- Samuel Adams
(note - for more information on this story, please read my first two posts on this issue - #1 and #2)
When I was a graduate student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, I lived in an apartment with a very dangerous intersection nearby. When it rained (which it does often in Tallahassee), most of the time an accident would take place at this intersection. One time, after I had witnessed a particularly gruesome accident where the right front wheel of a car was literally pushed all the way into the passenger seat (seriously injuring the passenger), I called the highway department to see if there was any possibility that a traffic light could be installed at the intersection. Their response: we usually install traffic lights at intersections where there has been a fatality.
That story keeps playing through my mind as I write. There is a lot in common between that situation and the bullying situation at Hellgate Middle School - both involve problems that were well known by officals who could have taken action to rectify the situation, but actions would only be taken after a tragedy occurs, or, in the case of Pat Fuglei, had occurred.
This past Monday, at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Hellgate District School Board, the superintendent summarized a plan of action that had been initiated just a week before in response to the bullying incidents involving Patrick Fuglei, an ASD 8th grader whose parents felt compelled to pull him out of school after being bullied for the better part of two years. This plan of action came about rather quickly, considering it was just two weeks ago that Patrick's story first appeared in The Missoulian, and just a week ago that the School Board (on November 2) held a special meeting in response to that article, essentially to get out their side of the story. Parents were notified of this plan just a day after that meeting.
Here is what the Hellgate School District is going to do:
- They have contracted with the Missoula Chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), a non profit that works with organizations such as schools, law enforcement agencies, etc. to develop programs that stress inclusion and a reduction in violence, particularly in schools. NCBI will start by offering workshops for the middle school students and a professional development class for district staff which will also serve as a needs assessment to provide direction for future work. NCBI will also offer training and assessments for parents as well.
- The school district policies will be posted on the web page in an easily searchable format so parents can find information easily.
- Teachers, principals, and counselors will continue to research anti-bullying practices at other school districts nationwide.
- The superintendent also advocated for school-based parent advisory councils in each building (K-2, 3-5, 6-8).
This last development was particularly interesting because, as someone told me, the idea of parent advisory councils has been proposed in front of the school board before, only to be discouraged by this very same superintendent. So now we apparently have a complete 180 on this issue. I requested at this meeting that an additional advisory council should be set up for special education. Based on the phone message the superintendent left on Tuesday summarizing Monday's actions, this request must still be "under consideration."
One parent praised the superintendent and the school for taking steps in the right direction, but then asked about disciplinary procedures. The superintendent outlined a typical hierarchical process where you talk to the teacher, and if the teacher gives you no satisfaction then you go to the principal, and if the principal gives you no satisfaction then you go the the superintendent, and if it makes it to the superintendent, than he assured us that he would launch an investigation into the matter. He even told an anecdotal story about an ASD child who was being bullied, and the bullying was brought to his attention. He immediately contracted (as he put it) with the Special Ed. coordinator, who investigated, and reported out her results, and the situation was resolved.
This is interesting too, considering that at the November 2 School Board meeting, this same superintendent stated that in his almost 10 years at Hellgate he had never had a call about bullying.
This also raised the ire of one parent whose ASD son was bullied out of Hellgate last year. She rose and asked the superintendent why, if he investigates all incidents that are brought to his attention, did he not investigate her son's incident until after they got the police involved. The superintendent was speechless, then stated that he could not recall her son's specific case, but assured the woman it was investigated. This woman and her husband, by the way, had followed all school policies and procedures with regards to bullying.
Another issue brought to the attention of the school board at this meeting was the case of N.B. vs. Hellgate Elementary, in which the 9th Circuit Court deemed that a child was denied procedural rights under IDEA by not evaluating the child to determine whether the child was autistic, thus denying the child a free and appropriate public education. A parent asked the school board to disclose the cost of defending that lawsuit, but the district's attorney reminded everyone that this was a public comment session, and not a question and answer session.
With the exception of this parent, all the other parents who spoke had their questions answered.
The Missoulian covered the School Board Meeting, and you can read their article here. The reporter covering this story also this week wrote a poignant guest column about standing up to bullies, which you can read here. While I won't share them as I have before, as always reading the reader comments in response to the article is always insightful.
Many people I talked to have praised NCBI and their work, and it is probably a good thing to have an outside entity come in and assess the situation. But is NCBI's involvement, as well as the other reactionary actions the school district adopted, enough? Probably not. It certainly is not enough to address the needs of the special needs children - the fact that Pat Fuglei is a child with autism continues to be ignored in this process.
There will not be another school board meeting probably for another month. That means another month for the incident that precipitated this discussion, as well as the other incidents that have been brought forward since, to fade from the collective conscience of the community. It's up to us, the parents of this school district, to make sure that does not happen, to keep setting brush fires in peoples minds.