The RSU 12 Board of Directors, on Wednesday, June 13, received updates on efforts to address concerns about bullying and other issues at Whitefield Elementary School.
The board heard about recommendations from the Whitefield Collaborative Problem-Solving Project and the implementation of restorative school practices at Whitefield Elementary.
The Whitefield Collaborative Problem-Solving Project was organized to tackle concerns raised publicly last fall, including about bullying, student safety, and a lack of accountability for students and staff.
The collaborative identified 53 issues, with a focus on safety, extracurricular activities, and communication between families and the school.
Starting in late January, members met most Monday nights for two to three hours to discuss each issue until they reached consensus on a solution.
Many of these solutions have already taken effect, but others will take effect next fall, said RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle.
The 23 members of the collaborative consist of parents of Whitefield Elementary students, staff members, community members, interim Principal Tom Soule, and Tuttle. Every member of the collaborative attended a mandatory three-hour training to know how to identify issues and brainstorm solutions, which must be reached by consensus.
For the issues of safety and health, the collaborative developed 18 solutions, including bus aides and video cameras on all buses, more training about bullying and harassment, the addition of four “gatekeepers” for suicide warning and prevention, and “hot topic” discussions with tips for parents.
One possible change will be to the student incident reporting form, which would state that the administration must respond to parents within 48 hours of filling out the form. Once approved in September, it will be available at the main office and online.
For the issue of communication, the collaborative developed five solutions, including an RSU 12 app to provide updates on school news and upcoming events, as well as the creation of a website for the collaborative, which includes its recommendations and meeting minutes. To see the website, go to bit.ly/2yb9Ide.
Project facilitator Joan Morin said the collaborative will continue to meet.
During public comment, Meagan Rogers, of Windsor, whose son attends Whitefield Elementary, asked about the teachers and parents.
“If they aren’t going to jump on board, is there any type of repercussions for any of them?” she said.
Morin said the collaborative is looking into the possibility of a community liaison to connect families with the school. She said any parent or community member who is still concerned should go to the school, “because you will get a different response.”
Rogers said she was still skeptical.
“You should be, because we still have a lot to do, but what I hope you can see is, this is a serious situation where we felt like our school was on fire,” Morin said. “I felt like we could almost lose our school in our community, I was so concerned about the divide. We are taking this seriously.”
Whitefield Elementary student support specialist Niki Mathews and science and social studies teacher Karen McCormick made a presentation about the implementation of restorative school practices.
“The three big ideas with restorative practices are building community, repairing harm after a conflict, and restoring relationships,” McCormick said.
Mathews and McCormick explained the three-tier approach. Tier one focuses on the entire student body culture and building relationships. Tier two targets small groups to repair an incident, while tier three focuses on integration of a student or students after an incident. Mentorship, counseling, or check-ins can be offered to students affected by a severe incident.
Restorative school practices were introduced to staff in the 2015-2016 school year. McCormick received good feedback from students who participated in peer mediation and community circles, where students talk about their lives and stress.
In the 2016-2017 school year, the practices were used more often and staff were trained in house.
In the 2017-2018 school year, the practices were used school-wide. Whitefield School began adding community circles into the daily schedule and using tier two and three circles in some situations.
Mathews and McCormick talked about the rationale for restorative practices and the results, and showed a short video about students’ views on the practices.
“As the school climate improves, bullying, fighting, harassment – those types of behaviors decrease,” Mathews said. “And that’s something we have seen since implementing RSP.”
Goals for moving forward include more in-house training for staff, increasing the use of restorative practices at tier two and three school-wide, and sharing progress with the community.
During the comment period, Tuttle asked what consequences students receive from the restorative practices.
“They come up with the consequences in restorative practices,” McCormick said. “It’s not really a consequence, it’s more of something to repair the harm, and they come up with some nice (consequences).”
An audience member asked about how restorative school practices would set consequences for students who commit more serious offenses.
“It really depends on the situation, because restorative practices is not a one-size-fits-all type of deal,” Mathews said.
She said tier two or three misconduct could result in the student talking with the people directly affected by the incident before a student would reintegrate into the school after suspension.
However, Mathews said this is not possible for every situation, because the staff needs parent and student permission for this to work and several community circles must occur before everyone can meet.
If the incident was violent, then another option is available so the student or students harmed are not included. Mathews said staff could invite the student who initiated the incident, his or her parents, and possibly another advocate for a community circle before he or she went back to school.
Other new business
Three members will soon leave the board when their terms expire. Chair Jerry Nault, of Windsor, will be replaced by Monique Crummett; Somerville representative Christopher Johnson by Frank Hample; and Alna representative Barbara Baston by Ralph Hilton.
Tuttle said 68 percent of voters across the district approved the 2018-2019 budget in the validation referendum June 12.
“This was exciting and surprising to me,” he said. “It’s the first year, since I’ve been here, that the town of Somerville has approved the school budget, and they did that in an overwhelming way, so thank you.”
The board’s July meeting was canceled. The next meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at Chelsea Elementary School.