Friday, December 10, 1999
Tempers flare over harrassment issue at CSC meeting
Since a complaint was filed against the Carlisle Public Schools last April, concerns have been simmering and coming out in various venues, primarily in letters to the Mosquito. However, emotions errupted, tears fell and tempers flared at the December 7 Carlisle School Committee. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little resolution of the issue plagueing the school.
People interested in attending the meeting scheduled to convene at 7 p.m., were asked to wait outside for 50 minutes until an executive session "to discuss legal issues" ended. When the meeting reopened, chair David Dockterman said that although the issue was not on the agenda the group would discuss the matter for which the large audience had appeared. He introduced the school's attorney Nick Faberito who explained what could be discussed in an open session, the need to protect the privacy of students and teachers, and the requirements of an executive session. If the discussion involves the reputation or character of an individual, or complaints against that person, it must be done in executive session unless the individual wants it to be discussed in an open session. Even in executive session, the person must be given 48 hours notice so the individual can defend himself. However, he said the group could discuss policy and general issues.
Dockterman announced that the new sexual harassment policy will be mailed to parents this week and reminded the audience that the policy was under review prior to the recent complaints. Director of special education Linda Stapp, who is the school's designated Title 9 officer summarized the policy. Dockterman assured the audience multiple times that the school had the students best interest at heart.
At that point the audience raised their concerns. High school senior Meghan Savage, who claimed that years ago "the teacher involved embarassed her both publicly and privately in class," asked about the differences in the new policy. Stapp responded that it's more specific, readily available to students and teachers and the teachers have received some training about the policy. Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson said the old policy was vague.
Lizzy Thomas, also a senior in high school, said that she and Meghan had filed a complaint five years ago yet the school is saying there had been no prior complaints. Dockterman commented that they had to respect the privacy of the individual involved. To this, parent Sandy Savage responded that since Meghan, Lizzy and superintendent were present, that issue could be discussed. She claimed that a contract was signed by the students at a meeting with the superintendent. Fox-Melanson said, "I don't recall it exactly that way. I remember it was resolved at an informal level."
John Alberico, the parent who filed the initial legal complaint, asked if that informal process was what was recommended in the old policy. Fox-Melanson said that, according to the old policy. the "trusted person" was supposed to handle and she assumed that the guidance counselor, the primary person, did that.
Savage pressed the issue by asking, "Do you remember meeting with my daughter?" and Fox-Melason responded affirmatively. Savage asked, "Do remember notifying us [the parents]?" and Fox-Melanson admitted that she did not do that. Savage asked about the contract that the students signed and the accompanying documentation. To which Fox-Melanson responded that she had none. Savage pressed and asked about information in the guidance records and Fox-Melanson responded that she didn't know if there were any there. "So nobody has any records?" Savage asked in disbelief. As in her letter to the editor, Savage asked for an open meeting to discuss the matter.
Dockterman responded that there is now a policy in place to handle complaints and "the public arena is not the place to discuss individuals."
Alberico asked if the school committee provides oversight to see if the administration is following its policies. Dockterman answered that the committee does annual reviews of the administrators. He also encouraged residents to call committee members with concerns. Parent Marguerite Widell also raised issues about communication with committee members and how to impact the committee's agenda. Dockterman responded that he can be contacted if residents want to be placed on the agenda and he will do so, if appropriate. Member Paul Morrison added that if residents are dissatisfied with a committee members's response they are welcome to appear at a meeting and express their opinion.
Thomas, who graduated in 1996, asked for a copy of their records. The lawyer responded that the school is required to keep the records for five years after graduation. "We don't know if these records exist or not. The principal needs to look and see if the records exist." Members of the audience persisted in asking questions about the existance and location of the records.
Resident Margo Seltzer asked the school how they can reconcile earlier responses that there had been no previous complaints against the teacher with the allegations made by students Savage and Thomas.
Former school committee member Tim Hult said that he knew everyone involved including the students, whom he had coached. He said he trusted all parties involved and asked if there couldn't be a discussion in executive session to resolve the matter. The lawyer responded that would be possible and Dockterman said they would consider the suggestion seriously. "We want to have the trust of the community," he said.
Tearfully, Meghan Savage said to Fox-Melanson, "I trusted you. I trusted you to call my mother" and she ran from the room. With rising emotions, Meghan's mother reiterated that the students trusted the administration and admonished, "You should be ashamed of yourself."
Alberico said that they were told previously that there was no possibility of discussing the matter in executive session. He claimed he made phone calls but did not get satisfactory response or help with the procedures. That was why the family took legal recourse, he said.
In closing, Dockterman said, "We appreciate people's concerns. We want to re-establish trust with the community." While he said this is a high priority, he also reminded the audience that there are "a lot of wonderful things happening at the school." He wanted to maintain those things while "also addressing trust, student welfare and safety."
After most of the audience had left and the balance of the agenda items were complete Fox-Melanson made a statement. "I take my responsibilities very seriously. I've never ignored a student complaint." She said that these problems should be addressed and then "put behind us." There is now a strengthened policy in place. The committee then adjourned again into executive session.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito