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Waltham parents demand answers on bullying

Posted by Leslie Anderson  February 11, 2010 10:43 PM

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Waltham parents and community members demanded answers from school administrators Thursday night about their handling of an 11-year-old girl who was accused of bullying children at her elementary school last month.

Many of the more than 100 people who gathered at the Fitzgerald Elementary School said the removal of the child, whom police charged with three counts of assault, has done little to quell their concerns.

Ward 4 City Councilor Thomas Curtin lambasted the superintendent of schools, saying that the top educator should have started the meeting with an apology.

“Your first obligation here should have been apologizing because we have handled this lousy as a city,” he said. “And if it doesn’t come from you, I’d be happy to apologize” as a member of the City Council.

The child, who is not being identified, was charged with two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, using a foot and a locker door, and one count of assault with a dangerous weapon using scissors. Police have said there were two victims in those three incidents.

The child is no longer in the school, but it is not clear whether she was expelled, suspended, or removed by police, who criminally charged the student on Jan. 25 after being contacted by Mayor Jeannette McCarthy about an incident Jan. 22.

Frustration was evident among the parents, who told School Superintendent Peter Azar that they had gleaned much of their knowledge of the situation from their children.

“My daughter is in the classroom where this little girl was expelled, and she wants to know if her criminal record will be affected for the rest of her life,” said Irene Signorello.

Another parent said school officials had been inconsistent in their handling of the alleged bully, making all parents more anxious about their children’s safety. She pointed out that the student was only removed after McCarthy was informed and the police became involved.

“It was the same assault on Friday when they handed out a one-day suspension,” said the mother, who refused to give her name because she is a part of the criminal investigation. “But on Monday, she gets expelled?”

Azar met parents’ concerns with caution, noting that he could not talk about the incident in specific terms while a criminal investigation was ongoing. He warned against assuming that the child had been expelled, but would not say what sanctions the district had taken.

“I will say that I don’t see the solution as moving a child from one building to the next,” he said.

Azar said he has been looking into ways to make the district’s bullying policies more consistent, from building to building. He said that since the incident he is looking into ways he can more consistently communicate with parents about situations like this one.

Contacted earlier in the day, Waltham Police Detective Sergeant Tim King said the child had been charged with three counts of assault and battery. Though other complaints were brought against the child, King said they did not rise to the level of a criminal complaint.

He said the next step would be a hearing in Waltham District Court. A court spokesperson said they cannot confirm, deny, or comment on juvenile cases.

WHDH-TV reported the suspect was a girl and that at least one of the victims was a 10-year-old boy.

School officials would not go into details at Thursday night’s meeting, but a Jan. 25 letter from Fitzgerald School Principal Alice Shull confirmed that a child had been removed for bullying her classmates. It described the alleged incident as involving plastic cutlery from the cafeteria, but did not go into any details on injuries or sanctions.

A Feb. 9 letter from Shull announced Thursday night’s meeting and gave additional information on the Jan. 22 incident. The letter said the alleged bully had originally received a one-day in-school suspension, but that the student was ultimately removed from the school when more facts were brought forth.

Neither Shull nor McCarthy, who chairs the School Committee, would say how long the child’s removal will last.

McCarthy did say that the district will not take further disciplinary actions against the student until the legal case is settled.

Curtain, whose district includes Fitzgerald Elementary School, said he had heard from 12 constituents, all of whom were angry about the lack of information coming forth from the administration.

“They need to have more communication with parents, which has been lacking since ed reform,” he said prior to the meeting. “If there were more parental involvement, you wouldn’t have so many people here, concerned about what’s going on in the schools. People need to know that the schools are safe.”

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