Editorial: A bad scene at Fisher Hill School

  • Fisher Hill School in Orange.

Published: 11/23/2018 10:14:25 AM
Modified: 11/23/2018 10:14:34 AM

It’s never good – in fact, it’s always bad – when parents and teachers are compelled to confront a school board out of fear for the safety of children, let alone the quality of their education. It seems all the worse when those students are 5- and 6-year-olds stabbing or being stabbed by classmates.

We knew things were bad at Orange’s Fisher Hill School when its principal was mysteriously relieved of duty under a cloak of “personnel matters” privacy while the state child protection agency was called in to investigate – who knows what, because school officials aren’t saying.

Now it seems the investigation by the state Department of Children and Families may have something to do with out-of-control pupils in kindergarten and first-grade classes.

About 30 people showed up this week at an Orange School Committee meeting to demand a fix for a situation in which young pupils have become violent and cause frequent evacuations of classmates from their first-grade and kindergarten classrooms.

“My daughter is petrified,” reported Tonia Goguen, the mother of a kindergartner who is keeping her child home until it’s safe.

“My daughter will not be coming to school until you get this under control,” Goguen said, adding that her daughter has been acting out at home and sees negative behavior like students stabbing others with pencils while in class. Goguen said she would like troublemaking children removed from the class rather than the other students.

First-grade teacher Kelly Therrien confirmed the chaos, saying nonetheless that the teachers and their aides are trying their best to maintain control of the classrooms, while admitting, “It’s hard, it’s very hard.”

Therrien said she has rearranged her classroom for safety purposes and is still picking up after a student who trashed the room when her class was evacuated Monday for more than an hour.

“As a teacher, my job is going to meet their needs,” Therrien said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Part of the problem seems to be too few staff for the number of students, especially those with obvious behavioral issues. Preschool teacher Jackie Graziano said cutting the number of kindergarten classes at Fisher Hill from four to three this year as part of district-wide budget cuts increased the number of students in the classes, making it more difficult for teachers to control students who act out.

“We all warned you as parents and teachers (about the cuts),” Graziano said.

The class size problem may be remedied somewhat as Superintendent Tari Thomas has now decided to restore the fourth class, although she declined to cite the disruptions as the reason. The money will come from $50,000 in special rural aid money from the state that the school learned on Oct. 17 it would be receiving.

Thomas was optimistic she and her staff could get things under control. We sure hope so. The current situation is totally unacceptable and should never have gotten to the point that parents and teachers had to descend on the school board. We were quite impressed by the restraint shown by the town’s parents, and amazed the staff has held on this long.

School officials still haven’t explained what connection all this has with Principal Maureen Donelan, and we hope that will become clear eventually, for everyone’s sake. The town’s taxpayers and parents have a right to know how well or poorly their school is being run.

But the top priority right now is for the school’s administration and school board to fix this totally unacceptable problem, immediately, and to do it as transparently as possible.

School Committee Chairman Stephanie Conrod has promised a meeting to discuss evacuation policies and student safety within two weeks.

That’s good news. We were pleased to hear that willingness to address a serious problem rather than defensiveness, and to see that school board members Monday seemed genuinely concerned and engaged as the parents and staff expressed their angst. We hope that translates into swift remediation, and a happier, healthier elementary school.

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