Henniker school board member resigns over bullying concerns
A Henniker School Board member has resigned, citing what she describes as the school’s ineffective handling of bullying.
Shannon Lovejoy, a mother of two Henniker Community School students, said her decision isn’t based on specific board failures. Rather, she feels she is in a better position to advocate for better anti-bullying procedures as a parent instead of a school board member. Her fourth- and sixth-grade daughters have witnessed or experienced cruel treatment by other children to the point of emotional anguish, she said. As a nonboard member, she plans to gather information and more parent support to push for better policies. Henniker Community School is the town’s only elementary school, serving about 420 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Lovejoy informed the board of her resignation, effective today, in a May 30 letter. The board will advertise the vacant position and appoint someone to fill it until Lovejoy’s scheduled term is up in 2014.
“I believe that the school has dropped the ball and is not providing a safe environment for the students, my children included,” said the letter, sent to the board members, assistant superintendent and superintendent. “I no longer have faith in our school to provide an education while at the same time supporting the mental and emotional health and well-being of the students.”
Both board Chairman Gary Guzouskas and Superintendent Lorraine Tacconi-Moore said the resignation surprised them because Lovejoy never brought up bullying during her time as a board member. But Lovejoy said it would be inappropriate to put her personal concerns on the board’s agenda.
One parent brought bullying concerns to the board during Lovejoy’s two years of service. At that same meeting, in June 2012, Principal Katherine McBride explained the school’s responses to bullying and positive behavior initiatives, Lovejoy said, and the board felt the procedures were strong. Furthermore, since only one parent expressed a concern, the board did not think it was indicative of a larger problem. Lovejoy said she didn’t think it was her place to ask the board to take a harder look at bullying, as her only outside knowledge of the problem came from her daughters’ experiences. She now believes bullying is more of a widespread concern.
“Unfortunately, I can’t bring my personal life into it,” she said.
Lovejoy’s sixth-grade daughter is in counseling after years of cruel treatment from her peers due to her appearance. Lovejoy declines to call it bullying because she never made documented reports to the principal. That is because her daughter rarely told her immediately when the incidents occurred, so she could not go to administrators with specific information. But still, she said the teasing has caused her daughter severe emotional anguish.
Her fourth-grade daughter has not been a direct target of mistreatment, but she has witnessed it among her classmates since first grade and worries about it frequently, Lovejoy said. No one person is to blame, she said, as children often bully out of the teacher’s sight.
“I can’t blame the teacher. I can’t blame the assistant principal. I have to just say that it’s the entire school, per se, that has failed the child,” she said.
McBride said she doesn’t believe there is a systemic bullying problem at the school, but that mistreatment of any child should be taken seriously.
“Any social conflict that affects a child is important and needs to be handled, and for that child and that child’s family it’s a huge deal,” she said.
The school has an anti-bullying policy that covers what constitutes bullying, how it should be investigated, punishment and more. In an effort to be proactive, the school has two consultants come in each year to review policies and to instruct teachers on how to help students work through social conflicts. One of those consultants visited a few weeks ago and set recommendations for next school year. The school also has a Student Success Center, where students can go to talk about behavioral issues. Still, completely eliminating unkindness among students is difficult.
“We can teach, we can educate, we can provide all the shell, but we can’t control,” she said. “We try to be as proactive as we can to minimize inappropriate behavior, (but) we’re dealing with human beings.”
Only a small number of complaints turn out to be serious enough to reach the desk of Tacconi-Moore, the superintendent.
In her resignation letter, Lovejoy suggested the board have an independent consultant come in to review the anti-bullying policy and its implementation. That already occurs on a regular basis, McBride said.
Lovejoy also thinks the board members should get more details when McBride references bullying in her monthly school board report. She typically tells the board how many serious bullying incidents occurred, which is usually one or zero, but does not give any details. It would be helpful if the board members better understood the issues, Lovejoy said. But the board made the decision not to get details of the incidents several years ago, mainly for privacy concerns, said Guzouskas.
As an advocate, however, she’ll continue pushing the school and board to do more to protect her own children and others.
“I don’t think that I can defend the idea that the school is doing everything they can,” she said.