District wraps up Fisher Hill probe

  • The Orange Selectboard and School Committee met for a joint meeting Wednesday and discussed issues at Fisher Hill Elementary School. —Staff photo/David McLellan

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2019 11:22:43 PM

ORANGE — The school district has concluded its internal investigations into complaints of staff misconduct at Fisher Hill Elementary School from the beginning of the school year, complaints which have accompanied the placing of staff members, including Principal Maureen Donelan, on paid administrative leave.

With the exception of Donelan, the staff members — school officials have not named these people publicly, citing confidentiality and personnel policies — returned to work this week.

The Orange Elementary School Committee met in a joint meeting with the Selectboard and Superintendent Tari Thomas Wednesday to discuss communication between the two town bodies, as well as steps being taken to remedy issues of student behavior at Fisher Hill. The school has been dogged by teacher and parent reports of violent kindergartners and first graders attacking and threatening others, destroying classrooms and causing evacuations of classrooms to other areas of the building in order to keep children away from potentially dangerous peers — as well as allegations of physical abuse and neglect against educators. It was here Thomas made the announcement.

“We’ve concluded our investigations regarding the original complaints last year and we’ve taken steps to address those complaints,” Thomas said.

Thomas would not comment on Donelan’s status or detail the alleged incidences and internal investigations that took place, again citing personnel policy. According to a statement released earlier this week by Thomas, it is her prerogative to dismiss, reinstate or reinstate with consequences staff members placed on leave due to complaints.

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 the 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.

The behavioral outbursts and school evacuations have been described as frequent, with one teacher, Kelly Therrien, having to evacuate her classroom 30 times. School officials have not publicly linked the student behavior issues with the staff members on leave, although the two issues have been brought up in the same meetings and discussions.

Danielle Anderson, a volunteer parent at the school, said 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.”

Anderson asked about the last of the employees placed on leave — Donelan, although Anderson did not mention Donelan by name — and said it would bring “closure one way or another,” for officials to comment on Donelan’s status. Thomas answered that she would not discuss personnel matters.

Thomas handed out a list of “efforts underway to support the Fisher Hill School.”

Such efforts include, in full, “biweekly grade level meetings held with the Superintendent”; “Therapeutic Crisis Interventions and Supports (TCIS) initial training on first three modules on Oct. 26”; a “fourth kindergarten launched on Nov. 19” to reduce class sizes; check-ins with union leaders; a community forum on concerns and solutions; a lunchroom and playground aide hired; a second counselor hired to be “on board in January”; “action planning” workshops with the School Committee; two one-on-one paraprofessionals hired; a “Responsive Classroom refresher for classroom teachers on Dec. 18”; the developing of evacuation plans; behavior charts for individual students; “structures for debriefing students being developed”; “Positive Behavior Interventions Team to reconvene and set up structures and intervention protocols; a substitute principal, Patti Byrnes, being hired and “parent education and outreach in the works.”

Much of the session dealt with outlining the roles of the Selectboard and School Committee, and discussing communication between the two.

Selectboard member Tom Smith said constituents have reached out to him about the complaints and behavioral problems. He inquired about how the substitute principal was being paid.

“Where is the money coming from?” Smith asked, saying he calculated the cost to the town so far being $11,696, and adding that the district is already having financial difficulties. Smith pressed forward when he did not get a specific answer.

“She gets a paycheck every week or every two weeks, so there has to be money somewhere so that you can pay her,” Smith said.

School Committee member Alex Schwanz said it has yet to be decided, and that at Monday’s 9 a.m. meeting the payment will be a topic. Town lawyer Donna MacNicol clarified that school districts are given a certain amount of money, but can move it around to different departments in certain circumstances, like emergencies.

“The school committee is given their money and its an absolute right to move it between departments,” MacNicol said.

Smith also said he was frustrated to read a statement by School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod published Dec. 27 in the Recorder. The statement was read by Conrod at a public meeting, and School Committee members were aware of it, although Vice Chairwoman Amy White said the School Committee does not endorse the statement. White added that Conrod giving the Recorder a copy of the statement to be published was “her right to do so.”

“I was very embarrassed by reading some of the words in there,” Smith said, specifically taking issue with Conrod calling Fisher Hill a “toxic” working environment going back several superintendents and principals.

Conrod did not name the superintendents and principals, and called the piece “a general statement.”

Smith said asking questions is what he was elected to do, and resolved to send constituents to the School Committee for answers if he doesn’t have them, rather than look into things himself.

“I fully understand that in this particular instance there’s privacy, it has never been a question,” Smith said.

MacNicol pointed out that it should be expected for citizens to ask their Selectboard for answers as the chief executive body of the town, but that it’s also appropriate for the Selectboard to direct concerned constituents to the appropriate town department, like the School Committee.Neither board may insist the other do something, MacNicol said, and voting members in and out of office is how constituents may show approval or dissent.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268


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