Appearances can be deceiving without all of the facts in hand
By Steve Schultz
In its editorial on Feb. 27, The Daily Sentinel expressed frustration regarding School District 51’s response following a fight that broke out last week in the cafeteria of the Fruita 8-9 School.
Based on a 30-second video clip from an undisclosed source and claims made by the mother of two of the children involved, the editorial concluded that “it appears” school officials failed to protect a student against bullying, first by ignoring reports of threats and then by failing to immediately stop the altercation itself.
Our top priority is certainly student safety, and we take this issue very seriously. Therefore, getting all the facts right is important, which is why school officials must fully investigate incidents like the one at Fruita 8-9 and refrain from making public comments or jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information. This is not “circling the wagons.” It is fairness, prudence and common sense.
It is also a matter of compliance with state and federal privacy laws. In the absence of written consent from the parents of the students involved, school officials cannot disclose personally identifiable information contained in education records, including records of an investigation of an incident like the one at Fruita 8-9.
Simply omitting names, as the Sentinel suggests, would not be sufficient to comply, given the nature and extent of publicity surrounding the incident. Privacy regulations protect from disclosure any information that, alone or in combination, is linked or linkable to a specific student that would allow a reasonable person in the community to identify students directly or indirectly involved.
Even after a thorough investigation, state laws may require the district to hold a hearing or other due process to separate truth from fiction, and fairly and dispassionately determine accountability for misconduct as depicted on the video. It is the policy of our Board of Education, as it is with other school boards around the state, that such proceedings remain closed to the public.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for school officials to give the community a “full accounting of what occurred” in school disciplinary incidents, as the Sentinel asks for, without compromising the integrity and confidentiality of such proceedings and further jeopardizing school safety.
We recognize and honor the right of parents to defend and advocate for their children. However, we hope District 51 residents will understand that parents are free to make public statements about their children or their school situations, even if those are sometimes exaggerated, misleading or even flat-out wrong.
The district is often not at liberty, for the reasons stated, to publicly set the record straight, detail by detail. With that said, it is important for the public to know the following about this matter:
1. Fighting is not tolerated in school. We work hard, through programs like Positive Behavior Intervention Support, to prevent conflicts before they happen, but we cannot always control or predict what students do. If attacked, students are certainly permitted to defend themselves or to come to the defense of another, but those who retaliate to inflict physical punishment or injury after the attack has subsided will be subject to appropriate discipline.
2. School administrators at Fruita 8-9 responded appropriately and in a timely manner to address conflicts between students that were reported prior to the fight. Claims that they ignored threats or failed to take necessary action are simply untrue.
3. Not all student conflicts are the result of bullying. District staff members are trained to recognize bullying and address it in accordance with the district’s anti-bullying policy. The district has a brochure for parents that can help them distinguish bullying from other kinds of interpersonal conflicts.
4. Schools can be more effective in preventing conflicts if parents, administrators and teachers work together. When parents refuse to cooperate, become active participants in their children’s quarrels or encourage aggressive behavior, it is harder for schools to keep students safe.
5. All district staff are expected to intervene when fights occur on school grounds, to the best of their ability and as quickly as possible. In the case of the Fruita 8-9 incident, a staff member on duty in the cafeteria radioed for assistance as soon as he became aware of the fight, then physically intervened to stop it. The video does not depict his actions or the ongoing altercation at the time he arrived at the scene.
6. The incident at Fruita 8-9 does raise legitimate questions regarding the adequacy of supervision and staff response times during school lunch periods. As superintendent of schools, I take full responsibility for this important safety issue. Prior to last week, the district had no information to suggest the plan for lunchtime supervision at Fruita 8-9 was flawed. However, our investigation revealed that the school did not, at the time the fight incident occurred, have staff coverage in the cafeteria in accordance with its plan, because one staff member left momentarily. School administrators at Fruita 8-9 are taking steps to ensure that this does not recur.
Finally, I will work with the Board of Education to conduct a district-wide review of cafeteria supervision plans in place in all schools to make sure they provide adequate supervision for the space and numbers of children involved and that such plans are being followed.
Steve Schultz is superintendent of schools for Mesa Valley County School District 51.