Teacher Victoria Thompson reading her statement to the school board
Teachers at Bristol Elementary this week shared vivid details of a school environment that they say has become unsafe due to student behavioral problems. At a tense Mount Abraham Unified School District meeting on Tuesday, the educators asked administrators and school board members to take action to address the issues.
Speaking to the board during the public comment portion of the meeting, second grade teacher Andrea Murnane said that “prior, repeated efforts” to address the safety concerns have been unsuccessful. The problem has been ongoing for at least a year, teachers said, but it came to a head last Thursday, October 7.
Second grade teacher Victoria Thompson — fighting back tears and surrounded by other teachers for support — described the events of that day. At 2 p.m., her class was required to evacuate their room when a student aggressively entered and began throwing things at adults and around the room.
“Outside, students expressed fears about their safety, their things and their hard work in our classroom being destroyed,” Thompson recounted.
When she reentered the room at 2:45 p.m., Thompson said she found that a document camera, closet door and math equipment had been broken. She locked the door, but at 3 p.m., the student returned to the classroom, still agitated, and began slamming and kicking the door, yelling at Thompson to “open the f'ing door. Open the door, you f'ing b.”
“My students were crying and screaming, and students were hiding under tables and in my classroom library bookshelf,” Thompson said.
The following day, the student was moved to an alternative learning space but tried multiple times to come into Thompson’s classroom, once again yelling, kicking and slamming his body into the door. This led to seven “clear the hall” announcements from the main office, which direct students and staff to stay in a locked classroom.
“Now I keep my door locked at all times, and I have to stop instruction to let my students or other adults into my classroom,” Thompson said. “Students gasp when they hear someone knocking on our door. My students don’t feel safe. I fear for my safety every day at work, and I fear for my students’ safety and academic success in the learning environment.”
Murnane provided a broader view of the situation.
“Workplaces and learning for all grade levels have been disrupted,” she said. “Student work is routinely ripped from the hallway walls, and a general sense of fear and helplessness has permeated our school.”
Murnane said teachers believe students showing violent, disruptive behavior should receive "trauma-informed interventions" that acknowledge past trauma and seek to heal, rather than punish. But to be effective, those practices require adequate staffing, training and procedures.
Murnane shared a list of measures that teachers want the school district to implement. Those include moving students who endanger themselves or others into an alternative space; providing one-on-one behavioral support for those students; and providing a clear plan for how to immediately respond to students who put others at risk.
Some students have behavior plans, and all staff who work with kids that do should know what the plans say. Classroom teachers, meanwhile, should have input in creating the plans, Murnane said. Additionally, teachers want the school to hire a licensed mental health professional to assist with the current situation and provide staff training.
Fourth grade teacher Sarah Mangini listed some of the incidents from the past year. Students have been scratched, bitten and punched. Staff members have been spit and urinated on, kicked and had their clothing torn. Classroom walls, baseboards, safety glass and vehicles in the parking lot have been damaged. Computers, projectors, furniture and musical instruments have been vandalized or destroyed.
The chaos in the school has a negative effect on student learning, Mangini said.
“Literacy, math and other lessons have been cut short many times when one or more students has caused a major disruption right in the classroom,” she said. “Students who receive specialized instruction as part of their individualized learning plan, or IEP, sometimes miss part or all of their scheduled small-group or one-on-one instruction because they literally can’t get to their instruction if there’s a ‘clear the halls’ announcement.”
Mangini said she believed the information teachers provided at the meeting might surprise many school board members. Teachers should have the opportunity to share their challenges and successes with board members on a regular basis, she said.
After the teachers’ testimony, board chair Dawn Griswold said the board would gather more information and figure out how to address the situation.
“I hope we can all take a deep breath and know we will be working to share what we learned as soon as reasonably possible,” Griswold said.
Some pressed Griswold to take up the issue immediately.
“As a board member, I had no idea until today about any of these issues, and the fact that I hadn’t been informed … is concerning,” said Lincoln board representative Sandra Lee.
“These folks deserve that we listen to them, and have a list of requests,” said board member Rob Backlund, also from Lincoln. “What more information do we need when our teachers are here, asking for help? ... I don’t need information filtered through a Lake Wobegon central office lens … These are the folks that deliver education, safety and support to our children … If we don’t give them the time of day right now, shame on us.”
The board then entered executive session. When they resumed the public meeting several hours later, Griswold said the board would table the scheduled agenda to allow for more discussion of the Bristol Elementary situation.
“The safety and well-being of all staff and students is our priority,” Griswold said. Board members said that Superintendent Patrick Reem would create a team to determine what changes need to happen.
“We understand that this is hard and stressful,” Griswold said. "We ask that you please keep communicating with the board, as we will continue to monitor and assess the short- and long-term progress to address the concerns we heard tonight.”
But many parents said that response didn’t go far enough.
“We’re trusting you to keep our kids safe for seven hours of the day, and they’re not,” one woman in the audience said.
Another parent asked why the central office hadn’t told the school board about these problems. “It’s being swept under the rug by the administration, and that’s unacceptable,” she said. “Why was the board not made aware?”
“The reality is there are many challenges that we work through as a school,” Reem responded, prompting a comment from one unidentified Zoom attendee.
“We care about this challenge,” the person said.
Another Zoom attendee, who identified herself as Amy, asked the board if there was a timeline for addressing the problems and plans for how the school district’s response would be communicated to parents.
“We don’t have a timeline at this point, because we need some more information,” Griswold said.
Bristol representative Krista Siringo said that there would an administrative meeting in the coming days, and the school board would figure out how to share the results of that meeting with the community.
“We recognize that there are communication gaps,” Siringo said. “And that is part of our job — is to figure out how to identify where those happened and what we can do differently, and what we can ask our administration to do differently.”
“I just please ask that we really remember that we’re a public school serving kids with all kinds of needs, and so if the way to do that is a ‘clear the hall,’ that might be what we do,” Siringo added. “I just don’t want us to forget that there’s a lot of kids really struggling that we’re trying to figure out how to serve.”
Griswold released a statement on behalf of the school board Thursday that characterized Tuesday’s meeting as “really rough for all of us.”
In the coming days, the superintendent will meet with behavioral and counseling specialists, classroom teachers and support staff, the statement said.
“The ongoing pandemic has impacted us in many ways, but it has disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable community members,” the statement reads. “We ask for your support as we all focus on ensuring our schools are able to provide students with the tools they need to learn and grow.”
The statement says there will likely be another school board meeting next week.
Watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Northeast Addison Television: