Not even the loud hum from the custodian’s floor-waxing machine, just a few feet away, could drown out Heather Lurvey’s sobs.
She had sought answers at a special meeting Thursday night at Mill Brook School, called to discuss a hot topic in recent weeks. The one about treatment of disabled children, how to deal with them when they’ve lost control. The one about a vague, open-to-interpretation policy on the definition and administration of a vague, open-to interpretation word, restraint, when it’s okay to use, when it’s not okay to use, and what, specifically, it refers to.
Lurvey had asked Concord schools Superintendent Terri Forsten to help her understand why someone on Forsten’s staff had failed to bring her son, Brandon, back to the school after he’d pulled a Houdini act, disappearing out the door. It happened last year, when Brandon was 8. Teachers merely waited for Brandon to return, later calling police for help.
“I don’t want to go deeply into the woods,” Forsten had told Lurvey during the meeting, “but I would encourage you to meet with your child’s team and have that conversation.”
And with that, with a melting pot of emotions boiling over, from fear, to anger, to sadness, Lurvey walked briskly to the hallway, head bowed, lockers and colorful masks on the wall serving as quiet witnesses, the custodian busy doing his after-hours job.
“My son ran away from school and they told me they can’t put their hands on him,” Lurvey told me in the hallway. “He ran toward East Side Drive and they called Concord police and they said why didn’t someone try to stop him and they were told there is a no hands-on policy.
“I will sign a waiver. Put your hands on my kid.”
Lurvey’s emotion, her utter frustration, symbolized what happened in this meeting. It was called because of an outpouring of support shown for Lori Fosdick, after she was fired for, according to school policy, going too far while controlling an angry, emotionally challenged student.
Fosdick, who was fired in February, is seeking an arbitration hearing to get her job back. Forsten has filed a complaint with the labor board, saying Fosdick has no right to file a grievance.
Since then, parents have sought clarity, with many agreeing that Fosdick had used good judgment. Meanwhile, we learned that teachers in the Concord School District are afraid to touch students in any manner, no matter the circumstances. No one wants to be reprimanded. No one wants to lose their job.
To calm the waters, Forsten and Bob Belmont, the director of student services, did their best at Thursday’s meeting to put a happy face on the stormy climate.
They were good at it, too, using soft-spoken voices and a methodically planned presentation, complete with slideshow and graphics, to sprinkle optimism over the 20 or so people who attended.
Belmont noted that he’s proud of the job Forsten has done since taking over as superintendent two years ago. He added some levity, using Dunkin Donuts as an analogy, and he pointed to data and training classes that he said will lead to better methods in the future.
“These issues, we should be able to have not difficult conversations,” Belmont said, “but easy conversations about doing it right.”
Forsten recounted the timeline of state and school policies on child restraint. She spoke about “teams” and their effectiveness in dealing with emotionally stressed students.
And she acknowledged the uncomfortable scenario she’s found herself in since word got out that she recommended the firing of Fosdick.
“This is meant to be a supportive group for parents,” Forsten said, “and it’s not meant to be something that we want necessarily to be in the newspaper on an ongoing basis.”
But as long as students can bolt from school, and teachers refuse to chase them, fearing for their jobs, this issue isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Instead, we had a meeting, attended by people like Lurvey and Emily Reid and Karen Reid and Breanna Smith and Amanda Varney and Jennifer Chase.
They have special needs children, some of whom have run off. They know what’s needed sometimes to get special education children under control. They wanted to know the district’s definition of restraint. They wanted to know when, if at all, restraint could be used. They asked, then they asked again, then they asked again.
This was not a slideshow-seeking, data-driven, patient audience. This was an audience searching for bottom-line answers, someone to get up on a chair and yell in support of the injustice they were feeling. They wanted some sort of security blanket that told them their kids would be safe, that they no longer would be free to run, and that if they did, someone sure as hell would go get them and bring them back.
They were worried their kids might be kidnapped, or run over by a bus, or fall into the nearby swamp.
“So what is the district policy? Are we calling the police?” asked Karen Reid, whose grandson, Aiden, was the child restrained by Fosdick last October when he tried to run around her.
“Every case Aiden left this building, he left with a teacher saying he’ll come back when he’s ready,” Aiden continued. “He never did. His mother and I got called every time, and it wasn’t one time, or two times, or three times. So what are you going to do the next time?”
By this time, a meeting that had started out awkwardly civil had changed. Pretense was gone. Fluffy conversation and nervous laughter, gone.
The question that had nothing to do with graphs or slide shows or history began to rush forward like one of those troubled students bolting down the hallway, or out the door.
The fact is, to “immobilize a child or restrict the freedom of movement of the torso, head, arms, or legs of any child,” is not allowed, the school policy says. But parents remained fuzzy, as though they wanted more than a definition. As though they wanted change.
Belmont felt the heat, saying three times that he detected a “deadly stare” from Angela Lucier, an autism assistant who, because of her job with the district, declined to offer a strongly worded opinion to me.
“I just want to see the parents get answers to their questions and it not be open ended,” Lucier told me after the meeting. “It should be put in the (individualized education program), and everyone on the team should be involved with that, including the parents.”
In the end, when pressed, Forsten admitted that “There isn’t a district policy on what to do when a child bolts.”
“When there is any kind of elevated issue, we look for there to be a team present, for those team members to make their decision,” Forsten added. “The team has conversations where they will outline (a plan) knowing individual students.”
It sounded great in theory, but it’s not what Lurvey wanted to hear. Consult with your team?
“I asked for a meeting in writing in December and still have not had a meeting,” she told me during our mid-meeting hallway encounter. “I think the policy should be changed. I don’t think the teacher should be afraid of losing their job because they’re afraid someone will get mad if they touched their child.”
I spoke to Forsten on my way out. I asked her to comment on Lurvey’s concerns. “I just saw her for the first time. How do I give her an answer?” she said, without a trace of anger. “I don’t know her child, I don’t know the situations. This isn’t the setting for me to offer her what we would do in response to something like that.”
Forsten then said she’d spoken to Lurvey after the meeting, in that same hallway where Lurvey cried while the custodian worked. She said a meeting with Lurvey had been arranged.
I called Lurvey the next day. I asked for her thoughts on her post-meeting meeting with the superintendent.
“I was thankful for it,” she told me. “I just wish it hadn’t come to this for that to happen.”