Orange School Committee seems lost on Fisher Hill

  • Fisher Hill School

Published: 12/24/2018 11:39:08 AM
Modified: 12/24/2018 11:39:11 AM

It seemed like a rather surrealistic Orange School Committee meeting this past Monday.

While Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod made an emotional speech that ran for several minutes, talking about trust and integrity and noting that the school board members are not “terrible people,” it was easy to sense school officials were feeling battered and defensive about the problems with violently disruptive students at Fisher Hill School – and what the school’s leaders have and have not done about it. We are talking about kindergarten and first grade here.

In recent weeks, Fisher Hill has been roiled by investigations of staff handling of out-of-control pupils disrupting classes and threatening teachers, and by the placing on leave the principal and some staffers, with no public explanation but presumably related to the classroom chaos.

The state’s child welfare agency has cleared the staff of endangerment of children, and many of the school’s staff endorsed a letter of support for the principal. Amid all this, the school board members this month got an earful from the public and parents about the problems of an apparently overwhelmed teaching staff trying to cope with regular, violent disruptive behavior by some students that has forced classroom evacuations. The school board members met Monday to consider what they have heard and what to do.

It’s a good thing they tried to grapple with the problem, but they seemed to be fumbling badly as committee members sought an answer to the complicated complaints of their frustrated staff and fuming parents.

“I hope what we do tonight brings back a sense of integrity and trust,” Conrod said. “We sound like terrible people. We’re not terrible people. We’re just in a crisis.”

Crisis indeed. Monday’s session didn’t seem to do much to advance toward a fix, however, despite a structured brainstorming session initiated by School Superintendent Tari Thomas. Throughout the meeting Conrod and School Committee Vice Chairwoman Amy White talked about better communication with the public, particularly with parents to get them through this situation. Well, communication is always a good thing, but it’s not going to stop students from acting out.

In a working group on student issues, which included Conrod and Dexter Park Principal Christopher Dodge, there was discussion of concrete ideas like how a reward system for good behavior is working and a need for more interaction between Dexter Park students and Fisher Hill’s younger students to provide mentorship.

A separate personnel working group identified the need for more staff and more trainings, presumably around how to cope with wildly disruptive students.

Both working groups suggested a new name for the evacuation of classes. One pitched “class relocation” and the other “class excursion.”

While we agree that better communication with parents about what’s going on, right or wrong, in the schools is important, rebranding evacuation of classes is pointless. Attention needs to be focused on curbing the reason for evacuations.

After these ideas were discussed, the committee stalled, seemed unclear what to do next. Thomas gently urged another meeting. She then explained they need to write up their findings and put it into a document. “That way we can hold all of ourselves accountable for the next steps,” she said.

Board members agreed vaguely they needed to move the discussion into action. That intuition is right.

But it was first-grade teacher Kelly Therrien who brought things back to reality and where the discussion needs to go when she pleaded for help as soon as possible.

“What do I do?” she pleaded. This school year she has had to evacuate her classroom about 30 times. It has set her back about a month in her teachings, she said.

In the meantime, Fisher Hill teachers will be asked to figure out what their needs are in the immediate future, “So you’re not feeling like you’re feeling,” White said to Therrien.

“I can’t say we can actually implement all of those because some of it is money and we all know money is an issue,” White said, but, “We need to hear what you need, immediately.”

All true. But then the school board and its superintendent need to solve this problem. This should not have dragged on this long. Surely there are experts in child behavior who can understand the problem, its causes and its cures.

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