MIDDLETOWN — Parents say they were left in the dark on several “major incidents” in the school district, and are calling for more transparency from educators.
Molly Auger, who has three children at Beman Middle School, said during a Board of Education meeting Tuesday that she found out about an incident between students last week not from the superintendent or the principal, but from local media.
“Finding out about a major incident by watching the local news on Friday, as I did, is very problematic,” Auger said. “Parents need to be better understanding of what is going on in their child’s school. So I hope, moving forward, let’s use that as an example of what not to do.”
The incident, which involved members of the boys’ baseball team using “racist, anti-Semitic, and offensive language,” and looking at “insensitive and offensive images,” happened Wednesday. But the district chose to immediately inform only the parents of the students involved in the incident. They issued a letter to the entire school community the following Monday, after the story became part of the local news cycle.
“Communication is key for parent trust in this district, and somehow between elementary and middle school, that communication dwindles dramatically and parents are left in the lurch about who to contact,” she said.
Auger wasn’t the only person who came forward to criticize the district for a lack of communication and its failure to address student disciplinary issues — particularly at the middle school.
Parent Megan Lewis discussed another incident that happened in April, in which a local man threatened to “shoot up” and “take down” one of the schools. Although the threats were made on April 6, the district did not make an official communication to parents until April 28 — three weeks later.
“Considering what’s going on across the nation with schoolwide shootings and whatnot, it’s just a big concern as a parent to find this out way after the fact,” Lewis said. “I don’t know if it happened during the day, but we weren’t made aware if it did. Was the school placed on lockdown? Because none of us seem to really know.”
Lewis said she felt an increased police presence at the school might be a potential solution. Parent Katelyn Claudomir said elementary school parents had taken to “patrolling” their children’s schools, driving around the parking lots during the day and looking for anything “suspicious.”
Parents brought up other concerns as well, including staffing shortages and a lack of substitute teachers.
Daniel Long, a Beman parent and research scientist at the UConn Neag School of Education, said he was concerned about the increase of instructional coaches in the district, which has risen from 27 to 45 over the last five years, while the number of teachers has stayed relatively constant.
In February, parents told the school board that their children were watching Disney movies during the school day rather than learning science or Spanish because of the teacher shortage at the middle school, according to the Middletown Press.
Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos told parents he heard their concerns, and that they should feel free to come to him for further discussion.
“My door is always open, and parents come to my office, and teachers come to my office to discuss concerns,” Vazquez-Matos said. “It’s important for the community to know that I am also available to the community to discuss concerns or strategies or ideas.”
Board Chair Deborah Cain emphasized the need to recruit more teachers of color, urging administrators to reach out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and look abroad, in places like India and Puerto Rico, to bring in more diversity.
“We have had a couple of administrators and teachers of color. I don’t know what happens in this district. They get in these classrooms and they want to leave,” Cain said. “The teachers do not represent the [students] that we have here. So sometimes our kids of color feel like no one is listening to them.”
Board member Anita Dempsey White said while recruitment was important, she felt the district needed to address the problems it was facing before focusing on recruitment. She said the first thing that potential hires would look at when thinking about coming to Middletown would be the Board of Education meetings.
“Until we can fix the major problems in our school district, it will not happen,” Demsey White said. “Until you fix the dragon in your classrooms, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Another parent, Sarah Shapiro, said her two middle schoolers used to love going to school, but they had been “utterly miserable” during their time at Beman.
“They’ve been bothered by the disruptive noise in the building, which is exceptionally high. Other classmates who talk disrespectfully to classmates and teachers during class while they’re trying to learn. They’ve been subjected to violence multiple times a week,” Shapiro said.
In a presentation to the board, Principal Raymond Byron said the school was now having a two-hour detention period on Tuesdays and a four-hour detention period on Saturdays, as well as creating “behavior contracts” for students, social-emotional peer support and hosting events like cookouts and raffles.
But Cain said she didn’t understand why it had taken until May for the district to start addressing concerns that parents had been discussing for months.
Cain grilled Byron about how the administrators were handling students who were roaming the hallways without attending class, saying it should not be the responsibility of the teachers to discipline those students.
“What happens is, it ends up taking our teachers’ time away from teaching, which is what they’re here to do,” Cain said.
Byron said that generally, a teacher will call the main office, and then either a security officer or a “student engagement specialist” would be called to send the student back to class. If they refuse, they are sent to the main office and disciplined.
Board and community members also suggested more student discipline wasn’t enough to address the behavioral issues in the schools.
“It is not the whole school that is having a behavioral issue. It is a few,” Cain said. “You literally have to love the hell out of these students.”
She suggested the district consider having social workers visit students at home or provide wraparound services, possibly through the Community Health Center. A colleague of hers in Pennsylvania, she said, was seeing success with reaching out to parents and conducting home visits.
“How we handled behavior issues 20 years ago … it’s different. We have to do things different. We have to take it to another level,” she said.
But Cain and Vazquez-Matos also said it couldn’t be solely the schools’ responsibility to keep students engaged — it had to be a community effort that involved the city as a whole.
“People have been asking for a Youth Center for years,” Cain said. “[The city] would rather build an oceanfront for more people to come into the city than to think about the youth.”
Cain told parents at the school board meeting that they needed to reach out to the mayor and members of the Common Council with their concerns.
Janice Pawleck, a representative for the Middletown Federation of Teachers, also urged the city to do more to support students through Parks and Recreation and mentorship programs.
“The city of Middletown has not invested in our youth like they promised many years ago,” said Pawleck, adding that the Youth Service Bureau had shrunk to the point where there were only a few staff members trying to serve all the young people in the community. “We need our city to step up and help us support our youth with wraparound services. It doesn’t need to come from our school district anymore.”
Mayor Ben Florsheim told CT Examiner that the city had made efforts to provide programming for young people, including turning the former Green Street Arts Center into a place that houses the Youth Services Bureau and the Middletown Transition Center, and opening the Middletown Recreation Center on Beman’s campus “in direct response to the community need for more youth-serving spaces.”
“It is true that the desire for more youth programming has been a long-standing topic in Middletown, and I do hear from parents often about this and other topics,” Florsheim said.
Florsheim added that the project to develop the riverfront was also designed with youth in mind, including building a new boathouse for the high school crew team and leasing the former canoe club to business owners who could provide recreational space and jobs for young people.
He also said while it’s true the Youth Services Bureau had been “understaffed for some time,” the city was adding a full-time youth worker position and starting a new partnership with the Yale School of Public Health to help with staffing capacity.
Ahmad Daniels, founder of Change the Narrative, urged the district to rely on community organizations for help, but noted that when he tried to work with students, he hadn’t been allowed.
“I’ve been trying to get into the school system to be a help. It’s been like pulling teeth,” he said. “You have to lean on the community. You have to. You can’t do it by yourself.”
Dempsey White questioned why Daniels hadn’t been allowed in to work with the students.
“These are people that look like your students. … What can we do to get these people in to help?” she asked. “These are things we could have done in the beginning.”