Emotional meeting highlights behavioral issues in Greenfield’s schools

  • Greenfield High School on Barr Avenue. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield Middle School on Federal Street. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 11/11/2021 5:15:03 PM

GREENFIELD — In an emotional meeting Wednesday night, parents, teachers and students expressed to school leaders their concerns with the current learning environment at Greenfield Middle and High schools.

“My fifth-grader … he doesn’t feel safe,” said Nate Tripp, a former School Committee member. “He doesn’t want to go to school, when he always wanted to go before.”

Tripp’s comments echoed those of several parents who spoke during the public comment portion of the School Committee meeting Wednesday night, during which nearly 20 parents, teachers and students spoke to the near daily disruptions happening at the middle and high school this year, some of which have resulted in police response and shelters-in-place.

“Our kids are coming home daily talking about the insanity,” said parent Faythe Hayes. “As parents, we’re left wondering what is really going on? We hear reports of (police) cruisers at the school. … Kids are scared; teachers can’t teach.”

Earlier that day, police had responded to a report of a disturbance at Greenfield High School that led to the first of two shelters-in-place on Wednesday while the situation was resolved.

“Today was brutal,” said Sarah Pruitt, an instructional aid at the high school. “This community needs to come together. These kids do not live in a vacuum; they don’t go to school and disappear in boxes somewhere. They are members of the community and their families are affected by what’s going on in the school. We need to call it what it is and not sweep it under the rug.”

Abaz Cecunjanin, the father of three girls at Greenfield High School, read a letter to School Committee members written to him by his eldest daughter. In the letter, she spoke of how grateful she was for the friendships she’s formed since transferring to Greenfield High School but also the anxiety the most recent incident at the school caused her.

“My heart dropped and started pounding a little faster,” Cecunjanin said, reading his daughter’s letter. “I felt my body quiver for a minute. I was in shock because with everything else going on so far … this was something more. Regardless of what happened, I think what stood out to me the most was this is no longer an emotionally safe or stable environment.”

Cecunjanin said in his native country of Montenegro, there is an expectation of sending your children to school and knowing they’ll be safe.

“The reason I get emotional is I am a kid of war,” he said. “To have my three girls experiencing this, in a peaceful country, it brings the anxiety back into me; it brings the fear.”

Since the start of the school year, the Police Department has responded at least 14 times to the high school for reports of unruly students, teens smoking on the bleachers, fights and verbal altercations, according to Deputy Police Chief William Gordon. In the same time frame, eight shelters-in-place have been imposed at the high school, and 56 discipline reports have been written at the middle school, Superintendent Christine DeBarge said.

“The kids are out of control,” said Jennifer Widelo, who has two children at the high school. “What are we doing for the children to make them feel safe? They do not feel safe anymore, and we need to address this. … We need to take care of these children.”

Divided on school resource officer

While parents agreed the fault did not lie with the teachers, public comment was split on whether to reinstate the school resource officer — a position that was cut from the budget last year.

“I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but what’s going on now certainly is … the opposite of working,” said Alex Siano, who has a child in both schools. “I know a lot of people are against a resource officer, but it can’t get any worse at the high school. The kids are strong, they’re big, they’re violent. You can’t expect a teacher to separate a fight ... that’s not what they’re paid to do.”

Siano emphasized the “teachers are doing an excellent job.”

“It’s administration,” he said. “You need to give them the right and the authority to expel kids if it’s justified. Something has to change. We need a safe environment for our kids.”

Rachel Cronen-Townsend, a teacher at Greenfield Middle School and the parent of a high schooler, said instead, the district should be seeking help from the community.

“Please, come in, volunteer and support us,” she said. “Every parent should be asked to come in and help. We should be able to CORI everyone quickly and accept them.”

The schools would benefit from therapists and therapy dogs, for example. But police, she said, are not the answer.

“We also have people in our schools who are traumatized by police, and the idea of bringing in police officers into our schools is not something I can condone,” Cronen-Townsend said. “I don’t want to work in a building where there is a police officer. Police have a place, and it’s not in our schools.”

Because the conversation on school resource officers was not on the agenda, School Committee could not engage in conversation; however, it was agreed later in the evening that the item would be put on a future agenda for a public conversation.

Ongoing and future steps

“All our students deserve and are entitled to be safe and feel comfortable at school,” said Superintendent DeBarge in her report, which followed nearly an hour of public comment. “Behaviors that we have been seeing since school started are not acceptable to continue in our schools.”

She said the district has been experiencing “extreme staffing shortages,” on top of increased behavioral issues among students — issues not necessarily unique to Greenfield.

“It doesn’t make it acceptable, but it does highlight that we are among many districts that are seeing the result of the pandemic and how it’s affecting our communities and their students,” she said.

While certain positions have been filled — the second assistant principal position at the high school and an additional school counseling position, as well as hall monitors — many vacancies still exist throughout the district.

“When we post positions, sometimes staff from one building apply to the other, and when we accept that transfer request, we create a vacancy in another place,” she noted.

DeBarge added that counseling staff has been added to the middle school, including staff from Clinical & Support Operations (CSO).

Acknowledging comments from parents earlier in the evening, she said she also aims to improve communication with parents when issues arise. With respect to student discipline, she said, there is language in the student handbook that allows for progressive discipline for students who are chronically not meeting the code of conduct.

“Our last desire is to exclude students from an educational setting,” DeBarge said. “But at some point, accessing the resources we have through the handbook is the last resort we have, and we’ll need to do that more effectively than has been.”

In a statement sent to the Greenfield Recorder on Thursday morning, Ann Valentine, president of the Greenfield Education Association teachers’ union, said while she was grateful for the parents and community members who came out to speak at the meeting, she was disappointed by the response from administrators and School Committee members. She said she was also disappointed to hear only School Committee member Katie Caron express a desire to hear from teachers about the schools’ needs.

“Yes, we need specialists, like interventionists and counselors and training,” Valentine wrote. “But the most basic thing that our schools need is teachers. Despite a huge loss of experienced teachers over the past year, many due to burnout, the district has very few teaching positions vacancies posted on its web page.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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