BY GEORGE FJELD
Portions have been excerpted from unapproved minutes.
BRANDON–Another large crowd filled the Otter Valley library on the evening of Tuesday, April 11, when multiple parents came to ask questions and voice fears about threatened violence in schools and others came to speak out against anti-transgender Facebook memes by a school board member. It was a meeting that had to be extended twice beyond the 2-hour time limit and lasted 4.5 hours.
During the public comment period, Andrea Quesnel spoke first and reported that her 8th-grade daughter heard her frustrated teacher say “I’m going to kill someone” and walk out of the classroom. After stating she had little trust in the system and that there are lots of risks, Quesnel asked “What can be done?”
Neshobe parents were alarmed about two incidents when students made threats of violence. Emily Poro, parent of a Neshobe student, found out about the threats from social media before any communication from the administration. She stated, “Lack of action is the issue.”
Colby Hutchins, parent of a 5th grader, asked “Why were teachers told to keep quiet?” He called the police when he heard of the threat.
Robin Douglas spoke of being “terrified dropping her child off” and “cried on the way home,” after learning of the threats.
Barry Whitney asked followup questions from the meeting in March when parents complained about lack of privacy in the boys’ changing room. He found that 9 out of 10 showers were without shower curtains when he checked in the afternoon before the board meeting. Later the board approved an engineering study of up to $10,000 to investigate updating the changing rooms at Otter Valley.
Superintendent Kristen Hubert stated “We take student and staff safety very seriously. Unfortunately we can’t discuss student or staff/personnel matters publicly.” Later in the meeting, she spoke more directly, stating that there were three things that happened that created this situation. First, a lock-down drill was held around the time the language of threats happened. When drills are done, it is hoped that schools will let families know. Then there were two separate incidents of verbal threats. Brandon Police Chief David Kachajian is not bound by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act and put out a press release containing information that the district couldn’t legally release. Both incidents were reported to the Police Department and received from families first. The police investigation is separate from the school’s investigation. For a point of information, it was in fact a miscommunication or wrong for Chief Kachajian to assert that he had not had conversations with the staff over the weekend. Ms. Hubert spoke with one officer at least three times. She also talked with Doug Norton over the weekend of the Vermont State Police. On Monday, they learned about the second incident and made sure the incident was reported. The police did not believe that the Neshobe community was in danger.
She has heard from the community, parents and the Neshobe principal that there were missteps. Neshobe needs to do better around safety and supervision around school hours, provide better communication between school and parents, between school and law enforcement, and better about disseminating communication. Other outcomes include a new safety-planning focus and the district has been engaged in a safety audit. There will be a community-safety forum and a tabletop drill with local police and emergency groups in May. The Vermont Safety Department will assist with the forum and give the community another opportunity to provide comments.
Attention then switched to anti-transgender Facebook posts by OVUU board member Brent Scarborough. Ryn Gluckman, emergency room nurse and sexual abuse evaluator, was appalled by these comments. Mari Cordis, nurse and gender queer person said that the suicide rate is 4x higher for LGBTQ and transgender teenagers than the general population. She encouraged the board to support action against such public comments. Amy Martone, MBA, BSN, RN, NPD-BC, interim executive director of the American Nurses Association-Vermont stated that the transgender comments of a board member were targeted and hurtful. Amy Nathan, OV ‘91 graduate, spoke out against those same comments, “Help kids feel safe! Kids are listening, how would you feel if a student committed suicide after hearing such comments?” Caitlin Gildreau who has 2 children at Otter Creek Academy, feels unsafe after seeing Mr. Scarborough’s comments.
State Representative Mari Cordes stated that she is an advocate for transgender youth in Vermont. She has been working in the State House to provide protections. Transgender youth and LGBTQ youth are vulnerable and are aware of the attacks and she would like to believe that this is because of lack of information, misinformation, and not being willing to step outside of one’s point of view to do some research. She asked as someone who lives in Vermont and cares for transgender people that there be some action by the school board around education. She hopes the board can lead the community and be good models for welcoming, supporting, and having solidarity with transgender youth.
Jessilyn Dolan, RN, CMT, CLD, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Nurses Association, wants to see the board take action against anyone on the board who makes such statements publicly. She called for “the board to remove any member who makes public statements like these.” Alex Hilliard from Poultney, came to speak out against Mr Scarborough calling his 3 memes on Facebook “both hateful and harmful.”
Shifting topics, Marsha Bruce, Director of Special Services, gave a presentation about the breadth of services provided by her team, including early essential education, a centralized evaluation team, school-based mental-health services, and special education K-12. Bruce described the great variety of services and supervision under her guidance for the last 20+ years. She described programs such as the Common Connection at Sudbury which has been very successful in educating students who have sensory impairments which make the trip to a regular school very difficult. They are happy and thriving there and not needing expensive placement outside the school district.
Bruce also oversees a block grant that allows teachers, special educators, and others to treat children without having to worry about which federal or state monies are going to pay for it. This allows the team to collaborate with each other and not have to limit what they do with an individual child. School-based mental-health supports are provided through Rutland Mental Health provided licensed mental-health clinicians and case managers.
Attention then shifted to Joanie Wisdahl, MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) Coach and Susannah White, Equity Engagement Coach, who provided a presentation on social emotional learning (SEL). Joanie Wisdahl stated this is a process of acquiring the knowledge and skills to achieve positive goals, provide empathy and make responsible decisions. SEL aligns with proficiency towards graduation and is part of the students’ learning and will provide the skills for the students to be successful. SEL can be observed throughout the school day in morning meetings, through recess and through small-group activities to learn how to problem solve and work together. SEL opportunities go beyond the classroom. The role of the school counselor in K through 6th grades is to help students with emotions, support academic planning and goal setting, and provide short-term counseling. They also collaborate with families and advocate for students at meetings. The role of the guidance counselor in the past was reactive but is currently more proactive and data driven.
The board then heard a presentation and had a discussion of the summer facilities plan including work at all the schools in the district. Laurie Bertrand noted the Board would be approving the $545,500 and spending cannot go over that amount without coming back to the Board. Ms. Fleming noted this is a very aggressive list and in addition to the $155,000 from the Facilities fund, there is $1.2 million in ESSER covid-related construction. Ms. Fleming noted she and the Facility Manager met with all principals to determine the priorities. $545,500 was appropriated for this work.
The board held an executive session for student discipline and a personnel matter from 9:11 to 10:31pm with no action taken after.