Committee finally acting on complaints at Fisher Hill

  • Fisher Hill School in Orange.

Published: 12/8/2018 7:21:19 PM

The Orange School Committee on Wednesday found a way to let Fisher Hill Elementary School parents and staff vent about the school’s apparent inability to cope with violently disruptive pupils. It’s too bad school officials haven’t figured out how to do the same with the disruptive students themselves.

The Wednesday forum is positive step toward finding answers that everyone seems to want, although addressing such extreme behavior disruptions is challenging. Three years ago, the same issue roiled a Montague grade school and reporting at the time showed there were differing views about how to handle unruly young children. Some experts advocated addressing the child’s behavior within the classroom, while others used so-called calming rooms, where the disruptive child could be isolated if deemed a danger to self or others.

The state education department offers little specific guidance in this area, but at many area schools, teachers deal with a disruptive student by trying to calm the child in a quiet corner of a classroom. If that doesn’t work, they send the student to a room in another part of the building equipped with padded walls, bean bag chairs or other soft surfaces, where teachers work to calm the child.

Another feature that many schools use is having lots of staff available to help calm and protect a student in these extreme situations.

It’s unclear what formal policy Fisher Hill employs, although from the comments Wednesday, it seems the school has not tried the calming room approach, and may have understaffed its kindergarten classes to the point teachers and aides have been overwhelmed.

This year, the kindergarten at Fisher Hill lost one of its sections, becoming a three-classroom grade. Teachers like Jackie Graziano have said administrators were warned that the cuts would pose problems as far as controlling misbehaving students. After things spiraled out of control, Superintendent Tari Thomas restored a fourth kindergarten classroom, when the district received an unexpected $50,000 in rural aid from the state. Better late than never, we suppose.

The mother of one of the children with behavioral problems said Wednesday that there is not enough staff to control the students.

“They’re doing the best they can with what they have, and it’s just not enough,” she said, adding she has decided to volunteer at the school, essentially becoming her child’s “one-on-one” counselor.

That’s a strong and gracious commitment to the public schooling of her child and her child’s classmates. But that can’t be the ultimate answer. This sort of problem is not a one-time deal, contained to a single student or a single time or place. All our area school systems have evolved methods for coping with this problem.

We are glad to see the Orange School Committee has promised to resolve the situation soon. It’s unfortunate the situation has been poorly managed to this point and apparently has swept up Principal Maureen Donelan and other staffers who remain on paid leave over some aspect of the issue, that the school board and superintendent are keeping secret, citing personnel privacy.

Donelan and other staffers are on leave despite being cleared of allegations of neglect and physical abuse against children by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. School officials say the state education department and the committee are still investigating, which suggests concerns not about specific abuse but about staff’s handling of the out-of-control students.

Several people at the forum and a majority of the school staff have expressed support for Donelan and desire to have her back on the job.

School board Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod said the School Committee would deliberate about the matter at a closed-door meeting later this month.

“Some of this involves the budget, some of it involves staffing and some of it involves the legalities that we cannot release right now,” Conrod said of the decision to hold the School Committee’s next meeting in private. But a private meeting to deliberate about how to handle disruptive students won’t serve the public and is probably illegal.

This whole affair has suffered from lack of transparency, and we strongly urge the committee to keep the process transparent going forward. For starters, discussing staffing and budgets must be done in public, according to the state open meeting law.

The law allows private meetings to discuss complaints or accusations against a public employee, but only if those accusations are made known to the staffer and the staffer agrees to the closed-door meeting.

We aren’t sure how the committee or superintendent feels Donelan and her staff are at fault in all this, but we do know that the superintendent and committee — who make the spending decisions involving how to staff the school — are not blameless either.

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