bullying

Intimidation and Bullying Claims by Conestoga High School teacher – Official Complaint Filed with US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

This week in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, school board director Michael Rock resigned abruptly, citing bullying and intimidation in the school district.  According to an article in the Daily Local, Rock claims that the UCFSD “board is doing little to encourage diversity, and to discourage bullying and intimidation.”  He stated, “I cannot and will not serve on a board that does not have the common decency to comfort our minority parents in these trying times, especially since it is so easy and simple to do … There are times when it is important to stand up to racism and bigotry, even the quiet and unspoken kind that we are experiencing here, and say no.”

During the recent Conestoga football hazing scandal, some of us in the public learned for the first time about ‘No Gay Thursday’.  Although it does not appear that ‘No Gay Thursday’ actually targeted gays in the athletic department, it certainly would not make you feel welcomed or accepted if you were a member of the school district’s gay community.

The struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) not only affects students in our schools but that teachers can also find themselves bullied and intimidated. Some teachers fear their sexual orientation could color how staff and administration view their performance, skew their evaluations, or otherwise influence whether you stay hired or not.

I was contacted by the family of a Conestoga High School teacher wh, sadly reports their son has endured harassment and intimidation by District administrators.

According to the parent, certain administrators have singled out the teacher (who is not tenured) for extensive classroom observations.  I was told that teachers procedurally receive 4 classroom observations per school year but that their son has received 5-7 classroom visits per semester by various administrators.  The District’s mid-year review of this teacher in January 2016 indicated a ‘need for improvement’ rating but the final year-end report five months later, in June 2016, provided a ‘proficient’ rating for the teacher.

The intense classroom observations of this teacher continued during the fall of 2016 and shortly before winter break, the teacher was verbally told (by a District administrator) that he was in risk of receiving another ‘need for improvement’ rating in the mid-year evaluation to be held in January 2017. The administrator strongly suggested that the teacher resign in advance of the January review. This is a critical point – I was told by the parent of the teacher, that if a TESD teacher receives 2 ‘need for improvement’ performance reviews during their employment in the District, it is grounds for dismissal. The teacher was given 48 hours to respond to the District’s verbal offer to resign.  The offer to resign was later declined on advice from the teachers union.

Why were certain administrators using intimidation and bullying tactics to force this teacher out of the District? What was the provocation for the intensive classroom observations? Were there complaints from students, parents and/or other faculty members regarding this teacher and/or his performance?  Had students in this teacher’s class received low test scores?  This didn’t make sense to me.

We all know that there are at least two sides to every story and admittedly, in this case I only have the family’s side.  When I questioned the parent, I was told that there were no complaints from students or parents and that that the teacher was well-liked and respected by his peers at the high school. The teacher had provided additional student tutoring and in fact, had many grateful parents (and students) as a result of his efforts.   And further, the end-of-the-year 2016 test scores were high for the students of this teacher, one of the indicators of a successful teaching experience.  So what was motivating certain individuals to have this teacher removed from the District?

The teacher – himself a Conestoga High School graduate – happens to be gay.  His parents believe that certain administrators are targeting their son because of his sexual orientation. The teachers union, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the union representatives within the District are fully supporting the teacher (as are other teachers and staff).  According to the family, if the District terminates the teacher, PSEA is prepared to take the case to arbitration.

The teacher filed an official complaint this week with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for harassment and intimidation whereby they are trying to force him to resign or fire him for incompetence.  The EEOC thinks anti-gay discrimination in the workplace is sex discrimination.  In 2015, the EEOC concluded that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids sexual orientation discrimination on the job because it’s a form “sex” discrimination, which is explicitly forbidden.

I want to believe that in 2017, that the TE School District would not discriminate against a teacher because of his or her’s sexual orientation.  Falling on the heels of the football hazing scandal and the criminal investigation, the District really does not need the negative publicity that will come with an EEOC anti-gay discrimination case of a TESD teacher.

Three attorneys – Ed Sweeney, Kevin Buraks and Todd Kantorczyk – are current members of the TE School Board.  Although a personnel matter and therefore confidential, I would hope that they (and other members of the school board) take the time to fully investigate and make certain that all District policies and procedures were correctly followed in this matter. No employee of our school district should ever feel intimidation and bullying to such a level as to require intervention from the EEOC.

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Note:  I questioned why the parent contacted instead of the teacher himself.  I was told that although the teacher was aware that his parent had contacted me, that contractually he could not.  By request, the names of the teacher, administrators and PSEA representatives in the District are not included.

Closing the chapter on the alleged football hazing incident at Conestoga High School — Is it finally over?

 

Conestoga High SchoolThe following statement was released this morning from the Chester County District Attorney’s office regarding the Conestoga High School football hazing incident.  As I read the statement, it appears that the three juveniles have received an offense of harassment. According to the statement, the broomstick did not penetrate the victim but rather it was used to poke him in the leg — painting a much different picture.

Coaches lost their jobs and had their reputations tarnished over the alleged football hazing incident. The statement says that the victim and charged juveniles and their families would like to move on their with lives and will be making no further statements but where does this leave the former football coaches, Conestoga football players (and their families) and the students and staff?

Hazing and bullying has no place in our high school but moving on may not be that easy.

CHS hazing

TESD Administration reacts against Conestoga High School hazing with strong words and offers course for change

Hazing abuseIn the two weeks since Chester County DA Tom Hogan filed charges of assault, conspiracy, unlawful restraint and other crimes against three Conestoga football players, the hazing scandal has brought nationwide attention to the TE School District. Allegedly, the senior boys penetrated a freshman teammate with a broomstick after he refused to help other underclassmen clean the locker room while wearing just their underwear. According to Hogan, the “No Gay Thursdays” was a tradition started by the football team at least three or four years ago, in which behavior the team normally considered to be “gay” was considered “not gay” on Thursdays,

The hazing scandal has quickly gained national attention and continues to appear in articles from the New York Times to the Washington Post.  Locally the community appears divided between those students and parents suggesting that the October 15 incident never happened to others in the public who were outraged and wanted answers.

I have found myself caught in the middle of the two camps. I fully support ‘innocent until proven guilty” regarding the three Conestoga football players – the presumption of innocence is essential to the criminal process. We know of mistakes made by overzealous district attorneys and lawyers who were quick to judge – look at the Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of rape in 2006. The mishandling in that case cost that district attorney his job and his law license, not to mention the millions of dollars paid by Duke University for legal bills and lawsuits.  On the flip side, it is hard to believe that the highly respected Chester County DA Tom Hogan and his office were not thorough in their investigation. Regardless … the boys are innocent until proven guilty.

There are important issues at play here. One is the criminal charges filed against the football players for the alleged assault. On that score, it is up to the legal process to decide the fate of those accused not the school district or the residents.  But another important issue is this so-called “No Gay Thursday” weekly hazing tradition – and the expectation from many in the community (including myself) that the administration can (and should) institute a zero-tolerance hazing policy going forward.

On Thursday, TESD Supt. Dr. Richard Gusick and Conestoga HS Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger released a letter to school district families. (Click here to read letter). Although understandably unable to comment on the legal investigation, the letter provides an update on the District’s internal investigation and findings, including the following:

* Hazing activities occurred with some members of the football team over the past several years, including back slapping, horseplay, and obscene behaviors targeted toward underclassmen.

* These activities sometimes occurred under the label of “No Gay Thursday.”

* No interviews or other evidence indicated that any adult had knowledge of these activities.

* The locker rooms had an insufficient adult presence throughout the football season, creating an environment where hazing activities could occur.

Accepting responsibility that hazing had occurred at the high school, the letter went on to say, that the school “… does not accept any type of intolerance, hazing, bullying or intimidation within our school community. “No Gay Thursday” is ignorant, intolerant, and has no place in any school. Even though no gay students were specific targets of discrimination, the practice itself is an affront to us all. We are committed to eliminating these activities and providing a positive, respectful environment that is safe for all students.”

These are words that the community needed to hear – a statement containing a clear anti-hazing message and indication that the District is taking the hazing seriously and is taking strong action against it for the future.

We also learned from the letter that John Vogan, Conestoga’s head football coach, had resigned, effective immediately. And that the entire football coaching staff was relieved of all coaching responsibilities in all sports through the fall season. (Does this mean there’s an opportunity for the District to re-hire the coaching staff after the Fall season?)

The administration is recommending hiring a full-time Athletic Director for TESD middle school and high school sports programs. Creating a new position for oversight of the sports programs is a good suggestion – however, for me there’s one caveat, conduct a search and hire from the outside. The District athletic program needs a new start.

This tragedy has shaken all of us and the public needs assurance that the District will take every step to try to prevent this from happening again.  Although originally the stance was no public meetings on this topic, the District has changed course and is now encouraging residents to share their thoughts on Monday, March 28, 6 PM in the auditorium at Conestoga High School.  This meeting will occur before the regularly scheduled school board meeting which starts at 7:30 PM.

TESD Employee & Resident Debbie Watson speaks out about District morale issues

On May 16, I wrote, “TE School District … Intimidation to Silence” on Community Matters.  From the outside, the school district is the image of excellence by any standard, with its impressive test scores, accomplished, high-achieving students, supportive parents and caring teachers.  After receiving many emails and phone calls from teachers, aides, custodians, kitchen workers, etc., it was apparent that those inside the District described an atmosphere far differently, “a place of fear and intimidation, a place where our District employees, fearing retribution do not feel they have a voice.”   The article received many comments, including from former and current District employees, who could take cover behind their anonymity on Community Matters. Many TE employees believe that they would risk losing their jobs by questioning decisions of the administration or by voicing concerns.

Other than bringing awareness to the morale problem, there was no indication that anything is changing or that anyone on the School Board actually listened.  Emails in May to the School District and the school board president received no response. On May 31, I followed up with another Community Matters post on this topic, “Harassment, intimidation and bullying have no place in our schools …”  I wrote, “With the level of discontent, negativity and lack of respect that many District employees are indicating, I simply do not understand why the School Board does not investigate and find answers.” Employees are the District’s most valuable assets and they need to know that their contributions are valued and respected.

This campaign season has had many school board candidates using buzzwords like ‘communication’, ‘morale’ and ‘trust’ on their campaign websites, voter literature and during the League of Women Voters forum.  All school board candidates, with the possible exception of Kevin Buraks, recognize there are District issues related to communication and employee morale that need addressing.  Mr. Buraks stated in the LWV forum that the employees must be satisfied because otherwise they would leave the District.

I received the following email from District employee (and TESD resident), Debbie Watson.  No longer in the shadows of anonymity, Debbie is an insider speaking out about the morale in the schools and recent hiring trends of the District.  It is with Debbie’s permission that this letter appears on Community Matters.  Debbie is courageous, her words powerful and I applaud her for speaking out and making a difference! 

Hi Pattye,

I’m writing to you today about a disturbing statement I heard from another T/E employee.  I found the remark ironic as our school board and administration keeps touting their transparency, openness and willingness to communicate with the public.

It appears that the new trend is going to be only to hire people to fill open school district positions if they are outsiders (that is they do not reside in T/E School District).  In this person’s words, “Dan has put the word out that new hires will NOT be District taxpayers. We do not want them going home and talking to their neighbors about what is going on in the schools.”  REALLY????

It seems to already be happening. They replaced the Food and Nutrition Services Director with someone who came in from Twin Valley School District even though we had qualified people inside the District who applied for the job. He in turn hired a neighbor of his to be the Cafeteria Manager at Valley Forge Elementary. This manager does not have Food Service certification from Chester County, and he told the girls that he has never worked a kitchen before!

The morale was already very low in the schools and it is getting worse. The District passes over qualified T/E employees and hires less experienced outsiders for the job. We had several people (with Chester County certification) already working in the District that applied for the job (I didn’t bother, as I’ve been “blacklisted”), one was from my kitchen (Beaumont Elementary). One of the reasons given for her not getting the job was that she “didn’t have the experience required.” Another woman (from Devon Elementary) was told that she lacked managerial experience (she was a manager for Aramark for YEARS) And he does???

If the District cared about its employees, they would give us a chance to advance. The Union was contacted and their response was that the bottom line is that the District can hire whomever they want regardless of experience. This just isn’t fair to the hard-working T/E employees. We’ve already seen how awful our union is with the TENIG contract that just came about. I don’t know why people continue to pay their dues and give the union their money for nothing in return. Art McDonnell sat in on the interviews so he knows the lack of qualifications as well.

I’ve been with the District almost 10 years and am a ‘general kitchen worker’. I was a ‘Greeter’ for 5 years, took a year off, then came back, and moved to the kitchen.  Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom and was a PTO president at Devon Elementary School.  Basically, I have been in the schools for 25 years. (Also grew up here and went to T/E schools).

I’ve finally had enough and gave the District my notice a couple of weeks ago. I had actually decided during the summer that I was leaving but it got too close to the start of school and I didn’t want to leave my kitchen shorthanded at the beginning of the year as it’s too hectic. My last day of work is November 15th. I can’t continue to work for an administration that treats people the way they do!

Mr. Buraks was correct in his statement that if someone had a morale problem in the District that they would just leave — he’s right and I am (leaving). Sad thing is that I LOVED my job. I just don’t want to do it anymore.  I wrote a short resignation letter and didn’t blast them (advice was given to not “burn any bridges”) much as I wanted to! I know that you (and Neal and Ray) stay on top of things and wanted you to be aware of what’s really going on inside the schools.

Sincerely,

Debbie Watson

Investing in the District’s best talent and promoting from within the TENIG union is good for employee morale.  TE employees, like Debbie Watson, are frustrated when a position is given to someone from the outside, especially when the person is not as experienced or qualified as an existing District employee.  What kind of message does this send to the our employees?

How sad that the District is losing Debbie Watson, a dedicated, long-serving employee. As long as the leadership and administration choose to put a sunshine spin on the District’s morale issue for the public’s sake, nothing is going to change.   Can the School Board agree that employee morale in the Tredyffrin Easttown Scholol District is an important issue and a critical topic worth discussing.   School board candidates, are you listening?

Harassment, intimidation and bullying have no place in our schools …

The troubling stories of intimidation by the TE School District administration continue, as does the School Board’s silence regarding this issue.  After As I See It: Tredyffrin Easttown School District … Intimidation to Silence” appeared in Main Line Suburban, I received additional phone calls and emails from former and current District employees, describing our schools as a workplace which seeks to control and silence.  A former TE teacher wrote, “Employees have noted for years that they felt bullied and targeted when raising any questions or concerns regarding building and/or programming changes.”  From a current District aide, The negativity and lack of respect from the administration is always present.” 

What is really going on behind the walls of our schools – the morale continues to plummet but other than bringing awareness to the problem, there is no indication that anything is changing or that anyone on the School Board is actually listening.  Disappointingly, there has been no response to either of the two emails sent to School Board President Kevin Buraks in regards to this matter.  Some may suggest that Buraks does not respond because he is in re-election campaign mode and does not want to risk his quotes appearing on Community Matters.  If that is the case, I wonder what excuse is offered  for not responding to the concerns of other School District residents.  How about a press release suggesting that the School Board is addressing employee concerns and claims of intimidation?  The employees need to know that their contributions are valued and that they have a right to a working environment free from harassment and intimidation.

By speaking out, employees feel that their jobs are threatened.  Following the School Board meeting, the administration suggested to certain TENIG members that they had no business attending the meeting.  These individuals did not speak at the meeting (although if TESD residents, they have that right); they merely attended the meeting.  I find this level of control by intimidation from the administration extremely disturbing. All employees deserve a supportive working environment not a place where they fear losing their jobs for raising questions or concern.

With the level of discontent, negativity and lack of respect that many District employees are indicating, I simply do not understand why the School Board does not investigate and find answers.  Why should employees fear retribution from the District administration for speaking out or … in the case of some TENIG workers, for just showing up a public meeting?  When a District employee speaks as a citizen at a meeting, does the First Amendment not protect them? How is it possible that a school district is allowed to exercise control over an employee’s private speech.

There are examples of intimidation and low morale of the employees from all areas of the District — the kitchen staff, the custodians, the aides and the teachers.  Large segments of the employee community feel disconnected from the District leadership; leaving them to question why the School Board seemingly does not care. How do the members of the School Board rationalize and not react to what District employees are saying?  I will say it again, this is not some isolated, disgruntled employee looking for attention but rather the new reality of what it means to be a TE School District employee.   Respect and support should be commonplace on the education ladders of TE schools, regardless of whom you are or whom you know.

There’s no magic wand to make this simmering problem within our schools disappear. Increasing awareness suggests that our award-winning TE School District needs a thorough internal examination and review to look at what is really going on inside our school walls.

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Footnote:  In a quick Google search, I found ‘School Perceptions’, an independent research company that collects data, conducts internal examinations, professional development,  benchmark surveys, etc. and measures feedback from community, parents, students and staff in public and private schools.  According to their website, their mission is to “help educational leaders gather, organize and use data to make strategic decisions” by measuring what matters.  I understand the economics of the School District and I realize that School Perceptions, or a similar company, does not come without a price tag however … this situation requires action.  One solution is an independent examination and review of the working environment of the District employees.

TE School District … Intimidation to silence

I am not writing today based on an isolated email from a disgruntled school district employee.  I wish that were the case.  Phone calls, text messages and emails have come to me from teachers, paraeducators, custodians, kitchen workers, support staff and aides all painting an eerily similar picture of the work environment inside our award-winning TE schools.

If you want to control someone, all you have to do is make him or her feel afraid.  It appears that the TE School District is now an environment of intimidation with administrators calling for loyalty, demanding public silence and leaving employees fearing for their jobs.

From the outside, the school district appears the image of excellence by any standard – impressive test scores,  high achieving students in all areas – academics, athletics and the arts, supportive parents and caring teachers and staff that believe in putting education and students first.

However, those working inside our schools describe an atmosphere far differently … a place of fear and intimidation … a place where our District employees, fearing retribution, do not feel like they have a voice.   One poignant email read in part, “We have signs all over about anti-bullying, yet the staff gets bullied.”  Another email contained these words, “If you speak out and they (administration) don’t like what you’re saying, and you’re not a ‘yes person,’ then you will literally … you could lose your place there. You could lose your job.”  I just read a comment posted on Community Matters that says TENIG employees were rebuked by the Administration for attending Monday’s School Board meeting.  If true, this level of harassment must stop.  School Board meetings are public meetings and all employees are welcome to attend.  There is a policy that only TESD residents may speak at Board meetings with the exception of TENIG and TEEA union presidents.

The TE School District is committed to a safe and civil education environment for all its students that is free from harassment, intimidation or bullying and the same right is extended to all District employees. TESD Policy, Regulation 4330  “Unlawful harassment by and of TESD employees” provides the procedure for an employee to report unlawful harassment to their immediate supervisor, or to the Superintendent of Schools, if the complaint involves that supervisor.  But herein lies the problem – if the District employees are scared of the Administration, and fear retaliation and possible loss of their job, how are they supposed to speak out? And where do they take their message?

This discontent between administrators and staff that has led to low morale in the schools did not just begin this week.  Although certainly exacerbated by the proposed outsourcing of aides, paraeducators and substitute teachers, there is an unsettling picture that is beginning to surface; a workplace shrouded by fear and intimidation.

The School Board Directors of Tredyffrin Easttown School District need to lead.  The taxpayers of this community pay the administrator salaries of the School District and we elected you as the overseers.  Now the community is  respectfully asking you stop deferring all your decisions to the Administration, and to  simply … govern.

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