The Wellesley School Committee meeting on Nov. 2 started off with residents calling for Supt. Dr. David Lussier to lose his job and ended with pleas to tone down the anger surrounding the public school system’s handling of a bullying and assault incident involving students over the summer. In between, school administrators, backed by a lawyer who read through and elaborated on relevant laws, delivered a coordinated presentation on the Wellesley Public Schools’ bullying policy, prevention and intervention plan, and School Committee members weighed in with their thoughts.
The School Committee meeting included other important agenda items, such as masking at school and enrollment data, but the subject of bullying dominated. You can hear citizens speaking at the start and end, and administrators and School Committee members commenting just before the 50-minute mark of the Wellesley Media recording.
School Committee Chair Catherine Mirick kicked off the meeting by acknowledging that no one is claiming the school system is perfect.
“We know we’ve got work to do. But what began as outrage over an assault that happened this past summer has seemed to grow into an opportunity to vilify our leadership for any number of reasons. We’ve seen hate, blame and vitriol spread across Facebook discussions and petitions,” she said. “What we’ve not had enough of is community conversations, civil discourse, and working together to find the best path forward. We want to start those conversations tonight as we discuss our bullying policy and procedurally how that works in our schools…”
What followed wasn’t a discussion, as most speakers other than the School Committee members read prepared statements and didn’t have a chance to interact with one another. The School Committee meeting format doesn’t lend itself to such back and forth. But it was a chance for many voices to be heard on the subject that has been at the center of a recent protest at Wellesley High and much discussion in school hallways, online, and everywhere else in town.
Among those speaking as residents was Dylan Ade, whose son was the victim of the attack over the summer. He complimented the Middle School and elementary school administrators for being “extremely concise” and “very descriptive” in explaining how they handle bullying. “I wish that was the case for the high school,” he said, calling the school’s bullying policy too vague. He raised questions about the reality of training for staff and students, and repeated an assertion that the administration has failed its job, including on the communications front.
Ade was followed by Philip Dormitzer, whose wife Mary Godwyn has previously publicly discussed a situation with their elementary school daughter that they said amounted to bullying. Dormitzer encouraged residents to reach out to the state Attorney General’s office with any reports of bullying in the Wellesley school system. He said his family has found the school system’s response lacking, and “At this point the question is do we keep our kids in the school or do we try to make the school better, and we encourage people to try to make the school better.”
No students spoke directly about bullying at the meeting, though Christina Horner read a statement on behalf of Wellesley High’s Youth Ethnic Scholars group calling on the school system to come up with a better way to respond to racist incidents, and for others in the community to rethink their approaches to such incidents as well. Others urged WPS to report data on bullying incidents on a regular basis and inquired about the school’s protocols for addressing milder incidents of bad behavior that might lead up to bullying.
Mariela Vargas-Irwin, who identified herself as a behavior analyst and child psychologist, said “When you treat serious behavior, you don’t wait until the dangerous behavior happens. You look at the antecedents of behavior and intervene there.”
School officials, beginning with Supt. Lussier, emphasized they wouldn’t be getting into incident specifics during the meeting. Instead, he started a team presentation focused on the legal definition of bullying (including cyberbullying) that WPS and other school districts must adhere to in their policies and protocols, plus an overview of the proactive and reactive measures taken by Wellesley’s schools in relation to bullying. This includes the responsibilities of principals and assistant principals when bullying is reported and what their disciplinary options are. Communications policies were addressed, too, with Lussier citing issues such as confidentiality and potential for retaliation as being key considerations in how this is handled, but also welcoming discussion about how to provide more transparency when possible in conjunction with the School Committee.
Wellesley High Principal Dr. Jamie Chisum covered, among other things, proactive efforts at WHS, including bullying discussion during health classes and direction during 9th grade guidance seminars about where to report bullying. “We have a lot of ways that we structure Wellesley High School where we try to make sure students have a way to connect,” Chisum said.
Chisum added that the school attempts to keep victims protected in an ongoing way. “We never stop that work. We may not get it right the first time, but we will keep working that problem. We will never stop working that problem…”
Lussier returned to speaking, and outlined a series of planned next steps, including taking a closer look at changes in student behavior upon return to full in-person learning.
School Committee members weighed in next. Leda Eizenberg expressed her appreciation for the prevention and other social behavior-related efforts made by school employees, and said there are lessons that school leaders can take from that themselves. “I think one of the things I’ve heard from community members who aren’t happy with where things are is that they feel managed and not heard sometimes…,” she said, adding that there might be opportunities to improve conversations as information comes in about concerning incidents.
Once the administrators and School Committee had their say, the meeting ended with another round of citizen comments.
Among the final speakers was Joelle Reidy, a 10-year resident who has kids at 3 levels of the Wellesley Public School System.
While acknowledging that the schools could have handled aspects of the current situations differently, she lauded WPS’s administration for how it has performed throughout the pandemic, and issued this plea to the community: “The constant current of vitriol and hate pulsing through our community must end. All of our individual experiences, positive or negative, are not one person’s fault or responsibility. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us. We must work collaboratively in the spirit of continuous improvement. These are certainly challenging times but we must figure out how to start having dialogues that are constructive, and start moving in a direction of unity. Our children are watching us.”