Whitefield Elementary School parents expressed concern about the school’s leadership and response to incidents of bullying and a Whitefield representative to the Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit Board of Directors floated the idea of withdrawal from the district during a board meeting at Chelsea Elementary School on Thursday, Dec. 14.
The meeting was standing room only and the entire 17-member board was present.
After leading those in attendance in the Pledge of Allegiance, board Chair Jerry Nault, of Windsor, turned the floor over to RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle. Tuttle gave a presentation on the steps the district has taken to combat bullying in its schools.
Tuttle spoke about the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports program, which he called a “research-based way of reducing bullying in our schools. The basic premise is, you catch kids being good.”
He outlined a number of behavior-modifying programs implemented from the district’s formation in 2009 to the present. In the 2014-2015 school year, for instance, a student support specialist was hired for the elementary schools in Chelsea and Whitefield “to help the student behaviors,” Tuttle said.
Last school year, the widely known Second Step program – aimed at honing students’ social-emotional skills – was “being piloted in our classrooms,” Tuttle said. “This year, it’s an expanded pilot.” The district is “always trying to think of ways” to stop bullying, he said.
“There’s a lot going on and it will continue,” Tuttle said of RSU 12’s anti-bullying efforts, speaking of a “cultural shift” that is “not going to happen overnight.”
Before introducing Tuttle, Nault had said there would be three presentations that evening before public comment. Board member Keith Marple was scheduled to make a presentation about the Nov. 15 public forum at Whitefield Elementary School after Tuttle spoke, but, aware of the number of Whitefield residents waiting to speak, Marple ceded the floor to them.
First up was Joe Furrow, a man who said he had taken his son out of Whitefield Elementary after he was bullied “excessively … for a couple of years.” At one point, he said, another student stabbed his son in the neck with a pencil. Whenever his son experienced an incident of bullying, Furrow was called by the school secretary, he said – “I was never called by the principal.”
Furrow praised the leadership at Windsor Elementary School, the school his son now attends.
“What’s going on at Whitefield is ridiculous. You and (Whitefield Elementary School Principal Joshua McNaughton) are doing a terrible job of leading the school,” Furrow said to Tuttle.
Nault banged his gavel and said speakers should not direct their comments at specific employees.
Furrow continued. “I never got an apology,” he said. “I’m so frustrated. I have a list of things, but you guys aren’t going to want to hear this. Nobody wants to hear it. I feel like Whitefield is at a state of emergency. Teachers have kind of given up because the principal has kind of given up.”
McNaughton has said he will resign at the end of the school year, citing plans to move out of the area.
McNaughton responded to parents’ comments at the meeting in an email. “At Whitefield school, student safety is the number one priority,” he said. “The individual student interactions described at the board meeting that occurred over the course of the last nine years are very serious.
“We work hard every day to prevent and respond to interactions such as these. We have been actively implementing student safety and anti-bullying programming over the last four years. We are currently reviewing our policies, procedures, programming, and training as it relates to student safety and bullying in order to do everything we can to prevent unsafe student interactions in the future.”
After Furrow’s time at the microphone, a number of people in the audience realized there was a sign-up list to speak and they were not on it. “OK, we’re going to stand at ease for a few minutes while everybody has a chance to sign up,” said Nault.
Each of the 16 speakers who signed up was initially given three minutes to speak, but the time restriction was soon abandoned.
Over the next two hours or so, person after person told stories of unpleasant experiences at Whitefield Elementary, from that of a second-grader recently coerced by two students on the school bus to play “the private game,” in which the children displayed and touched each other’s private parts, to that of a student threatening one man’s daughter that he would kill her with one of his parent’s guns.
In the first case, the mother, who described herself as “extremely upset,” said she is pulling her child out of Whitefield Elementary this month after repeated attempts to speak with McNaughton were unsuccessful. In the latter, the student graduated from Whitefield Elementary, but the father said that if an organization such as a school has consistent problems, “the guy at the top’s got to look in the mirror.”
Christy Russo said she took both of her children out of Whitefield Elementary last year after becoming exasperated with the negative treatment her autistic son received on a regular basis.
In one instance, when her son was a sixth-grader, someone smeared chewing gum “all over his locker,” Russo said. After she spoke to the principal about the incident, her son “was forced to clean it up. He told me, ‘Mom, I feel dehumanized.’”
Russo said that meetings about individual education plans for students who receive special education services were of little help.
“We’d come up with plans, but none of them were followed through (by the school). I was literally told my son brings on his own problems,” she said. “My son was coming home saying, ‘I don’t want to live like this.’”
Melissa Vallieres complimented Tuttle on the implementation of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports program, but said “some teachers do it, some don’t.”
Without going into detail, Vallieres spoke of a “serious incident” her child experienced at the school last year and said she had to hire an advocate in order “to be taken seriously.”
“How are you going to convey to parents how they are going to have a voice?” she said.
Dennis Cullenberg, a fifth-grade teacher at Whitefield Elementary, directed his comments at Furrow. “I am insulted,” he said. “I have not given up. Nobody has given up … Unfortunately, the morale of the staff has taken a huge hit since the forum.”
Cullenberg referenced comments at the Nov. 15 school forum by the mother of a former Whitefield Elementary student about her son being sexually assaulted on the school bus by another student when he was a kindergartner. Cullenberg dismissed the woman’s comments as “nothing but an attack on the principal” and said such comments should not have been made in a public forum.
“I am the lady that got up at the Whitefield forum and spoke,” said a woman who spoke later. “I won’t go into detail in a public setting, but I would be happy to talk to the board in private.” The Lincoln County News is not identifying the woman to avoid identifying a minor victim of sexual assault.
She said the three-day school bus suspension given to the boy who assaulted her son was an insufficient consequence “for a kid with two prior sexual harassment incidents. My son was left feeling as though sexual assault was acceptable behavior.”
The woman said she removed her son from Whitefield Elementary, adding that she “never received any written documents (from the school) concerning the assault of my son. We never received any counseling for my son. Policy was blatantly ignored in this case. Not even an apology from any party was issued to my son.”
More than one speaker took offense at Cullenberg’s assertion that the woman should not have spoken up at the forum.
“I am completely appalled that someone would be shut down and told her story is inappropriate when the behavior (toward the woman’s child) was inappropriate,” said Raina Cole, who pulled her children out of Whitefield Elementary when her son, as a fifth-grader, said he wanted to die after experiencing repeated bullying on the playground.
Another speaker, David Shaw, said a Whitefield Elementary student “put a death threat” on his son. “In the past, this kid has hurt my son. He threw a 2-by-4 at him … The kid has brought a knife to school.”
The offending child was suspended, Shaw said, but the behavior continued. “Suspension doesn’t seem to affect this kid whatsoever. … I don’t want this kid coming with a weapon and hurting kids. I fear for my child.”
Clint Towle, a former public school teacher who lives in Whitefield, said, “Nothing that I’ve heard in my six years in Whitefield has given me any sort of confidence that I would send my daughter” to Whitefield Elementary. His daughter attends a private school.
Jessica Mathews said there is “a major lack of accountability at Whitefield school. People are pulling their kids out left and right.”
Nault thanked the participants for speaking. “It is important that the board understands the scope and gravity of what you have been going through,” he said. “We are not going to come to a decision tonight (on how to resolve the issues) … There is probably going to be a need for significant planning and action taken by a lot of people – I hope also by yourselves.
“The problem will get solved. There’s no question about that,” he said.
“We sense the frustration in your voices and body language,” said board member Thomas McNaughton, of Windsor. “Our hearts go out to you. Thank you for coming and telling us your story.”
“Each one of us board members realizes that … we need to take action – and we will,” said board member Russell Gates, of Somerville.
After thanking the speakers, Tuttle apologized. “I’m sorry for some of the things that have happened under my watch. I will try to do better. The school system will do better. But I need your help,” he said. “I’m extremely impressed with the Whitefield community coming together and coming here tonight.”
Chelsea Elementary School Principal Patricia Metta commented from the audience. “Bullying’s an issue everywhere and it doesn’t seem to matter how many things you put into place … Every single day, I get at least one complaint of bullying,” she said.
Metta expressed empathy for McNaughton in his role as principal, while acknowledging the speakers’ complaints. “I’ve got to give Josh a little bit of support here,” she said. “You’re (being principal) all by yourself – and that doesn’t take away from any of your stories.”
After Furrow began to speak again, he was gaveled by Nault, causing Roger Drolet to stand and say, “We’re the ones that put you here!” to applause.
“I know all of you have very justified anger,” Marple said. “Don’t think that … nothing will happen. There has been a lack of accountability from top to bottom. I think the structure is contributing to that.”
“I would like Whitefield to consider withdrawing from the board,” he said. “Think back to when Whitefield School was great. It was when Whitefield, the town, felt invested and ‘owned’ its school … I would like to just put it to the town to ask.”
Marple’s comments were met with more applause and a shouted “Bravo!” from one man in the audience.
Marple, speaking by phone several days after the meeting, shed light on his end-of-meeting bombshell. “For me, personally, what I expressed was sort of a feeling and a sentiment,” he said. State law outlines the process for exploring the question of withdrawal from a school district, he said.
“First, the town simply votes on whether or not they would like to consider that option, then they get a chance to explore what that would look like,” a process that a withdrawal committee formed by the town and the district would need to take “time and thoughtful consideration” with, Marple said.
“The town deserves an opportunity to decide for themselves whether that’s the right option for them or not,” he said.
“I’m thinking about the issues that were raised at the most recent board meeting, and I’m thinking about solutions,” Marple said. “I’m thinking about the three ‘silos’ of management – systems, structures, and people.
“Again and again that night, townspeople called for responsiveness to their concerns, and the creation of accountability. In thinking about solutions to these issues, I have come to feel that the current structure of the board, on which Whitefield is represented by only three of 17 voting members, has become an impediment toward creating that responsiveness and responsibility to the town of Whitefield.”
“While there would certainly be many challenges to Whitefield school acting as a stand-alone district, Whitefield has managed its own schools for more than 100 years, and I think it’s a question that the town should consider,” Marple said.
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article online and in the Dec. 21 print edition incorrectly reported that Whitefield Elementary School Principal Joshua McNaughton did not attend the Thursday, Dec. 14 meeting of the RSU 12 Board of Directors. He did attend the meeting. The Lincoln County News regrets the error.)