Facing a Blizzard of Complaints, Norwich School Officials Open an Investigation

Prior to the meeting, dozens of teachers, former cafeteria workers, bus drivers, parents and members of the community gathered outside of Kelly STEAM Magnet School, most wearing red shirts with the logo for the Connecticut Education Association. (CT Examiner)


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NORWICH — The Board of Education voted Tuesday to open an independent investigation into complaints lodged against school officials. The decision came after a three-hour executive session and is part of a larger investigation of the current climate and culture of Norwich Public Schools. The results are expected in November.

Prior to the meeting, dozens of teachers, former cafeteria workers, bus drivers, parents and members of the community gathered outside of Kelly STEAM Magnet School, most wearing red shirts with the logo for the Connecticut Education Association. 

Protesters later marched into the meeting shouting “Enough is Enough!” and carrying signs that read “Norwich Deserves Better.”

The decision to investigate the workplace climate of the public schools was sparked by complaints to the board from two former administrators alleging retaliation. In August, members of the teachers union approached local state legislators to complain about the culture in the district. And school Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow has said she would work to create an “open-door policy” with staff and form a “Teacher Climate Advisory Committee” to  meet with her on a regular basis. 

On Tuesday, Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias commended Norwich teachers for their perseverance.  

“You have really stuck by a town and a community that needs you here more than ever,” said Dias. “Being present here tonight sends a message to the Board of Education that you deserve to be supported, you have earned the right to be heard and that the work you do matters.” 

She underscored the results of a recent CEA survey which found that the vast majority of Norwich teachers feared retaliation if they spoke out. 

“It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to tell you that if 96 percent of your teachers do not feel like they can talk, you have a climate problem,” said Dias. 

Local elected officials, including two common council members, Democrat Tracy Burto and Republican Stacey Gould attended Tuesday’s meeting, as did State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

“I want you to remember that your voice matters,” Osten told protesters. “Let’s get this done. Let’s work together and let’s move this forward … Norwich deserves better.” 

The survey results and the number of teachers leaving the district indicated that something needed to be done, Burto told CT Examiner. 

“It’s a systemic problem,” she said. 

Teachers present declined to speak with CT Examiner, but parents, former food service workers and bus drivers spoke about their frustrations with Stringfellow and with the district. 

Two former food service workers told CT Examiner they were frustrated by the district’s decision to privatize food service operations and outsource to Chartwells Dining Services at the end of last school year. The former district employees said the change came suddenly and without warning. 

“They wanted us to apply to ‘maybe’ get our own jobs back. They wouldn’t tell us where we would go, in what capacity, hours, wages, anything,” said Lisa Friday, a former food service worker. 

Donna Doroshevich, who worked in food service in the district for 25 years and also lost her job at the end of last year, said the abrupt change meant that there were not enough food service workers to run the summer meals program, forcing the district to look to New London and Groton for help.

“I know our kids. I know exactly what our kids like and what our kids don’t like,” said Friday. “We’re not just people throwing food on a tray. We know the kids.”  

Jessica Quay, the parent teacher organization president at Moriarty Elementary, said that members of the administration left the district suddenly, with little warning  to either parents or teachers.  who also substituted in the district, 

Quay said her children — fifth and third graders  — weren’t directly affected by current problems in the schools, but she said she feared what would happen if their teachers decided to work elsewhere. 

“They’ve got great, wonderful teachers that have created a home for them. But it does affect them in the sense that when [the teachers] get tired of working for it, they’re going to leave,” said Quay. 

Another parent, Trisha Preston, said she had a child with special needs in the public schools, and a plan to offer accommodations, but two months into the year the team administering the plan disappeared without explanation. 

“No, no answer, no reason, it was just gone,” said Preston. 

One woman, named Diana, said she came out in support of her daughter, who is a fourth-grade teacher in the Norwich Public Schools.

“Her and her co-worker are not being treated fairly, and it hurts the kids. The kids can’t learn if the teachers are not being respected and treated fairly,” said Diana, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her daughter. “It’s just nerve-wracking … she’s afraid of being retaliated against, but she also wants to be heard, like everybody else.” 

Two school bus drivers who spoke with CT Examiner said they felt they had been unfairly fired, and that Stringfellow had refused to meet with the drivers. 

Angelica Zaporta, who worked as a bus driver with the district for nearly five years, and has four children in the district, said she was fired after she hugged a student who was a friend of her daughter, and after she didn’t write up a student on her bus. 

Jessenia Collazo claimed said she was fired after patting a child on the head. 

“The only thing we want is just [that] she hear us, you know? And she said no,” said Collazo. 

Shannon Ozkan, who works with the non-profit Favor Inc, which advocates for parents and children, criticized the district’s use of expulsions. She said she had been particularly struck by the expulsion hearing of one middle schooler. 

“He had 16 pages of discipline, but they had never done any intervention,” said Ozkan, who said the district had failed to create a special education plan for the student, or have him sit down with a social worker to discuss the root of his behavior. 

In a statement released early Wednesday morning, Stringfellow told CT Examiner that neither NTL nor CEA had contacted the Norwich Public Schools to voice concerns, but that the district was “committed to supporting our teachers and the retention of highly qualified teachers and staff,” and supported the broadened “study and any efforts to participate, learn and address specific concerns as a result.”

This story has been updated to include comments by Stringfellow

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.