Walkout by New London kindergartners sparks debate

New London — It started with what people involved called an innocent attempt to involve local 5-year-olds in a historic moment in the country.

But a 17-minute walk outside Harbor Elementary School has sparked a heated political debate on social media, a call for a principal’s resignation, hints of censure for a school board member and a passionate defense of the teachers involved.

Two dozen kindergartners accompanied by teachers and chaperones emerged from the school on Wednesday to wave to passing vehicles, chant “we love school” and honor what one parent called “the 17 angels in heaven.” The 10 a.m. “safety walk” for kindergartners coincided with walkouts held at schools nationwide one month after a shooting at a Parkland, Fla., school left 14 students and three staff members dead.

As opposed to the rallies at high schools focused on topics like stricter gun laws, Olga Vokolou emphasized that kids were told they were walking for school safety. Vokolou is a parent of a kindergartner at Harbor and accompanied the group as a chaperone. She praised the teachers for involving the students.

“We were doing this wonderful thing for the angels above. No one said anything about guns. No one put them in danger. They weren’t off school grounds,” Vokolou said. “Here we are doing this good thing and it's getting turned into hatred.”

Vokolou was referring to a Facebook post with a video taken of the students that has been accumulating comments since Wednesday. Some commenters viewed the walk as a valuable civics lesson while others saw it as a potentially dangerous situation or indoctrination of liberal views. Vokolou said the rumor that children were chanting “enough is enough” is false.

Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy said Wednesday the participation by the youngsters was not sanctioned by the school, teachers had not gained proper permission from parents of the students, and the principal did not know ahead of time.

He spoke with the teachers involved but declined to discuss whether the teachers faced any discipline.

“I think that while their heart may have been in the right place, they had no right to involve the students,” he said.

He said he considers the matter closed.

Vokolou said she was not clear on the school’s protocol for parental permission, but the parents she had spoken with all knew about the event ahead of time through a social media post from the teachers who organized it.

Board of Education member Jason Catala on Thursday said he was not satisfied with the district’s response and called on Harbor Principal Jason Foster to resign over the incident. He said he planned to bring a formal request to the full school board.

“The role of the school principal is one of the most important jobs in the district,” Catala said. “They’re in charge of policies and procedures and to ensure the safety of the students at all times. It’s clear the policies and procedures were not followed and, as a result, our children were put at risk.”

Catala, chairman of the board’s Policy Committee, said the incident demonstrates a “lack of leadership in the building.”

“The principal is the pulse of the school, and he needs to know what’s going on at all times,” Catala said. “It really gets me in my gut what could have happened. I think about my own child.”

Board member Susan Tierney, who has elementary school-aged children in the district, said she thought the event was in poor taste and that there were better alternatives than walking along a busy route — such as holding hands around a flagpole.

“As a parent, I’m upset. As a board member, I hope they did the right thing to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Tierney and other board members said it was not their place to comment on school staff. Tracy agreed and defended Foster.

“I’ve been in this city long enough to know (Foster) is an outstanding, experienced and passionate leader,” Tracy said.

“Mr. Catala is way out of line in publicly criticizing a member of the school staff, least of all one of the leaders of our schools who comes to work every day committed to the success of every one of the kids at the school,” Tracy said. “It’s highly inappropriate for a citizen, no less a member of the Board of Education, to make that kind of public comment.”

He said his recommendation to the board is “they completely ignore this and ask Mr. Catala to apologize.”

It is not the first time Catala has faced criticism from the superintendent and fellow board members. In January, he drew the ire of his colleagues over his social media posts and board members had alleged he spread misinformation about a staff member.

Board member Manny Rivera, at that time, had warned he would move to censure a board member who was publicly criticizing a district employee.

Board President Mirna Martinez on Thursday said “she wouldn’t be opposed” to such an action in this case.

“It’s not appropriate,” Martinez said of Catala’s comments. She said the board has jurisdiction over one district employee, and that's the superintendent.

As to the kindergartners walking on Wednesday, Martinez said children even at that young age might have questions that should be addressed in some way.

“I’m grateful for teachers that want to respond to them and have a dialogue with them,” Martinez said. “I trust they had the best intentions.”

g.smith@theday.com 

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