about the parents, teachers and students in so much distress at a recent school committee meeting,” Donelan said. “Children at Fisher Hill were never in danger, abused or neglected.”

At the meeting, first grade teacher Kelly Therrien sympathized with parents, saying that her classroom was one of the unruliest, reports the Greenfield Recorder. “Trust me, we’re trying,” Therrien said.

Donelan says that budget cuts, reductions in staff, and more students entering school with trauma and behavioral concerns are to blame for the hectic environment. However, she thanks the school administration for not cutting the fourth kindergarten class back in July, which would have made class sizes larger.

“This has been a painful period of time, but the staff has been incredibly professional and caring,” Donelan said.

Donelan was first placed on leave on Oct. 3, and says that since she and three other staff members were placed on leave the situation at the school has deteriorated. She is confident that if they are allowed to return to work, the students will be better served.

“These are behaviors that we were keeping under control until staff was placed on leave,” Donelan said. “I am confident we can regain control of the situation as soon as the staff is returned to work.”

For now, Dr. Taryn Dery is serving as the interim principal of Fisher Hill School, according to Thomas, who said the educator has an extensive background in special education and administration.

In a statement, Thomas said the school is cooperating with all pending investigations. In the meantime, staff are asked to revisit safety and trauma trainings, and the school has requested additional counseling support. An analysis of recess and lunchtime routines and bringing back school community meetings are also on the table to help alleviate the stressful situation.

“Fisher Hill was not that way before, and it does not have to be that way,” Donelan said. “School should be a safe, happy place where children go to learn and play.”

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