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Parents voice complaints about school safety, leadership, staffing in Norwich schools

Norwich — An online petition to oust Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow is underway in the wake of complaints about student behavior, staff shortages, poor communication, and an alleged student assault on a staffer.

The petition, “Remove Norwich, CT Superintendent," started by Norwich parent Christina Carter at https://www.change.org/StringfellowNorwich, had garnered 556 signatures by Friday evening. Carter said she started the petition in frustration over student behavioral problems, lack of communication and policy decisions by Stringfellow since her arrival in July 2019.

Carter started the petition after Stringfellow publicly denied that an alleged assault by a student happened against registered behavioral technician Jessica Doubleday at the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School. Carter planned to meet with school board Chairwoman Heather Romanski to discuss the issues.

“The board knows that it could bring this up, and even hold an emergency session to address it,” Carter wrote in an email to The Day, “but I want to know what it will take to get them to do this."

Doubleday in a Tuesday phone interview said she intervened on Oct. 4 as one student was about to punch another child, and she took the punch in the side of the head.

"When I went to go back away from the kid that threw the punch, he then came at me and punched me in my eye," she said. She was taken to William W. Backus Hospital for dizziness and vomiting and was treated for a concussion.

"'Concussion from assault' is what they wrote on the paper," she said of the hospital report.

Doubleday had already taken a job in a different school district and had given notice at the time of the incident. Her last day was Oct. 15.

Doubleday said other staff members witnessed the incident but they could not discuss it due to district policies on speaking to the media.

Stringfellow responded to detailed questions about the alleged assault and other issues through emails with The Day Thursday. Earlier this month she denied an assault occurred and affirmed Thursday there would have been a report to her office or the police department if an assault occurred.

"I would receive a copy of that type of report, and I have no knowledge that the staff member in question reported an assault to our office," she said.

Norwich police said there was one call for service from Moriarty that day at 11:24 a.m. American Ambulance was dispatched, but not police. Police would have responded if there was an indication of an assault or a mental health crisis, police said.

Doubleday said she reported the incident to principal Kathryn O'Donnell and that the worker's compensation form filled out by an administrative assistant at the school specified she was punched and taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Doubleday was puzzled Stringfellow could not admit a staff member was hurt. "Instead it's like they're sweeping it under the rug. It's not getting any better," she said. She said one classroom had to be evacuated last Thursday due to the same child's unsafe behavior.

The behavior technician said she was put on paid administrative leave, because she posted about the incident on her private Facebook page. "What happened to teaching children to be respectful at school?" she posted, describing how she had been punched and taken to the hospital with a concussion.

She said Stringfellow made and canceled two appointments to discuss her employment status. An administrative assistant on Friday — her last day — informed her the district would not be investigating further, according to Doubleday.

"Basically, they put me on paid administrative leave so I could not talk to any of the parents or talk to the staff I worked with about the incident," she said.

Doubleday attributed heightened student discipline problems this year to high turnover in the Moriarty administration and special education departments and a new administration that lacks experience.

The former principal, two social workers, all three special education teachers and an instructional specialist have departed, Doubleday said. She said a shortage of paraeducators is due in part to Stringfellow's lack of support for staff members.

"The superintendent needs to take a step back and really look at how she's treating the staff," Doubleday said. "Because when the staff starts to leave it's because of the leader, it's not because of the job. Because they're leaving to do the same job, but under a different leader."

Moriarty Principal O'Donnell was selected in August from a pool of finalists for the search for a new principal at Wequonnoc Arts & Technology Magnet School, the district said. She replaced Kristie Bourdoulous. O'Donnell had served as science and technology curriculum coordinator for Wallingford school district. Doubleday described O'Donnell as "unsure what to do" when students exhibit negative behaviors and is not following through with consequences.

"I had a large bruise on my arm from one student. I have been bit. I have been kicked, pinched, I've been hit. I've witnessed other staff members get hurt," she said. "Again, with the students, nothing has happened. No suspension, no in-school suspension. They've been de-escalated and turned back to class."

O'Donnell in a Friday email told The Day she has 21 years of classroom experience and six years as an administrator. "This is my first year as a building principal, but I have a great deal of experience dealing with students," she said. "I have handled a great variety of student behavioral issues over the course of my long career in education."

Stringfellow and O'Donnell both emphasized the administration's experience. They said assistant principal Victor Turbes has been a teacher for 10 years and an assistant principal in Norwich for five years, and Sheila Sullivan retired from an extensive career as a teacher and principal and is now serving in Norwich as a principal substitute and as additional support at Moriarty.

The superintendent said "a very clear, written behavior protocol" has been in place for about five years.

"There is a series of consequences and restorative practices for elementary student behavior that differ based on the infraction, age of the student and the developmentally appropriate best practice relative to the situation at hand," Stringfellow said.

Several Norwich school board members expressed mixed reactions to reports of the Moriarty incident and the petition. Most cited the anonymous nature of the petition. Vice Chairman Kevin Saythany questioned whether the petition was “politically motivated, coming shortly before the Nov. 2 election. 

Romanski, who is not seeking re-election Nov. 2, said she was not aware of the details of the Moriarty incident. She said it is appropriate that the superintendent would not discuss personnel issues during a public meeting.

Board members Aaron “Al” Daniels and Christine Distasio said they “absolutely” have full confidence in Stringfellow. Distasio said Stringfellow sends emails to board members regularly on all sorts of incidents. "We know about when a bus mirror gets hit,” Daniels said.

Saythany said school safety is a top priority, and staff need to be assured that they will be supported when they report incidents to their building principals, central office or to the school board if necessary. Saythany and board member Mark Kulos said they want to discuss the Moriarty incident with Stringfellow.

Saythany also encouraged parents to attend regular coffee hours Stringfellow holds with parents, currently on Zoom. The next session is Oct. 27 at 5 p.m.

“I know there is a lot of frustration with the school district,” Saythany said, “whether that’s because parents are not engaged fully, or there’s a barrier. We always want the parents to know what we are doing.”

Romanski said the process for parental involvement might seem officious to parents, but it is necessary. Parents can speak during public comment, ask to be placed on the agenda for an issue or attend school board policy meetings. If they have a problem with their children’s education, they should talk to the teacher, then principal and if necessary, central office or the school board, Romanski said.

“That’s what we can act on,” Romanski said. “It’s hard to resolve issues on social media.”

Carter and several other parents posted written comments during the Oct. 12 Board of Education meeting, held on Facebook Live. They complained that online meetings prevented them from addressing the board directly and can only type brief messages.

The school board plans an in-person Nov. 9 meeting at a site to be determined.

In her email responses to The Day, Stringfellow said she read all the posted comments from the Oct. 12 meeting and met with principals regarding parents’ concerns. She said she or other administrators contacted the parents on specific issues.

Stringfellow said she received “some incredibly valuable feedback and had some difficult conversations about real and perceived happenings in our schools and on our buses.”

The district does not have school resource police officers. Three security officers in the schools — two at the middle schools and one at the elementary level — have been reclassified as behavior interventionalists. They are working while obtaining their certification in that category by the end of the school year.

She said staffing shortages plague most districts, including Norwich. She listed 19 categories of vacant positions, including paraeducators, school psychologists, behavioral technicians and classroom teachers. She said the school district uses Kelly Services for substitute teachers with little success. The district does have some long-term subs used in priority situations, she said.

“We have a very low daily fill rate from Kelly Services, because they (and all CT districts) are having difficulty attracting candidates,” Stringfellow said.

Stringfellow said she has been revamping the school district’s crisis and safety plan that now places an “urgent emphasis” on hiring board certified behavioral analysts and registered behavioral technicians. School staff have received training in safe schools, bullying recognition and response, identifying school violence, sexual harassment and student mental health issues. The behavioral analysts will be training bus drivers in de-escalation techniques.

“Parents have every right to speak out or create a petition to further express their frustration about the challenges,” Stringfellow said. “I admire their advocacy for their children, and I welcome continued communications on this incredibly important topic. My job is to focus all of my energy on the staff and children in our school district.”

e.regan@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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