The ongoing discussion amongst the school board, students and community members about school safety at Harwood Union High School continued at last week’s Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) board meeting. The Valley Reporter published a story on March 10 about an alleged assault that reportedly took place on February 1 in a bathroom on Harwood’s campus as told by the mother of the reported victim, who also spoke to the HUUSD board at its last meeting. As all involved were minors, the names of the students allegedly involved have not been released and no other families have contacted The Valley Reporter. Community members have written letters to the editor and posted about the incident on social media. All Harwood students recently participated in student-led dialogues about safety in the school, which student board representative Maisie Franke explained had been in the works for months and was not in response to any specific incident.
Superintendent Brigid Nease recently issued a letter that was included in last week’s board packet, which states, “It is public knowledge that a physical altercation occurred at our high school. Except for that, nothing else is public knowledge. Nonetheless, lots of accusations have and continue to be made. People are “shocked” “appalled” and “horrified.” Long screeds have been published about the incident that repeat as fact things that are simply not true, drawing inevitable conclusions that are equally untrue. As those untruths are repeated again and again, reposted, careers are potentially being ruined and reputations are being compromised. Those students involved are being harmed further by weeks of public and social media.”
“First, it is important to note that this serious and unfortunate matter among four 9th and 10th graders involves 4 of our students and 4 families in our community,” Nease wrote. “They all deserve our support even in the most difficult of matters. All our extremely competent students, who are doing the right thing, who make us proud, who so admirably represent the black and gold are watching their role models - school leaders - and their school itself being trashed. The fact is, except for the leaders who were responsible for investigating the incident who are trained and licensed, drawing conclusions and issuing consequences, no one – even those involved – knows the whole story. What has been shared publicly, even by those who were involved in some way, is from a limited perspective. Everything else that has been said is, at best, hearsay, at worst, intentional bending of the facts.”
“What is not being talked about is what is required of education leaders in Vermont when harmful, unfortunate situations with student behavior occur. In education law, the protection of students is paramount. Leaders are required to protect not only the physical safety of the students in their charge, but the safety of their privacy, as well (FERPA). That right to privacy applies to both the alleged victims and the alleged perpetrators. Adolescence brings with it a myriad of social challenges and conflicts. Sometimes, good kids make very bad choices - choices that create harm. In those incidents and under great confidentiality, thorough investigations occur, consequences are issued in accordance with the severity of the offense, but students in Vermont are not then discarded, removed from the system, or made an example of in the town square. They are all our children. They are not adults.”
“When misconduct, bullying, harassment or any other incident occurs that requires their intervention, education leaders are strictly forbidden - both legally and ethically - from sharing much of anything with the victim, his or her parents, the school board or the public about the investigative process: with whom did they talk? the State Police? DCF? the Attorney General? legal counsel? the perpetrators? their parents? witnesses? Nor can they share about referrals or consultations they might have made to DCF, mental health, law enforcement or legal counsel. Nor can they share about conclusions they reached about what led up to the incident, whether there were mitigating circumstances, who is lying, who is telling the truth, what motivated the incident or the history that led up to it. Nor can they discuss special plans implemented for students.”
Students and board members had questions about the school’s response to this and other recent incidents and how the board can help resolve these issues and support students and families. Nease told the board that a second hall monitor has been hired and adults will be regularly sweeping the school’s bathrooms to prevent vaping, vandalism, bullying and other harmful behaviors. Nease maintained that these types of issues are occurring throughout the state and are not isolated to Harwood. “I am very concerned about students saying they feel unsafe,” Nease said. “We need to unpack what that means.”
Nease clarified that, when a threat to a student’s safety is identified, that information gets shared with multiple people, including the administration and director of student services, and a monitoring plan is put in place, though she acknowledged that such plans “may not be foolproof. Students don’t have one-to-one eyes on them 24/7,” she said.
Franke said of the student dialogues around school safety, “This was a time for everyone’s voice to be heard. The intent was to create a space for calling in, not calling out.” She said the discussions lent “valuable insight” and “the support of staff and the administration was and continues to be very positive.”