CHESHIRE — More than three dozen residents attended the latest Board of Education forum on safe school climate this week, the third such forum on the topic this calendar year.
Overall, the meeting Monday night appeared to be less fraught with aggravation than previous forums.
Those forums had begun during the previous school year, in response to concerns about bullying that had been raised following the suicide of an 11-year-old Doolittle Elementary School student last December.
Board of Education Chair Kathryn Hallen said at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, its purpose was to allow community members and parents to address the board with their questions and concerns. She didn't place a time limit on how long people would be allowed to ask questions.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey F. Solan, who followed Hallen, cited recently released statewide student test results as a validation of the things the district does well.
“We do a lot of things incredibly well. But you can never support students enough. In that vein, we are constantly looking at the programs we offer and we're always looking at ways to improve on that,” Solan said.
“Our students are achieving at record high levels, but we need to make sure we are meeting the needs of every individual child,” he added.
Solan said officials have taken the feedback received from families and students in an attempt “to approve ourselves as a school system.”
At that point, Solan shared the only disciplinary figure that would be publicly discussed during the roughly 90-minute forum.
Last year, the school district reported 207 disciplinary infractions, a number that includes bullying. It was exactly the same number as the previous year. But within that was an increase in bullying incidents, from 13 districtwide in the 2017-2018 school year, to 25 during the last school year. The bullying figures were not mentioned during the meeting, but were included in printed documents that were handed out to board members.
Jeff Natale, a town resident, told the board he attended with the expectation more data from school climate surveys of students would be presented.
Solan noted that data is on the school district's website.
Natale, interviewed later, said he was disappointed the survey data wasn’t shared. But the fact that the overall conversation was less confrontational than at previous meetings was positive step.Reporting process
Most parents and residents spoke positively of their children’s and grandchildren’s experience in Cheshire schools. But some spoke of issues with the bullying reporting process.
Mary Burnham, a resident with grandchildren in the school district, said she believes the state-required reporting and information gathering around bullying incidents have made them more difficult to resolve expeditiously.
“My impression is that there’s some hindrance there,” Burnham said.
Solan acknowledged Burnham's concern.
“...You’re right, it’s a very comprehensive process,” he said, noting a considerable amount of documentation goes along with a bullying report.
“What we don’t want is for people to be discouraged about making a report because of the paperwork,” Solan said, explaining the district now has a system in place to make anonymous reports.
Burnham maintained the overall reporting process is burdensome for everyone involved, when sometimes there is a simpler solution.
“Some kids...just need to be told you can’t do this anymore,” she said. “It's not acceptable behavior and we’re done… people are almost hesitant to go through this… you don’t want another kid labeled a bully at the age of 10. There’s gotta be a different solution to this problem.”
State Rep. Liz Linehan, who followed Burnham, thanked her for expressing that sentiment, saying it is one reason why she and other lawmakers worked to change the current state law.
Board member Adam Grippo read a statement he prepared anticipating more heated comments from parents.
“This went a little different than what I was expecting,” Grippo said. He praised the school district's mental health staff.
“More often than not our childen's needs are met on a daily basis,” Grippo said, acknowledging there is still a disconnect, and a need for the district to be accountable and responsive to the community.
“It’s because of you that we’re here tonight. You demanded it,” Grippo said, thanking those who attended.