School Superintendent responds

By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer

In a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, School Superintendent Sherry Sousa addressed many of the key concerns raised by parents Monday night. Asked about allegations that school authorities are “hiding behind FERPA” in being close-mouthed about the purported Jan. 25 incident and its aftermath, Sousa said, “There are very different pieces there. A lot of information got jumbled together. We have our emergency operations plan, which has detailed information that if we released it would put our students, staff, and law enforcement at greater risk. There are elements of that plan that can be accessed. I shared elements of that [with the school community] in my [Jan. 30] message,” the superintendent continued, arguing that “FERPA is [focused] around educational records of students, which include safety plans, behavior plans, disciplinary actions. Based on my 40 years of experience as a special education teacher, as well as attending many classes on the law and confirmation with our attorney, I am not able to release any information regarding a specific student and their records.” Oates and other parents, however, contend that is not what they have been asking for all along. Sousa counters that revealing too many details of any given incident and the response to it might enable identification of the individuals involved.

Asked why it took school officials 48 hours to notify parents of the alleged Jan. 25 threat, Sousa explained, “The first step is to determine whether a threat is credible or not — and that was done with the assistance of law enforcement.” (As the Standard reported last week, Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish visited the home of the student who reportedly made the threat, determining that any weapons were properly secured and stored at the house.) “The next piece is the investigation piece, where we have conversations with teachers and students and collect information, ensuring that the people in the [school] building are safe and that we have collected all information. Once we had that information reviewed, what was important to Maggie [Mills] and I was that what we shared was the most reflective of what had occurred. That’s why there was a delay in sharing, as well as because we were ensuring that the students who were involved had access to the resources they needed.

“Lesson learned is that there is information that we can release quickly and we’ve come up with a protocol for what that can be. In this instance, we erred on the side of having precise information and that the people involved had the support and resources they needed at that time,” Sousa continued, before turning to parental allegations that WES Principal Mills had tried to “silence” several students directly tied to the reported Jan. 25 threat.

“When an incident happens, we talk to children and give them the opportunity to have a conversation about their experience, what they heard, saw and felt,” Sousa explained. “What is important is to make sure that those conversations are with trusted adults and we ask the children to access the adult resources that can most help them and not to share information between students or other children. My understanding is that’s the message Maggie provided to all the students involved: identify other adults in the building, speak with your parents, but please do not share information with other students. That’s typically what we would say — and I can see how that might be translated as I am not to talk to anyone. But the focus is to not have those conversations amongst your classmates, but to really have those conversations with trusted adults. That’s my understanding of what happened.”

Asked about repeated bullying allegations and the administration’s response, Sousa said she “heard clearly the concerns parents shared last night. I heard their understanding of how they shared information with administration and how that was responded to, but not knowing how it was responded to in terms of the person who was identified as the bully.” Sousa described that flow of communication with all individuals involved as “incredibly hard, because we want to know the outcome. We want to know all the individuals involved so that we can support them but also know all the steps that were taken to address the issue. I could hear that frustration in parents’ voices. We heard that message. We’re having conversations about what other systems and supports we need to put in place. We’ll continue to do that work with the support of the [school] board.”

Concluding Tuesday afternoon’s conversation, Sousa said the WCSU Policy Committee is undertaking a thorough review of school policies related to emergency response policies beginning next week. The superintendent also said the WCSU School Board has requested that she provide a review and documentation of current safety practices and protocols for presentation at the board’s next meeting on March 6. In addition, Sousa said, WCSU is preparing to send surveys to faculty, students, and staff regarding school climate. Those surveys will be distributed following the upcoming February school vacation.