Journal Inquirer

April 1, 2016

MANCHESTER — Some of the more than 200 parents who crowded Manchester High School Thursday night said they left disappointed that their children’s experiences with bullying did not spur administrators to take immediate action.
The Town-wide Parent-Teacher Association’s meeting had been marketed as an opportunity for school administrators to explain what they’re doing to combat bullying, and to establish a dialogue with parents.
Parents, however, were asked to refrain from using specific examples of bullying at the session, and were only able to speak anonymously through written comments on index cards to raise their concerns. In a question and answer session, cards were read aloud, including compliments and broad questions about the district’s code of conduct and bullying policies.
Candy Lopez, the parent who spearheaded the effort to confront the issue, said the meeting didn’t help any of the parents, as they were not offered a chance to discuss the matter.
“We couldn’t speak about what was going on,” Lopez said. “A lot of parents think it was joke,” she said.
Lopez also said today that she plans to tell Superintendent Matthew Geary in a private meeting that Thursday’s gathering, “that was suppose to help us,” merely became an educating session.
When one father realized his questions wouldn’t be addressed at Thursday’s meeting, he said he had understood that the session was intended to find ways to “fix the bullying.” Instead, the man, who did not identify himself, said parents weren’t allowed to talk about “our personal issues we are having,” adding, “I’m really sick of it.”
He went to say that his own meeting last week with 10 faculty members also was ineffective when he sought to discuss incidents leading to his son being pushed into a toilet at Verplanck Elementary School.
One mother, who also didn’t identify herself, supported the father’s comments.
“He just wants to get off his chest what is happening to his son, and I think he has that right,” she said.
Lopez said the school needs to find another way to continue the conversation about curtailing bullying, because last night’s agenda was unproductive.
Jo Ann Freiberg, education consultant for the State Department of Education, began Thursday’s meeting by insisting that parents misuse the term bullying.
Freiberg said she prefers the term “targeting,” explaining the issue is a moving target, continuously evolving based on individual state definitions. She advocated creating a “safe school environment where students feel they have at least one teacher they are comfortable speaking with.”
Geary spoke only briefly Thursday, but addressed families at length last week in a letter to parents acknowledging the school system’s bullying problem, and promising to consider all appropriate measures to enter 2016-17 with a better plan.
“We are aware that bullying and mean-spirited behavior are issues in our school system; there are students who experience such things and they should not have to,” Geary said in the letter.
He also touted the school system’s “social thinking” curriculum, which he said has been added to six of nine elementary schools, is part of the school board’s efforts to deal with bullying.
According to data provided by Manchester schools, between the 2010-11 and 2015-16, academic the school system reported 84 bullying incidents, with Manchester High School claiming 55.9 percent of those, or 47 incidents. In the 2011-2012 school year alone, the high school reported 22 bullying incidents.
Manchester elementary schools reported 14 incidents since 2011.
In his letter, Geary said schools discipline students in such incidents through detentions, removal from class, in-school suspensions, and rarely, out of school suspensions.
“The goal for the start of 2016-17 is to have and communicate a consistent approach to teaching and reinforcing expected behaviors across our district while also leaving some flexibility for individual school communities,” Geary said.