Editors Note: The following article involves minors in the Branford school system. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, names are being left out. Additionally, as investigations are ongoing and due to laws governing information regarding minors, school representatives cannot comment regarding the actions or statements by parents that are being presented here, and because minors are involved, there is more limited access to source documentation.
On Wednesday evening, parents of students at Walsh Intermediate School attended the Board of Education meeting, with some delivering emotional testimony detailing what they considered to be a pattern of bullying at the school.
The main issues, according to parents, deal, not only with the actual events in question, but the manner in which the school district has handled the matters, with a focus on Walsh principal Robin Goeler and Branford school superintendent Hamlet Hernandez.
The incidents relayed at the meeting were disturbing, as accounts of physical violence and alleged racial attacks, all stemming from one student, were relayed.
Prior to the parents speaking at the meeting, some details of the incidents came to light via social media, and later, as part of a discussion on a radio talk show hosted by Vinnie Penn. Penn is also a Branford resident, with student in the school system.
The incident in question that began the public discussion involved “Student 1” grabbing a fellow student around the back of the neck and making verbal threats. Parents Nicholle McKiernan and Tara Moriarty spoke of incidents where this behavior was repeated, and included verbal threats. According to parents, “student 1” often gave physical gestures to others invoking violence and death.
A key aspect of the discussion on the Vinnie Penn show was that “student 1” was part of a program referred to as “Open Choice,” a program where out of town children could be bussed into Branford and other suburban towns. “Student 1” is from New Haven.
Another incident spoken of at the meeting by a separate parent involved (student 1) and others physically assaulting a student in the locker room area while repeatedly making racial slurs. The incident has been reported to the U.S. Department of Justice, and the details of the incident and aftermath are included.
The result of the incident, which allegedly took place at Walsh in January, was “student 1” given a suspension, according to the letter.
According to the letter sent to the U.S. Department of Justice:
“On Friday, January 22, my son crawled to me on his hands and knees to the dismissal area where myself and another parent were waiting for our children. My son was crying and was beaten. He needed our help to stand. I helped my son to the nurse’s office, and it was obvious he was injured.
“(Student 2) relayed to me what had happened: During dismissal his friend had gone to his locker with him because (student 2) had been afraid of being beaten up. There were no teachers or administrators in the locker are. He said he was attacked by 20 kids! (Student 2) said when he closed his locker the kids yelled “Kill the Jew! Jews don’t deserve anything nice! Give us all your money!” (Student 2) said the kids pushed him into the locker, they pushed him to the ground; they kicked him in his stomach, ribs and legs.... they smashed his head into the lockers! (Student 2) had said a couple of kids (bystanders) had tried to help him while he was still inside, but the kids attacked me again! He said he was too hurt to stand and had to crawl to me.”
What happened next was something that, in many ways, has become a familiar theme: parents taking issue with the process by which they are communicated with and issues and incidents are investigated.
According to the victim’s mother, the school principal, Robin Goeler, came to the nurse’s office to hear what took place. After to child detailed what took place and who did it, Goeler responded “Well, that’s only one side, so we’ll have to investigate it.”
The boy’s parents met with school officials (the boys father is a police officer). According to the mother’s report, they were told multiple times there was video of the incident (the locker room area is public at Walsh, and has video cameras) and were told they could view it, but it has yet to be produced and made available.
The reports also state’s that two of the students have since apologized for their involvement, including in one face-to-face meeting between one of the perpetrators and the victim, facilitated by school official. Another wrote a 2 page apology letter. (Student 1) has never apologized.
The parents were told that the incident was a “verified bullying incident,” they objected, claiming it was a hate crime. On February 1, the mother states, “principal Goeler informed me he was having a meeting with (student 1’s) parents, and he does not feel (student 1) will be returning to school.
Later, she would find out that two students received in-school suspension, and that (student 1) received a suspension. The parent believed the suspension was 3 weeks, in actuality the maximum suspension that could be given, according to officials, is 10 days.
In her report, the victim’s mother states this:
Although my ex-husband and I were told this was a “verified bullying incident” I am very concerned that the school has not responded to our requests and has withheld evidence. The school has reneged on their plan that (student 1) would not be returning to school. He has. There is no safety plan put in place for our son. I do not feel our son is safe. My son does not feel safe.”
The school and school officials have declined to comment on the matters, citing FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) laws.
One of the witnesses to the incident was a young female student who, last November, was slapped across the face by (Student 1) in a hallway. According to a witnesses, when it occurred, others ran over to the area having actually heard it from a different locker bay.
Parents who spoke at Wednesdays meeting were aware of multiple incidents involving (Student 1) but were not aware he had been suspended.
According to parents, the issues with (student 1) have continued even after an adult aid was assigned to be with (student 1). Parents state that (student 1) has been without an aid at various times in the school day, and has continued, even with an aid present, to make verbal threats at other students.
The most recent incident, which took place in an art class 2 weeks ago and prompted the parents speaking at the BOE meeting, took place in an art class, where parents state their children “physically attacks and verbally threatened.”
But McKiernan, who also served as the president of the Walsh PTA until she resigned last week, stated she was not notified about the incident. In fact, she did not know it took place until another parent contacted her that evening, as their own child was distressed over what took place. Since then numerous emails have been exchanged, with no specific safety plan presented by officials.
After the incident, principal Goeler took both student into a mediation session, and felt that solved the matter, according to McKiernan.
“Based on the facts that became aware to me, I learned that this child was a frequent offender who slapped a girl in the face, beat up two other children, grabbed my son and a friend by the neck, and made several threats to our children and others,” she states. “Shocked, disappointed and in fear, I requested numerous times a safety plan from the school. The response was the same, “the school has a plan in place to keep the students safe and is supported by the administration.” I ask you, how is that specific and what does that mean in reference to keeping my child and the school safe?”
Emails sent between parents and school officials support the claims, with many responses to questions being generic, “we take child safety seriously” responses. A common theme is the amount of time, often days, that pass before a parent is responded to by email. In the case of McKeirnan, she was never notified by the school that the incident ever took place.
No parent called for the student to be expelled, but rather a safety plan that would ensure that (student 1) was not in class with their child and that an aid was with him at all times. But since parents have requested this, and been assured there was a safety plan in place, students have reported on multiple occasions that (student 1) was without an adult aid.
For McKiernan, the issues remain that there is no documented safety plan and the BOE policy on bullying is not being implemented.
I have spoken with an attorney, the police, other parents, students, teachers, the state of CT bullying director, and members of our community,” she writes. “The fear and uneasy feeling with the administrations lack of transparency regarding these matters is real. The general consensus is ‘how is this child still in our school and what is the Branford school policy on the matters at hand?”
The law does limit what officials can say. Hernandez reiterated that "the district continues to take the safety of every student seriously, but by law we cannot discuss any incident or its context publicly."