Parents express concerns over bullying, discipline issues at Hawlemont Regional School

  • Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2021 5:54:50 PM

CHARLEMONT — As concern grows over incidents of bullying and other behavioral issues at Hawlemont Regional School, parents are asking administrators to re-access the school’s discipline model.

“A program that wasn’t working before is now really not working well,” said Wesley Janssen, a parent of three students in the district.

Parents that reached out to the Greenfield Recorder over the last week described incidents of physical and verbal abuse happening between students at the school, from name calling to stealing or damaging property, and pushing children to the ground. In some cases, the parents said, bullying or other behavioral problems aren’t reported to them by school leaders, but rather they find out from their children when they get home.

In response, Janssen has written and circulated a petition seeking change to the current method of discipline at Hawlemont Regional School given the amount of bullying and “lack of discipline.”

“Simply put, the current method of discipline — restorative justice — is not working,” the petition states. “The program must be addressed and changed to not only save Hawlemont, but make it the thriving school that we all know it can be!”

Superintendent Sheryl Stanton said the concerns of parents are “certainly on our radar screen.”

“It’s across the commonwealth,” Stanton said. “When I speak with superintendents, we’re seeing a real uptick in students needing behavioral and social emotional support when they come back to school.”

The petition, signed by more than a dozen families in just a few days, was created on Oct. 12 with the intention of being sent to school leaders, Janssen said.

“There seems to be no real structure … for discipline,” she said. “That’s what our petition is for — to change the discipline program that’s used over at Hawlemont so these kids have more structure. I’ve heard that even previous to the pandemic it … wasn’t working well.”

Janssen said the bullying her children have witnessed has caused them “emotional distress.” Her fourth- and fifth-graders, in particular, have said that teachers spend so much time dealing with behavioral issues, it cuts into their learning time.

“My 9-year-old has come home multiple days crying, because he has a big, big heart,” Janssen said. “He feels ... powerless when he jumps in and stops the bullying.”

Janssen said restorative justice — which focuses on mediation rather than punishment — fails to take into consideration the fact elementary school students’ brains haven’t fully developed the ability to empathize.

“(Restorative justice) sounds really good on paper,” she said.

One parent who spoke to the bullying her child has experienced said her child has only once received a verbal and written apology from a student who she said has both verbally and physically bullied her child for the last year. Heather B. did not give her last name to protect the identity of her child.

Heather B. said after reaching out to multiple school officials last year, a “safety plan” was created for her child. The plan outlines steps taken to ensure “positive” or supervised interactions between her child and the student. However, she said that plan has not been successful. In three days, there were as many incidents.

“My kid came home on Thursday last week saying they didn’t feel safe at school because of the kid,” she said.

Heather B. said when she met with school leaders to create the plan, she was told to tell her child to ignore the other student.

“I don’t feel you can sit there and tell a child who’s been physically abused to ignore being pushed ... to ignore things being taken off their body, or to be pushed,” she said. “You can’t ask an adult to ignore that. How can you ask a child who is still learning their own emotions to ignore it?”

Janssen, too, has reached out to school administrators and School Committee members with her concerns. In response, she was provided a copy of the student handbook, where the discipline process is outlined in multiple steps.

“I don’t think it’s been super consistent,” she said.

Many of the issues, Superintendent Stanton said, stem from trauma of the past year and half, a majority of which was spent in remote learning.

“Many of our students come to school to receive direct services, whether it’s social-emotional support, counseling ... and they haven’t had that opportunity,” she said.

She said the problems largely stem from recess or unstructured times during the school day.

“The principal is working particularly with our fifth- and sixth-grade students and families to make sure everyone understands our expectations, understands our process,” she explained. “But the reality is this needs to be a community effort.”

Stanton said there have been issues with students that have been investigated, and those outcomes have been communicated with their respective families. She added that moving forward, she continues to work with Principal Lindsay Rodriguez.

“My job is to make sure we’re providing the best educational experience that I can,” Stanton said.

School Committee member Hussain Hamdan also confirmed the committee is aware of the concerns.

“I can tell you that I am aware that a number of allegations have been made,” he said. “And there is going to be some discussion about these matters during an executive session.”

As for the discipline model used at the school — the one signers of the petition seek to change — Stanton said its intent is to help students “understand and learn from the infraction, as opposed to punishment.”

“Research is clear punishment it isn’t successful,” she said. “Removing students from a learning environment … is something (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) is really frowning upon. I think helping our community understand that and why shifting (away from punishment) is an important step we have to take.”

Still, Heather B. — who noted she feels her child’s teacher is “more on top of it this year” — said she feels more training for teachers is needed. She feels the school should be more forward in terms of informing parents when these incidents occur.

“I just feel as if the bullies are going to be running that school very, very soon,” she said.

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




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