Breanna Smith would like to be the one to judge here, and she feels eminently qualified to do so.
She’s the mother of 11-year-old Tosh, a fifth-grade student at Broken Ground School with an incurable disease that could take his life in a few years. Tosh sometimes has meltdowns, which, while heartbreaking, can be violent. He may kick, bite, scream.
Thank goodness, Smith told me, for former elementary autism teacher Lori Fosdick. She handled Tosh better than anyone. She applied the right blend of restraint and kindness. Quick on her feet and cool under pressure, Fosdick sized up the scenario, with teachers and students looking to her to defuse a situation, and utilized instincts that took into account the safety of others and the dignity of an out-of-control child. All in a matter of seconds.
No one else on the staff, Smith told me, even came close.
Why then, Smith wonders, did Broken Ground recommend that, after more than 10 years with the district, Fosdick be fired for breaking a rule, vague and open to interpretation, that governs how far a teacher can go to restrain a student?
Concord school district Superintendent Terry Forsten thinks Fosdick overstepped her boundaries on a pair of occasions at Broken Ground. Smith says Forsten and others, including the Concord school board, which voted 6-2 to show Fosdick the door, got it wrong.
“Since Tosh was in second-grade, Lori has been on his team,” Smith told me downtown, over coffee on a freezing March morning. “I don’t trust a lot of people when it comes to (Tosh), because he can’t tell me anything. But out of everyone on his team, I always thanked her for keeping him safe.”
Jamie Temple also believes she’s in a better position to judge this thorny issue than a school superintendent or a school principal. Temple’s 9-year-old son, Cornealious Gleason, suffered a traumatic brain injury as a baby when his father shook him violently.
In school, with Fosdick around, Cornealious had minor temper tantrums. Without her, though, it was a different story.
“He was stripping clothes off and defecating and urinating all over the room,” Temple told me by phone. “It got to the point where he would go in at 8 and they’d call me at 10 to pick him up. It would be two hours a day and 1½ would be spent having a tantrum. He spent a year learning nothing.
“I don’t understand why they let her go.”
A lot of people feel the same way about Fosdick. They want her reinstated, something she’s trying to do through the arbitration process. That might be up to the Labor Board at a later date.
For now, parents of students at the school have come forward, pushing hard to tell this story.
It’s multi-layered, bringing attention to the state statute, how a school policy may differ, what teachers and aids sometimes endure under high-octane tension, and how decisions affiliated with school discipline can impact so many in such a profound manner.
We’ve seen this before, but in a varied form. We’ve seen a parent complain that a teacher had treated their child too roughly. Investigate the teacher, the parents say. The teacher had no right to touch my child.
Here, though, we have a twist. We’ve got parents defending the teacher who supposedly used too much force to gain control. We’ve got parents backing this teacher, praising her, putting her on a pedestal, seeing her as a walking textbook on how to deal with this type of behavior.
As Smith, commenting on Fosdick, told me, “She thinks outside the box. She’s absolutely phenomenal. She goes above and beyond. She’s willing on her own time to research stuff that could help your kids, and she genuinely cares about the children, all of them that she works with. She is the most supportive person in that school district, all the time.”
How can this be? A teacher held in such high regard, fired? Left to fight for her job, her career, her reputation?
Start with the laws. Maybe we can add clarity from them. The state statute, created in 2015, defines restraint as “bodily physical restriction that restricts the freedom of movement of the torso, head, arms, or legs.”
Further down we discover that restraint, as defined above, is permitted if there’s an “imminent risk of serious bodily harm to the child or others.”
Fine. Except that the statute is used as a general guide for school districts, allowing them to modify and refine segments, as long as teachers are not given more freedom to use physical force.
Less is okay, and less is what it says in the Concord School District Policy, No. 430. Here we learn that the use of force is permitted “by a person to defend himself or herself or a third person from what the actor reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful force by a student. ... and the actor does not immobilize a child or restrict the freedom of movement of the torso, head, arms, or legs of any child.”
So where does that leave Fosdick? Smith said two years ago her son became unruly, with an aid present. She said Fosdick was called in to help. She said it happened between classes, with students in the hallway, staring, laughing, pointing.
She said Fosdick “scooped (Tosh) up like a baby, took 15 steps, put in him a special ed classroom and calmed him down. He just needed that. It was for his own dignity, as well as the safety of the kids who were coming down the hall.”
The questions from here spill out like those kids streaming from their classrooms after the bell. Does scooping up a child break the rules? Does a parent’s input count for anything? If this was unlawful restraint, why wasn’t that mentioned in the write-up Fosdick received, the one that read like a reprimand and was placed in her file?
And, Smith asks, why has Broken Ground offered Fosdick a solid reference to assist with her job search if her behavior was so bad?
I called and emailed Forsten, superintendent of the Concord School District. Her email response read, “As I am sure you are aware, I cannot comment on a personnel matter or a matter conducted in a non-public session before the school board.”
The superintendent can certainly talk about school district’s policies and general expectations for staff, but we never got that far.
Fosdick also stayed quiet, citing the ongoing litigation. “I am extremely grateful to the staff members and to the parents who have supported me through this difficult time.”
Place Adrienne Fero Evans in that category. Her son, Jack, is 11, the same age as Tosh. Evans sat with Smith at that same downtown coffee shop on that frigid March morning, telling me about a professional whose skills and patience were invaluable to Concord’s educational community.
“She has been with (Jack) for a long time,” Evans told me. “I think she is amazing. She’s just one of those teachers who goes above and beyond for families she works for, doing fundraisers. She’s the kind of educator who every parent of a kid with a disability wants.”
That includes a mother who did not want to be identified in this column. Her son had an incident with Fosdick last October, for which Fosdick was placed on administrative leave.
Something about Fosdick, looking to limit the child’s space during a tantrum, pressing her knee against the wall to coral him. The boy tried to squeeze past, then screamed, leading to questions of whether Fosdick hurt the child. The mother said she supports the teacher “100 percent.”
Four months later, on Feb. 24, after two child-related incidences in which Fosdick’s behavior made perfect sense to the parents involved, after the school board had voted by a 6-2 margin to oust Fosdick, after an outpouring of support at the hearing that apparently fell on deaf ears, Fosdick was fired.
Smith and others say the administration did not follow proper procedures and did not contact the parents involved in a timely manner, as is spelled out in the school district’s policy.
“As active a parent as I am, there’s so much I did not know until recently,” Smith said. “Parents need to know these things. These are our children. There needs to be open communication with us.”
Meanwhile, Fosdick is receiving legal help. Her lawyer, Jim Allmendinger, was out of town and did not return a phone call. But Mike Macri, the president of the Concord Education Association, the teacher’s union for the Concord School District, is also representing Fosdick in her fight to regain her position.
Macri has a unique, inside view on Fosdick, since he also works at Broken Ground School, as a special education teacher. He testified at the school board hearing. He’s fighting the administration, trying to move the case to the Labor Board, hoping for an arbitration hearing.
“I’ve had a long career in Concord,” Macri told me, “and I would never support someone who I thought was not good for the children.”
Those closest to this matter feel Fosdick is good for the children. Bring her back, they say. Let her do what she does best.
The students most in need at Broken Ground need her the most.
“The thing that bothers me more than anything is that between my son’s write-up and the other child’s write-up, parents are in support of Lori,” Smith said. “We’re the ones who are okay with it. So why in the world is this an issue in the first place?”