School leaders respond to bullying charges

Task force will review incidents that have targeted immigrant students.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea told school committee members that they will form a task force to address discrimination and bullying in Island schools.

Matt D’Andrea, Superintendent of Schools, told the All-Island School Committee (AISC) last week that a task force will be formed to address complaints of discrimination and bullying at Martha’s Vineyard schools, incidents that have targeted children of immigrant families.

Mr. D’Andrea said there were “legitimate concerns” that involved students being discriminated against and bullied. He heard these concerns on Sunday, Feb. 19, at a community meeting at the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School. More than 100 people attended that meeting, hosted by We Stand Together (WST), a group that formed on the Vineyard after the election for residents to address community concerns. There, Mr. D’Andrea heard from worried parents and residents of the rise of bullying, hate speech, and discrimination across the Island.

Many of the concerns involved children’s immigration status, or that of their families. People expressed alarm over the sharing of information regarding that status, anxiety around the possibility of parents being deported, and the unknowns of what would happen to their children, as well as concerns about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in school buildings.

A letter drafted by WST reiterated the issues brought up at the Feb. 19 meeting, and was read in English by Irene Bright-Dumm, WST coordinating committee chairman, and by Meiroca Nunes, also a member of the coordinating committee, who read the letter in Portuguese during the AISC meeting: “The incidents described all had a common thread: The children were singled out because they are immigrants or the children of immigrants. We listened as their parents described how their children were being spat upon, called derogatory names, and told they and their families would be deported. These incidents are not isolated. They have occurred in almost every single school on this Island.”

“I assured them that day, and I’m assuring them again now, that we are in the business of keeping kids safe. That is our priority,” Mr. D’Andrea said at the AISC. “And we value tremendously the diversity in our schools. That is an asset in our schools; and we will, we have, we currently, and we always will support all students regardless of their immigration status.”

A resolution

Representatives of WST had provided Mr. D’Andrea with a K-12 Immigration Campus Safe Zone Resolution as a model of what school districts could adopt to designate schools as safe zones to better protect students. There is a template resolution by Emma Leheny, senior counsel for the National Education Association (NEA), that may be adopted by any school board.

The NEA is the largest labor union in the United States. It represents public school teachers and other support personnel, and faculty and staffers at colleges and universities.

The resolution calls for schools to set up internal procedures that deal specifically with immigration, as a mechanism to protect schools and develop resources for the community.

Mr. D’Andrea reviewed the document and told the AISC that Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools have policies and procedures in place that are similar, and that “there’s really nothing in that document that we don’t already do.”

However, Mr. D’Andrea recommended to the committee that it would be best to develop a task force with school administrators and representatives from the Brazilian community to look at the resolution document and develop one that would work specifically for schools on Martha’s Vineyard, as a way to reinforce the existing policies and procedures.

Leah Palmer, English Language Learner (ELL) director of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools, will help form the task force, and the group will return to the AISC within the next month or so with a draft resolution.

Mr. D’Andrea also took the resolution document to the legal counsel for the school district, providing him with suggestions so that the task force could make changes to its own protocols that aligned with the recommendations from counsel.

“We could adapt it for our Island and then bring that document to this committee for consideration,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

Falling through the cracks

Parents have described challenges in reporting incidents involving their children. For many of the committee members, it was the first they had heard of the problems happening across the Island.

“There was some confusion, actually, from the parents, to speak to the reporting,” Laura Silber, a coordinating committee member of WST and leader of the group’s education committee, said to the AISC. “There was very clearly at the [WST] meeting a lack of understanding from a lot of the students and from the parents as to what the process is.”

Jeffrey Manter, a West Tisbury selectman and member of both the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) committee and the MVRHS committee, wanted to know how students reported problems, asking specifically about confidentiality to protect students from potential retaliation. Mr. Manter also asked how administrators respond.

“It’s unfortunate these are falling through the cracks,” Mr. Manter said.

Sara Dingledy, MVRHS principal, explained: “When someone does report a bullying or harassment incident, you kind of need to get corroboration before you put a kid out for three days or interfere with that. So it is a challenging process, as is any reporting of an incident, whether it’s legal or in a school district; purely anonymous tips or reporting can also be a dangerous pathway.”

Robert Lionette, a member of the UIRSD committee and chairman of the MVRHS committee, said that regardless of having an antibullying policy in place, it was clear that the policy needed work.

“Something’s not working, and I think that it’s incumbent upon us and each one of our [local committees] to review that with our administrations in each school, and understand why it’s not happening — why a 12-year-old, a sixth grader, is more aware of these incidents in his school than the administration is,” Mr. Lionette said. “There’s a disconnect.”

In a phone conversation with The Times on Wednesday, Mr. D’Andrea said that what came out of both the AISC meeting and the WST meeting was that there is a gap in the communication between parents, students, and school administrators.

“I believe there are some parents who don’t speak English, and were not sure how, if they have a concern or if their child is being bullied or uncomfortable in school, how to communicate that to the school,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “One of the tasks of the task force will be to make sure all parents are aware of how to communicate to the school if they need to.”

A sense of urgency

School committee members reacted with a sense of urgency and alarm last week during the AISC meeting, and a large part of it was translated into Portuguese — by Sarah Kuh and Fabricio Sornas — for members of the Brazilian community who were in attendance.

Mr. Lionette urged the committee to take immediate action, and recommended they draft a letter condemning bullying and discrimination as a way to show support for the diversity in the community.

“This has to be done now, clearly,” Mr. Lionette said. “The rise and the incidence rates that are being shared are alarming, and are cause for us to move out of our normal, comfortable pace.”

Kris O’Brien, a member of the Oak Bluffs school committee and vice chairman of the MVRHS committee, was distressed by the recent behavior, and asked to serve on the task force.

“I am completely appalled by what’s happening to our children,” Ms. O’Brien said.

Susan Mercier, chairman of the Edgartown school committee, said she is grateful for the work WST was doing in the community. She guaranteed that all the respective school committees would address the recent issues at their individual schools, working toward educating both parents and students as to how to best address acts of discrimination or bullying.

“I think that when fear drives your bus, it doesn’t steer properly, and I think because of the climate we are living in, there’s a tremendous amount of fear, and that is unfair,” Ms. Mercier said. “And we don’t want any of our families or our children at any point to be fearful, so whatever we can do immediately to alleviate that sense of fear, I would hope it would be done quickly.”

Reporting of the meeting was based on a video copy of the event.