Changes will help Fisher Hill cope with bad behavior

Published: 1/12/2019 9:17:43 AM

No one can be feeling good about the situation at Fisher Hill School in Orange. Some, directly involved, probably feel bruised and beaten, while others worry the town has received a black eye over reports of internal and external investigations of staff handling of disruptive, out-of-control pupils in kindergarten and first grade.

Problems at the elementary school broke through the surface when Superintendent Tari Thomas’s office received seven formal complaints alleging mistreatment of students, educational discrimination and threat of safety by Fisher Hill staff in seven separate instances affecting five children between Oct. 3 and Dec. 3. Four complaints came from employees, two from parents and one from an “outside provider,” Thomas reported this week.

The complaints apparently stem from the staff’s handling of disruptive and violent behavior by some pupils so severe that even teachers felt threatened and frequent classroom evacuations were needed.

Thomas’s investigation drew public scrutiny when she placed Fisher Hill Principal Maureen Donelan and other unidentified staffers on leave while looking into the complaints.

The superintendent has been investigating these sensitive yet sensational complaints ever since, and this past week she announced she had concluded. This returned to duty the staffers, but not Donelanat least not yet.

All the secrecy is required by law and school department policy because it involves personnel confidentiality, Thomas has taken pains to explain more than once in the past few weeks, and again this week, as she tries to balance the public’s right to know with privacy concerns.

Without being on the inside, we will have to take Thomas at her word that she is prevented by privacy rules from explaining in detail the complaints and how they are being resolved as it relates to the principal, who is such a high profile person filling a key school post. We suspect the parents and taxpayers would prefer to see the whole picture so we can understand fully what’s happening in the public school. And we hope that before all is said and done, we will get a clearer explanation of the fate of Donelan, whatever that may be.

Donelan was cleared of any wrongdoing by a separate investigation by the state’s Department of Children & Families, and a majority of staff members at Fisher Hill signed a letter supporting their principal. A letter from Fisher Hill staff to the School Committee also called for the staff placed on leave, including Donelan, to be reinstated as a solution to problems with student behavior.

Danielle Anderson, a volunteer parent at the school, said this week children were visibly happy Wednesday now that familiar faces were back.

“The children were so happy to see people they really cared about,” Anderson said. “There’s only one left.”

Besides returning staffers, the good news reported this week is that this unhappy episode has led to several significant changes in operations at the school intended to better cope with extreme bad behavior.

We had already heard that a central fix sought by staff last year, restoring a fourth kindergarten teacher, so each class is smaller and easier to manage. Money for that came not from local taxpayers but from extra state funding that arrived unexpectedly this year.

Thomas says she has taken several other measures as well “to support the Fisher Hill School.”

Such efforts include, “biweekly grade-level meetings held with the superintendent”; “Therapeutic Crisis Interventions and Supports (TCIS) initial training”; a “fourth kindergarten launched on Nov. 19”; a lunchroom and playground aide hired; a second counselor hired to be “on board in January”; two one-on-one paraprofessionals hired; a “Responsive Classroom refresher for classroom teachers”; the developing of evacuation plans; behavior charts for individual students; “structures for debriefing students”; “Positive Behavior Interventions Team to reconvene and set up structures and intervention protocols.”

It’s too bad that so often in situations like this, that serious help doesn’t arrive until staff trying to do their jobs as best they can get overwhelmed by adversity. Now, at least, it seems more of the resources and expertise needed can be marshaled to help the educators at Fisher Hill help the troubled students – to everyone’s benefit.


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