Friday, January 14, 2000
Discussion heats up over handling of alleged sexual harassment case
Anger and frustration predominated during the citizen comment period at the school committee meeting on January 4, amidst an audience of about 25 people. Angry comments were directed at Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson and she walked out of the meeting. Meanwhile, school administrators, teachers, school committee members and community members were frustrated as to how to resolve an issue between a student and a teacher.
The school personnel and administrators must operate under the Commonwealth and federal government laws, school policy and daily scrutiny of 750 kids. They are urged to maintain the highest standards, personal integrity and professionalism by the community. They are also bound professionally, legally and ethically to protect individuals under their jurisdiction and care.
The citizen comments began with John Alberico, who had filed and withdrawn the harassment complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, saying he wanted to"have an oversight on the performance of the administrator." He wanted to know about the role of the superintendent. "Was it to follow, reinforce, and maintain the policies of the school?"
Chair David Dockterman answered that the school committee annually evaluates the performance of the superintendent. "In that evaluation, the CSC looks at a number of things, such as how the superintendent enforces policy and follows goals. The best way for the community to provide input is in writing to the school committee."
Marion Alberico commented that they had never received a copy of the 1993 policy and have only just recently received a copy. Dockterman responded that "copies of all policies are distributed in the summer packet."
In a telephone conversation, the superintendent's secretary Peg Lynch stated that all policies, including the outdated, four-page, 1993 sexual harassment policy and the Carlisle School Handbook, which refers to the policy of "sexual harassment," have been distributed to each family on a yearly basis in the summer packet. The 1999 newly revised sexual harassment policy was sent out in a separate mailing in October.
At this point in the meeting, John Alberico said, "We find the superintendent in failure of following policy. There is negligence in her performing her duties and we ask the school committee to remove her from her position. We strongly ask her to resign."
Dockterman said in the evaluation of the superintendent that they consider details carefully and with due diligence. Information the committee receives in writing is easier for the committee to acknowledge.
When questioned by Alberico as to whether the school has documented evidence regarding the past complaints from students, Dockterman answered that he should refer to the school's Title 9 officer, now Linda Stapp. He added, "It is easier for the school personnel and school committee to respond if questions or comments are in writing."
In the audience, Margo Seltzer of East Riding Drive said that having had some professional experience with Title 9, she knew that the officer acts under federal obligations. However, Alberico felt there was a conflict of interest here since the superintendent hires and fires the Title 9 officer. Dockterman replied there are other options such as the regional Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education (OCR) and Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). "These people are professionals."
Standing up, Alberico angrily responded by saying, "I see that the community has failed. Ultimately, you end up with a monetary settlement and silence and no resolution. We want to fix it so the school system is better. It is a chronic and continuing issue. People have been hurt by the system from the early '90s. This is a system which has persisted for years. Davida has failed to follow her own policy."
Fox-Melanson's response was to leave the meeting saying, "I will not stay here to hear my character being assassinated."
School committee member Morrison stated, "There are issues which we cannot discuss in a public forum. We have a responsibility to maintain confidentiality." Directing his attention to John Alberico, he said, "If you have issues, bring them up in writing and not in a public forum."
The tone of the meeting became testy. At one point, Amy Mestancik of Indian Hill said there should be education and conversations between the school, parents and children about the issue of touching. To which third grade teacher Gene Stamell jumped in and said, "It wasn't a case of touching." Mestancik apologized and said that was not what she had meant. She was trying to provide a helpful comment for future policy.
It was parent Maureen Tarca who said that the school committee should hire someone to do an independent evaluation, "only on a need-to-know basis, so the issue can go forward. It does need to be discussed in a very confidential way. When someone is being totally slandered, if you are not guilty it is hard to shake." Three other parents in the audience voiced their agreement with this suggestion and also with Patty Geoffroy of Acton Street who said, "All the people are suffering. This is a community of people suffering."
Carlisle School parent Jennine Blum pointed out that the school is facing a tight budget. However, she felt that hiring an independent investigator will support putting aside a piece of frustration.
Parent Piper Lind commented that as an observer and "one who doesn't know what is going on," the public perception of the school is deeply eroding. "Our perception is that the school is not doing anything. The school committee is not even following the six percent guideline set by the finance committee."
School committee member Suzanne Whitney Smith replied, "Look at the budget. We are required by law to provide certain services. We can't get to that at six percent without going against legal contracts. We cannot provide the service the community has asked us to provide."
Dockterman said that the committee needs to reinvigorate the trust in the school because the budget will be affected. Morrison said, "We don't know where we will get the money, but we can make the recommendation about having an independent investigation."
Parent Marguerite Widell said, "We are trying to come up with suggestions." Dockterman said, "When we hear from you that you have no faith in the administration, that hurts. It resonates through the entire school." Dockterman went on to say that the issues are not clear cut and many are confidential. "We grapple with trying to do things right."
Steve Greene, Carlisle resident and educator, said "Title 9 is a very big job." While he voiced concern that the Title 9 job was too big for one person, committee members responded that Stapp, with a doctorate, is well qualified.
"We had faith in the school a year ago," Marion Alberico said. "Our daughter has had a wonderful six years of school." In a follow-up telephone conversation she said, "We feel the superintendent should have controlled the situation and caused the teacher to cease the behavior." She went on to say that they asked for the complaint to be withdrawn from MCAD because they didn't want "to drag our daughter through the judgement process....The teacher made her feel 'icky' but I don't feel like I should say anything more."
Expressing a need to "move forward" with this issue, both Mestancik and Tarca felt hiring an independent, trained investigator would be helpful in achieving closure and resolution. As Mestancik said, it is a plan. "I personally have a great deal of trust in the administration and teachers. I worry about a witch hunt mentality."
A sexual harassment policy and complaint procedure for students was adopted by the school committee on September 21, 1999. This policy is an update of a four-page, 1993 policy. It is referred to in the Carlisle School Handbook and is sent home to every parent in the summer packet. However, this school year, it was sent out in a separate mailing in October.
The new document states that sexual harassment violates the policies of the Carlisle School District and also violates the law, specifically Title 9 and General Laws Chapter 151C. A complaint needs to be put in writing so there will be no misunderstanding as to the nature of the complaint.
The policy states that the informal procedure will be completed within five school days from the date the Title 9 officer receives the complaint. The formal procedure will be completed within 20 days of the date the complaint is filed with the Title 9 officer. On another level, the decision can be appealed in writing within 15 days and the decision to this appeal must be provided within 30 days.
Individuals also have the right to seek a remedy from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education. According to MCAD, all complaints must be filed within six months. The federal limit for filing a complaint is 180 days.
In a phone conversation, Stapp said, "I am not aware of time limitations on the state and federal level, but as a professional I would follow up on any complaint even beyond the six-month limitation."
In conclusion, Geoffroy thanked the school for the forum by educator and psychologist Rosemary Apthorp, "How to talk about Delicate Issues" in January 11. Nock asked everyone who has any input on the new sexual harassment policy to put it in writing and give it to the school. Alberico concluded that he felt he could get something together. "I feel confident we can resolve issues in executive session." Due to his business schedule he hopes "to schedule it in March."
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito