Updated June 5, 3 pm
During his senior year of high school, Owen Engler was stripped of his class presidency as part of the MVRHS disciplinary policy.
Owen, who graduates Sunday, spoke about the incident at Monday’s school committee meeting, where parents shared their concerns with the newly implemented out-of-school suspension policy.
According to Owen, during the first week of his presidency, he was eating lunch in the cafeteria when a new student who he didn’t recognize approached him and began threatening him and his girlfriend with extreme violence and death.
“I began to fear for my life that day, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Owen said.
The year before, Owen had helped organize the March for Our Lives trip to Washington, D.C., where students protested against gun violence and guns in schools.
As the student was threatening him, Owen said he began to have an anxiety-induced panic attack. He said he flashed back to the March for Our Lives and feared that the student who was threatening him might have a gun. “I thought back to the march, and thought about how our small school is not immune to gun violence,” Owen said.
Owen said he did not touch the student, but began to panic and hyperventilate while screaming for help.
According to Owen, members of the school administration wrote a report saying he had verbally intimidated the other student.
“I didn’t lay a hand on anyone. We were able to watch the video and it was very clear that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Owen said.
Because of the incident, Owen said the school threatened to suspend him, unless his family signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) restricting them from mentioning the specifics of the incident. Owen said the school “strong-armed” his parents into signing the agreement and threatened legal action. But Owen said the agreement is only viable until his 18th birthday, which is in a month.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea told The Times in a phone call that he could not specifically talk about Owen’s claims, but said NDA’s are used “very infrequently,” and are occasionally necessary to avoid misinformation from being disseminated to the public.
“We are required by law to keep students’ disciplinary information confidential,” D’Andrea said. “Because we cannot legally comment on it [the information], out of respect for everyone, we sometimes ask the family to enter into an agreement.”
At the meeting, Owen described how he has been disproportionately affected by the threat of an out-of-school suspension, and outlined his concerns with the school’s penal system overall.
“The new OSS policy takes away leadership positions, not only for the year, but for the year afterwards — forever,” Owen said.
Speaking publicly about the incident for the first time, Owen said he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and extreme anxiety. His incident, he said, was a result of his condition.
“This isn’t something I should be ashamed of, but it was something I was almost suspended for,” Engler said. “That hurt me so profoundly and so deeply. My medical condition is something that I am still working on, but it should not be a stigma.”
Owen said the entire experience has made him stronger, and he was still able to finish within the top 20 students in his class. “But that award made me feel profoundly sorry for other kids like me who might not have the same drive and determination to prove you wrong,” Owen said.
Owen also mentioned the non-disclosure agreements between the school and students, saying they are proven to be ineffective time and time again. “Forceful silence and NDA’s don’t work, voices will be heard,” he said.
Owen’s father, Bill Engler, also spoke on how the school is overly focused on out-of-school suspension.
But he wondered why suspensions and other disciplinary actions are not made more transparent by the school. “I was told we would track data on every disciplinary action. We want to know whether these methods are working, or aren’t working,” Engler said.
He asked the school committee what the administration expected his son to learn by stripping him of his presidency. “If you can’t answer what you expect a child to learn from whatever punishment you give them, that’s a problem,” Engler said.
Engler proposed that, within every disciplinary measure written in the future, the school includes a description of what the student is expected to learn.
Since September of 2018, 54 students have been disciplined with out-of-school suspensions at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
Suzy Cosgrave and members of the Committee to Reduce Out of School Suspension (OSS) went before the school committee on Monday to discuss possible alternative discipline that would allow students to stay in class while being reprimanded for infractions.
Cosgrave started by referencing the school report card that was recently released by the Department of Education. The card indicates that during the 2018 school year, students were suspended out of school at almost double the statewide average. As of now, the school is approaching three times the statewide average for suspensions.
“These suspensions continue to occur despite copious amounts of data from studies proving out of school suspension is harmful,” Cosgrave said. “OSS is not an effective punishment for most transgressions.”
According to Cosgrave, a select few are removing students from the seats that taxpayers have “generously funded” to educate Island children.
She quoted Ben Franklin, saying, “The strictest law sometimes becomes the severest injustice.”
Cosgrave said the harm the suspensions have caused students is already an issue, and there is no need to ponder any hypothetical harm that may come from the school’s punitive policies.
“This is happening right now. And I say that MVRHS belongs to all of us on this Island — our students belong in the classroom,” Cosgrave said.
Maureen Williams said she has a child who is a junior at the high school who got suspended for vaping. She said he is a good kid who wants to love his school. “But the way he describes the tone of this school is very negative. A lot of kids say it is like a jail,” Williams said. “It’s time to bring some heart into this environment. There needs to be a close relationship between parents, students, and teachers.”
Jean Rogers said she has two seniors graduating, but one had to go into an online program during sophomore year “because of the climate at this school.”
She said that the climate survey conducted by the school is a valuable resource to assess what kids think of their learning environment, and the relationship with their teachers.
The independent climate survey is recommended by Medstar and is created by the Department of Education. It is an anonymous survey that affords staff, parents, and students the opportunity to have their voices heard in regards to the climate of the school.
Toward the end of the meeting, superintendent Matt D’Andrea responded to the comments made by concerned parents and students about OSS and the direction the school is taking.
“I agree with much of what has been said tonight,” D’Andrea prefaced. “Student discipline is probably the most difficult responsibility — to make a decision that will keep a student safe, both physically and emotionally.”
D’Andrea recalled that when he became principal of the school 5 years ago, he uncovered many challenges surrounding the structure of the facility. Students wandering the halls, congregating in bathrooms, being distracted endlessly by cell phones, and leaving the building: all these were pervasive issues mentioned by D’Andrea.
When D’Andrea hired Sara Dingledy as principal, he said he tasked her with implementing structure. And, although D’Andrea called this a “monumental effort,” he said the school is safer, and students are more focused in class.
Compared to when he arrived at the school, D’Andrea said he is comfortable with the direction the school is taking.
“I can be confident knowing that when my son goes to the bathroom, he is not walking into a situation where he is uncomfortable,” D’Andrea said. “Has it been perfect? No. But it is a lot better, and I can say that as a parent and as superintendent.”
D’Andrea said that vaping accounts for almost half of all OSS incidents, and “caught [the school] off guard.”
But one thing that can’t be measured, D’Andrea said, is the amount of kids who make the right decision because they know there will be consequences. “They say no, they turn around and make a different decision,” D’Andrea said. “That happens more than you think.”
The school committee agreed to look at alternatives to out-of-school suspensions that would keep students in the classroom, while still dissuading bad behavior.
Updated to include comment from superintendent about nondisclosure agreements. – Ed.