Gill-Montague school system seeks ways to address civil rights concerns

  • Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2019 11:27:11 PM

TURNERS FALLS – The Gill-Montague School District has the right policies and procedures in place concerning civil rights violations in its secondary schools, although in some instances staff haven’t followed them when they are stretched thin, Superintendent Michael Sullivan told the school committee Tuesday night.

His analysis and a conversation about it with the committee follows reports in December of several civil rights related incidents in the schools.

Sullivan conceded the schools could do better at policing racially related harassment and other civil rights violations, and suggested hiring a second dean of students to help with discipline at the Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School.

As part of the administration’s response to recent complaints about racial incidents, a series of forums for students, staff and parents are being scheduled. The first is to be held on Monday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Turners Falls High School. Sullivan said faculty and staff will not attend. The forum will be facilitated by Safire DeJong and Keisha Green of the Collaborative for Educational Services.

According to data presented by Sullivan, a review of all disciplinary records related to any type of civil rights incidents/infractions from January to December 2018, showed a total of 86 cases consisting of “inappropriate/demeaning/hostile name calling or statements.”

The school with the most cases was Great Falls Middle School with 13 cases involving race/ethnicity which resulted in seven suspensions, 43 cases involving gender/sexual orientation resulting in 15 suspensions and six cases involving other protected classes resulting in one suspension.

He also looked at the students who did not return to secondary school in the fall of 2018.

In seventh grade, two of 21 students of color did not return, one of which indicated it was because of the school’s racial climate. In the eighth grade, four of eight students of color did not return, with three indicating it was due to the school’s racial climate.

Other students did not identify the racial climate of the school as being a factor for leaving, according to Sullivan.

“(A total of) 10 of 62 students of color in grades 7 through 11 departed, which is 16.1 percent,” Sullivan wrote. “Four of these 10 students indicated that the school’s racial climate was a factor in their leaving.”

Sullivan said he was able to make generalizations based on his review of records, feedback from staff, students and parents.

“Proper procedures are in place to report, investigate and respond to civil rights violations and these are often well followed,” Sullivan wrote. “When these steps are not fully followed the most common reason for this is the staff responsible for taking action are often stretched too thin, responding to perpetual in-the-moment incidents. At the combined middle/high school there were approximately 800 reports of school infractions of all kinds between January and June 2018. This is an average of over eight a day.”

The principal is tasked with leading work that will drive the needed improvements at the schools, but “there also needs to be a greater understanding among faculty and staff that the principal has other responsibilities that preclude them from routinely responding to individual disciplinary situations,” according to Sullivan.

The superintendent also pointed out the use of the n-word by students is a “focal point of much of the overt racial conflict in the middle and high school.”

He said one of his recommendations for addressing these issues will be hiring an additional dean of students this school year – so there will be one for each school.

Both school committee members, Sullivan and Leonard recognized the district needs to “do better.”

School committee member Theresa Kolodziej said she wanted to see quantifiable results from the district.

“When you say ‘we need to do better,’ then not provide evidence or monitors to see whether or not these goals are being achieved, it’s not going to instill confidence,” commented Theresa Kolodziej.

“That’s why we’re having these forums and things,” Sullivan said. “If I showed up tonight with here’s how we’re going to measure it, I’m getting to end the conversation before it has even gotten going. We’re inviting people to talk about what their experiences have been historically, what they think those measure should be.”

School committee member Jennifer Lively said she’d like to hear more from students about their perceptions.

“I’d like to get information about how they feel anonymously. I’d like to hear from them. I’d like to get in the school and do some observations during social times... and see what interactions are like.”

She added that the school resource officer might also be able to add insight to the climate at the school.

Other committee members said they would support additional staffing at the middle and high schools, but not necessarily Sullivan’s proposal of an additional dean of students.

Leonard said she aims to “do better.”

“I have attached to my memo, some examples of communication we sent home when we speak with students about the importance of protecting civil rights,” Leonard said. “We have often sent messages home, but I think that’s a place where we can do better and better explain our actions and better enlist the support of district families and the wider community in trying to make change, and then there are terms of incident response where we need to do better. The same day communication standard is one Dr. Sullivan established in his memo. I know of one instance where we did not meet that standard. We need to be 100 percent.”


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