On June 23, the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board made two significant decisions, one related to the name change of Thatcher Brook Primary School (TBPS), the other related to the termination of former Harwood varsity boys’ hockey coach Jacob Grout.
THATCHER BROOK NAME CHANGE
Regarding the school name change, the board officially voted to change the name of Thatcher Brook Primary School to Brookside Primary School, effective for the 2021/2022 school year. The name change passed in a weighted vote of 66.6% to 23%, with nine board members voting in favor of the motion to change the name and three board members voting against it.
The TBPS name-change debate came to light in early January after the Waterbury Area Anti-Racism Coalition (WAARC) urged the school board to rename the town’s primary school after discovering that the brook that it derives its name from was named after a slaveholder: Partridge Thatcher.
WAARC members informed the board that Thatcher, who surveyed Thatcher Brook during a visit to Waterbury in 1782, owned two young African slaves named Jacob and Dinah, and that later in life, Thatcher also enslaved Jacob and Dinah’s spouses and children.
In light of these facts, board members agreed that the school should be renamed. However, after pursuing the name change, some board members thought the name-change process happened too fast.
Among the board members who voted against the name change was Marlena Fishman, Waterbury, who argued that the name-change process lacked sufficient community engagement. Fishman pointed out that in her work with marginalized and low-income Waterbury residents, many didn’t even realize a name change was happening. Fishman also pointed out that those without internet access could not have completed the online survey that asked community members to choose between an array of new name options. “There hasn’t been enough engagement,” she told the board.
Fishman believes that in-depth community engagement around this decision is crucial, for it opens doors for both education and healing. “It’s not just changing the name. The acknowledgment of it helps bring about an awareness, a learning experience. But beyond that, it’s also part of the healing for the whole community,” said Fishman.
While other board members agreed that the name-changing process happened quickly, they argued that education and healing can still happen even after the name change is ratified. “This doesn’t end with renaming,” said Micheal Frank, Waterbury. Frank harkened back to the board’s initial renaming plan, which involves plans for continued learning about Thatcher’s legacy through signage, curriculum and programming.
Jonathan Clough, Warren, also advocated for continued community outreach post-name change. “I do recognize the potential violence that was done due to the speed of the effort and those who felt that they were not able to be involved,” said Clough. “But I also recognize that there was a potential violence to those who were involved in the process, including the children, as well as the harm in leaving the name as it is without resolution.”
“But I do feel that the outcome is not going to change at this point with additional community engagement,” continued Clough. “I truly hope that this engagement and healing can take place after a name change. That’s why I plan to vote to ratify the name change tonight.”
JACOB GROUT TERMINATION
Later that night, the board discussed the termination of former Harwood varsity boys’ hockey coach Jacob Grout, who was fired in February of 2021 after sending his players a text message that contained profanity. Ultimately, the board decided not to intervene in the termination.
Specifically, the board voted in favor of this motion: “In the matter of the termination of the boys’ hockey coach, the Board concludes that the principals, athletic director and superintendent operated within their statutory authority regarding at-will employees. It is the administrators’ responsibility to make these kinds of employment and hiring decisions. The board rescinds its earlier decision to conduct an investigation into the matter.”
The motion passed in a split weighted vote of 48.2% to 34.7%, with six board members voting in favor of the motion, five voting against it, and one abstaining.
The board has flip-flopped around the issues of Jacob Grout’s termination since it happened in February of 2021. Initially, the board voted to launch an investigation into his termination, after a petition signed by over 1,300 urged the board to reinstate Grout, who felt he had been wrongly terminated. However, when the school administration wrote a letter to the board begging board members to cancel the investigation (arguing that it would cost taxpayers too much money and spur on unnecessary distrust for the administration) the board retracted its decision to launch an investigation.
On June 23, the board was split on the investigation issue. However, the scale ultimately tipped in favor of letting the administration handle the matter on its own.
“I believe that the administrators acted within their authority and with respect to our policies and procedures,” said Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield, who voted in favor of the motion. “It’s unfortunate that sometimes the public can’t know or understand the full story, but that doesn’t change the fact that they did what was right, and what I believe to be in the best interest of our student body.”
“I’m in 100% support of the administrators’ decision on this,” said Tim Jones, Fayston, who also voted in favor of the motion.
Jonathan Clough, who abstained from the motion, said he trusted the administration’s decision, but was tempted by the idea of an investigation. “The information that we received was from multiple primary sources. It wasn’t just hearsay or supposition. It did strongly bolster the understanding that the administration acted properly,” said Clough. “But I am tempted by this concept of investigation because I feel like the administration is going to look very good coming out of that.”
Theresa Membrino, Fayston, who voted against the motion, said that even if the administration acted properly, an investigation was still the right thing to do both in terms of public transparency and in terms of defending the reputation of the administration. “An investigation is necessary to defend the actions of our principles,” said Membrino.
In other business at last week’s meeting, the board ratified a new three-year teachers’ contract, voted to hire a firm to conduct a search for a new superintendent and approved an ambitious plan to sort out the scope, scale and details of construction plans for Harwood and Crossett Brook campuses. Between August 24 and September 15, the board hopes to finalize those details, conduct community engagement and outreach and get a legal warning out. The warning must be approved by September 15 to stay on schedule for a November 2 vote.