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State Expert Visits For School Climate Presentation

A state expert on school climate issues met with a large group of staff and parents at a meeting sponsored by the district-wide PTA last week to discuss strategies that are being used in Manchester and elsewhere to address bullying and mean-spirited behavior.

“The days focusing on punishment and taking a pound of flesh from kids are over,” said Jo Ann Frieberg, a consultant for the state Department of Education. An expert in the area of “Bullying, Improving School Climate and Character Education,” she has worked as a classroom teacher and studied these issues for a long time at universities throughout the state.

Frieberg was invited to the forum by the Town-wide PTA council, which said they were looking forward “to a positive evening that will help us all work together to address these difficult issues.”

The event was held in Room 293 of the MHS Freshman Center and drew of crowd of about 200 – more than half of them school staff.

Superintendent Matt Geary was in attendance as were administrators from all of the district’s 14 schools.

Geary said he was pleased to hear Frieberg’s perspective.

“She has been focused on school climate and culture for a long, long time,” Geary said, “and her suggested strategies are based on actual research – on what has actually been effective, things that have decreased mean-spirited behavior and improved school climate.”

As Frieberg noted during the meeting, parents and even some school staff members often say that students need to be punished more frequently and severely or else their behavior will never change.

Freiberg encouraged parents to communicate their concerns with teachers, administrators, and if necessary the superintendent and members of the Board of Education. She said that schools and families need to work together and that the focus should be on stopping the behavior whether it is verified bullying or not.

Frieberg said that excluding students as a purposeful strategy to get to the root cause of the behavior may sometimes be a part of responding to mean-spirited behavior  – but also said there is scant evidence that suspensions and other such disciplinary actions do much to change student behavior.

Geary offered a similar perspective in a letter he wrote to the school community two weeks ago (you can read it here).

School climate issues have moved to the forefront in Manchester recently as a few frustrated parents and guardians have shared their stories with local print and broadcast media outlets.

Geary said he can’t discuss individual cases but noted that the district takes allegations of bullying seriously. He said situations are often complicated because they involve both a “target” and an “offender” (terms he noted are used by the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to protecting civil rights that worked recently with staff and students at Waddell Elementary).

“I can assure everyone that we work hard to get to the root of the issue when allegations of bullying surface,” he said. “People sometimes say ‘they didn’t do anything’ or ‘they only did this or that’ … but in many cases a lot more is going on than we can share. We are not perfect but we are always trying to get better.’

He added: “In Manchester -- just like everywhere else in the country -- there are students who are mean to one another and sometimes behave inappropriately,  but I’m confident we are taking smart steps to improve things.”

Christopher Pattacini, chairman of the board of education, was also at Thursday’s meeting and said the district is determined “to further strengthen our policies, and align them to state best practices.”

He added: “The work is not easy, and we still have more to do, but we will be most successful when parents, families, staff and administrators all work together to address the issues of bullying and mean-spirited behavior.”

Pattacini said he believes Thursday’s meeting helped to open lines of communication between parents, staff and the administration, and noted that he was pleased that so many staff members were in attendance.

“That sent a powerful message,” he said, “that we’re all invested and committed to ensuring our schools are safe for all students, both emotionally and physically.”

Board member Mary Jane Pazda was also at the meeting and said she is confident Manchester  “is on the right track.” As examples, Pazda cited the district’s implementation of its social thinking curriculum as well as an upcoming review of the existing bullying policy by the school board’s policy committee.

Pazda also said that this is an “emotionally charged topic” but added that the meeting was handled in a thoughtful and respectful manner and noted that school district representatives stayed afterward to speak individually with parents in deference to student confidentiality and privacy laws.

She also said it was important to note that Thursday’s meeting was just one in a series of events undertaken by the district “to ensure that all students feel safe and secure in the Manchester Public Schools.”

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