Rundlett Middle School in Concord sees rise in racial tensions

  • Paulette Fitzgerald, principal of Claremont Middle School, talks with parents during a meet-and-greet at Rundlett Middle School on Wednesday morning, Mar. 28, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 5/21/2021 5:55:39 PM

Rundlett Middle School has seen an increase in race-related conflict among students this year, manifesting in the form of racist slurs, accusations, anger and some physical fights.

Principal Paulette Fitzgerald, who emailed parents about the issue, said this week that many of Rundlett’s students of color and others are expressing “strong feelings” about racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, meanwhile some white students “don’t understand the power of some of the words they may be using.”

Fitzgerald partly attributes the behavior to the lack of academic structure students have had during the pandemic year. Students began the year learning from home, then returned to school part-time. They were not at school during the summer of 2020 to process the death of George Floyd and the aftermath of racial justice protests across the country, but spent a lot of time online and on social media.

“I think this is a perfect storm of the kids coming back together, the whole pandemic that has turned all of our lives upside down and the social unrest that is in society,” Fitzgerald said. “And middle schoolers and where they are developmentally.”

The behavior is one problem the district is addressing now that about 80% of students are back to full-time in-person learning. Concord School District’s safety, compliance and Title IX coordinator Karen Fischer-Anderson said she has spent a “considerable amount of time” working on cases of student bullying this year, at all grade levels in the Concord School District.

Fischer-Anderson delivered an end-of-year report via a video broadcast Friday, where she gave an overview of the issues she’s been working on in her position as Title IX coordinator since the position was created in April 2020. In her report, Fischer-Anderson said the school district, which has utilized remote learning extensively during the 2020-2021 school year, has had particular issues with cyber-bullying.

“What happens is, students might get on those devices, and because they’re not looking at somebody in person necessarily, they begin to say things, demean, humiliate, and it can set up a bullying-type situation,” Fischer-Anderson said.

Fitzgerald said in middle school, especially eighth grade, is when students begin to learn more about slavery, the Civil War and the impact of racism through history and language arts classes. It’s also a time when students become more interested in making change. Fitzgerald said in the May 15 email to parents that Rundlett has seen conflict around the dress code.

“One thing we know about middle schoolers is they want to feel helpful, they want to be useful, they want a cause, so it’s really teaching them how to have a voice in a respectful way that does not impact other people negatively,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said a facilitator from New Hampshire Listens, a civic engagement initiative of the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy, will be coming in to work with groups of middle schoolers on the topics of race and racism. Fischer-Anderson said an advocate from the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire has done some anti-bullying training for students.

Fischer-Anderson said the district has seen quite a few instances where students have been requesting inappropriate pictures from each other, an interaction that can fall under the categories of both bullying and sexual harassment. Fischer-Anderson said that there isn’t much district officials can do about cyber-bullying that happens on a student’s personal device unless it causes a “significant disruption” within the school.

“An example of that might be, somebody put a meme, a humiliating text out there, and because those students are in the same class they come to school, there’s bleed-over,” Fischer-Anderson said. “Fights are taking place, there’s retaliatory action. It has a direct impact on the educational process. That’s something Concord School District would get involved in and would investigate.”

In her report, Fischer-Anderson said bullying cases are typically handled by school principals and assistant principals, while Fischer-Anderson becomes the lead investigator on any case that involves both a staff member and a student.

She said the district has conducted investigations this year on a restraint and seclusion case, inappropriate touching cases and sexual harassment allegations.

The district conducted an investigation this year after a school yearbook photographer solicited a student for an inappropriate modeling project, and when it received a report that former Concord business teacher Joshua Harwood had allegedly solicited an underage former student for sexual services online. Fischer-Anderson said the school district has exhibited its improved process for responding to reports, through informing the Concord School Board, parents and guardians, and working closely with Concord Police and the N.H. Department of Education.

“We were very transparent, that was one of the lessons learned on the Howie Leung investigation,” Fischer-Anderson said. “I think we’ve made great advances and lessons learned with regard to investigations, and we will continue that.”

The Title IX coordinator position was created at the recommendation of Djuna Perkins, an independent investigator who looked into the Concord School District’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct against former teacher Leung. This year, Fischer-Anderson has created a matrix guidance for addressing Title IX violations, has updated the district’s equal protection policy, and worked with the school board to update the discrimination policy and create a policy for transgender and gender nonconforming students and pregnant students.

“Next year, what I’d like to do post-COVID is have some parent forums to address some of the things we’re seeing within the high school, bullying being the prime example,” Fischer-Anderson said. “And how we can address that and help our kids and make sure they’re not making mistakes that are going to affect them long-term, down the road, keeping them safe.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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