Last night's regularly scheduled PTA meeting at Farm Hill Elementary School drew way more than the normal "ten or so" parent attendees. In fact, the media contingent alone easily passed that benchmark with at least five camera crews and several print and internet reporters there as well.
PTA President Apryl Dudley conducted the beginning of the meeting as she normally would have, talking about upcoming events such as the sale of candy roses for Valentine's Day or the box top collection. When she finished, she turned the meeting over to Superintendent Michael Frechette, who was joined by BOE Chairman Gene Nocera, Assistant Superintendent Barbara Senges, Farm Hill Principal Patricia Girard, and other central office staff. Five current BOE members were also in the audience (Sheila Daniels, Ed McKeon, Ava Hart, Bill Grady, and Mitchell Wynn) as well as former member Sally Boske. Mayor Dan Drew was present, although he had no official involvement with the proceedings.
Dr. Frechette began his presentation by confronting the "untrue rumors" he said were circulating around town. In particular, while some special education students (less than 10 at Farm Hill) might use a time-out room as part of their individual behavior plans, no one has ever been seriously injured as a result of being in such a room. Frechette confirmed that some students had banged their heads on the wall, another wiped blood from a cut finger on the wall, and a few students had urinated in the room. Currently the rooms in question have a door that can be locked from the outside (with the principal and building super holding keys), but that lock is scheduled to be removed today. Since the beginning of school in September 2011, police and/or emergency medical staff have been summoned to the school 9 times (6 medical, 3 behavior), but there is no direct link to students being in the time-out room who then need an ambulance. "In fact," Dr. Frechette clarified after the meeting, "one of the ambulance calls was for a bus driver and it had nothing to do with the students."
Citing communication, climate, and student management as the three main "issues" facing Farm Hill, Frechette said that the central office had been aware of problems at Farm Hill since the fall, and had been "working at the lowest level" to resolve those issues. Admitting that this approach hadn't worked as it was intended, Frechette then resolved to take a more aggressive approach: "I'm committed to turning this around...we need to be transparent with our outcomes and clear with parents, clear with students, clear with staff, and we need to talk about the issues we face. Communication here really needs work....Quite frankly, it has gone on too long." His comments were met with loud applause, and then it was Principal Patricia Girard's turn to talk.
Girard thanked parents for coming to the meeting, commenting that it was the first step in addressing the concerns facing the school. She acknowledged that it was her responsibility to have clear communications at the school, saying "it's lacking." Girard went on to say that there would be two opportunities for parents to be directly involved: first, as the parent compact is being re-written to focus on the school's climate, and secondly, on the Climate Committee itself. There were sign-up sheets available outside the meeting area, but parents can contact the school office as well if they are interested in participating.
Girard then turned her comments to address the rumors and accusations she had heard: "The rumors are scary and unfounded. There is a perception the school is out of control." She went on to explain, step by step, how the "time-out" room is used:
- A student is monitored at all times in the time-out room
- The child can't lock him or herself in
- The child is never left unattended
- The staff member may be in the room or just outside the door
- There is a window in the door to see into the room
- A staff member who uses a time-out room has received de-escalation training
- Only students who have the use of a time-out room as part of their personal behavior management plans (approved and signed by the parents) use the room in this fashion
- The time-out room is used as a last resort
- If a student requires more restrictive action to control his or her behavior, more accountability procedures are activated including parental notification and other required documentation
Laurie Slade, Supervisor of Special Education & Pupil Services explained further:
- Students who have Behavior Management Plans are those with serious emotional disturbances, not just random regular students
- These students also have a very specific educational plan
- State law governs how and when students can be restrained as well as when parental notification occurs
- Intensive Case Management (ICM) does not refer to a program but rather a student who requires additional support services or is more seriously disabled
- If a time-out room is used to de-escalate a student's behavior, a documentation report is generated that covers what happened, including who was involved, what time it happened and how long it lasted, a nurse's assessment of any possible injury, and the frequency of the event.
Board of Education Chairman Gene Nocera spoke next, saying "The Board of Education is deeply concerned by the comments made at Tuesday night's meeting, and we will look into all allegations to be certain we are following best practices and state guidelines." Nocera then commented that "mistakes have been made, and we're here to correct those mistakes." Before opening up a general Q&A session, Dr. Nocera asked the crowd to "be respectful with your questions...we'll stay here as long as we have to."
It would be the understatement of the year to say parents were upset. More than 30 parents got up to ask questions, some more than once. Many of the questions centered on use of the "time-out room" and who could be placed into it, who monitored it, why it was located at Farm Hill, did other schools have one, and why wasn't it padded. There was much confusion over terminology as the same room is used for "time-out" for students with behavior management plans as well as an "alternative learning environment" for the general school population.
Some parents asked about their child specifically, wondering who determines if the room is used as a "time-out" or an "alternative learning environment," stating that their children reported being in the "scream room" without any parental notification it had happened. Others expressed frustration at previous attempts to bring issues to the attention of the administration, feeling ignored and unheard. In particular, PTA President Apryl Dudley said that after she had sent her letter on January 6th, she was told by several BOE members that the Superintendent would contact her directly. "It's been 7 days now, and I haven't heard a thing." At that moment, Dr. Frechette apologized directly to Dudley, but the crowd's reaction was not kind to his response.
Two young Farm Hill female students (both about 10 or so) waited in line to speak. The first cried during her comments, saying it was scary to come to school and that she didn't know what to do. The second girl echoed her classmate saying, "I don't know how to do my homework...how did this happen to our school?" Principal Girard responded to both girls with an apology: "I'm sorry, I will do whatever I can to make it better. We care about you and we promise to make it safe."
Other parents were concerned about the lasting impact on their child's psychological well-being. Several mentioned that their children were afraid of school and that the continual disturbances weren't fair. One parent said that "if these kids are so disruptive and need that room, then maybe they shouldn't be in our school at all." Loud applause followed this comment. A follow-on question asked about the DEAL program, noting it had been very successful and well-liked. Ann Perzan, Director of Pupil Services and Special Education, told the audience that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act changed in 2004, and the DEAL program was no longer in compliance with the requirements of the law. [Author's note: At Tuesday night's BOE meeting, Asst. Superintendent Barbara Senges told the board that when the DEAL program dissolved, programs were set up at both middle schools, the high school, and then at the elementary schools nearest the largest concentration of the student population needing those services. Last year, Bielefield Elementary housed the special education program, and this year it moved to Farm Hill to follow where the students were actually located.)
Several very dramatic moments occurred during the more than two-and-a-half-hour long meeting. Parents yelled at each other ("you don't understand what my child goes through." "No, YOU don't understand what MY child goes through."), parents yelled at the principal and superintendent ("We have no confidence in this system...you've done nothing to make me feel comfortable or to give me confidence..."), and parents yelled comments while another parent was trying to ask a question. More than one parent tried to offer a positive comment or to suggest that working together might be more effective than finger-pointing, but those comments were few and far between. Local 466 Union President Jeff Daniels got a standing ovation for his comments that the administration needs to let teachers and staff do their jobs without fear of retribution. Daniels also suggested that he had specific evidence to prove the whole truth wasn't being told about what was happening in the "time-out rooms," noting, "I feel bad for my community and I'm here to help in any way I can, but if people are scared to do their jobs, then we're going to have a problem."
Another particularly tense moment occurred when a parent commented to Asst. Superintendent Barbara Senges, "your noticeable silence is offensive." Senges replied that she had not been asked a direct question all night, that most of her work is behind the scenes, that lots of work had gone into putting a response plan together, and that "we came here tonight in a very honest way. We care about every child. We heard you, and I've kept silent because I've worked with these very dedicated educators for six years and I can't believe the very offensive, rude comments I've heard tonight." Senges was immediately interrupted by BOE Chairman Nocera, who said, "I'm sorry, but I haven't heard anything offensive or rude tonight. People are entitled to their feelings and we can't heal if we don't stop arguing."
BOE Chairman Gene Nocera finally called a halt to the questions at 9:15pm, saying that there were several students in the building who needed to "go home and get to bed" since tomorrow's a school day. Nocera offered parents with additional questions the chance to talk with staff for as long as they needed. Principal Girard asked parents to write down their questions or concerns on the notecards provided for that purpose, and she promised to review them and address them in the coming weeks.
After the meeting concluded, many parents stayed behind to ask questions and to continue conversations between various groups of people. Several meetings were taking place in the morning (today, Jan 13) with staff, administration, and the board of education.
UPDATE: The Board of Education announces a 3pm press conference at the Central Office at 311 Hunting Hill Ave. in Conference Room A (room #7)