Southbridge School Committee Meets Without the Receiver to Address Bullying

📷  School Committee Members Tanya Duval, Martena Shea, Amelia Peloquin and Chairwoman Jacquelyn Ryan attended the School Committee Meeting Tuesday night
By Kaitlin Servant

SOUTHBRIDGE –  Tuesday night, four members of the Southbridge School Committee met to address concerns about bullying in Southbridge Schools. The regularly scheduled meeting was canceled by the district’s receiver, Dr. Jeffrey Villar, at the end of November but members of the committee felt a meeting was still necessary. A petition for the meeting to take place as scheduled was signed by three members of the committee and submitted to Chairwoman Jacquelyn Ryan. Ryan alleges that Dr. Villar declined to attend the meeting when notified.

Several families of students in the district and members of the community attended the meeting. Chairwoman Ryan noted that it was the highest attendance she had seen a School Committee meeting in a long time. Several parents spoke to the committee about concerns they have with their children being bullied in school and expressed frustration that more isn’t being done to fix the problem.

Heather Marinelli spoke about the struggles her daughter is having in her classroom at West Street School. Marinelli stated that she believes one solution to help ensure children are getting more attention, and to reduce behavioral issues in the classroom, would be to have more adults present. But after clearing a CORI check to volunteer in her child’s classroom, she alleges she was denied the opportunity to do so.

Marinelli said she was told that that the school was using a new curriculum and as a result, it would be distracting to have a volunteer in the class.  Marinelli suggested that a time of transition would be an ideal time to have extra support in the classroom. Marinelli was offered another volunteer position helping with a school-wide holiday project, but that did not align with her reasons for wanting to help out at the school.  Chairwoman Ryan was surprised to hear Marinelli’s story and said that she would look into the matter.

Marinelli also spoke about her experience with Southbridge schools over several years. Her daughter was previously homeschooled and her older children were taken in and out of Southbridge schools because she wanted to give Southbridge schools a chance.  “But every time I try to bring my children back into the school system I am let down.”

Kelsey Timmins, an employee of Harrington’s Self Wellness Program, also addressed the committee in an effort to let the public know that their organization offers bullying support services to individuals and families as well as to schools. Their services are free and they are located at 79 Sayles Street.

Another parent, Elba Molina, spoke of issues her daughters have experienced in school that have lead to her oldest daughter not wanting to attend school. Molina previously started a group called Reforming Our Youth to help address the bullying problem in the school but she also feels that more needs to be done in the classrooms.

“It takes away from teachers being able to perform their best,” Molina said.

Molina acknowledged that the problem is complicated because the bullies themselves need to be supported too so that they don’t feel excluded and act out even more. She does not blame teachers but believes they need to be given tools to stop it before kids get physical.

“Whoever has the power needs to figure something out,” Molina said.

Several other parents echoed similar concerns and thanked the committee for hearing the problems they presented.

Chairwoman Ryan told those in attendance that the School Committee wants to hear from the community. “We as a school board are listening to you. We really care about what is going on in our community. Its why we have given ourselves and our time to serve this community. Whatever frustrations you have please let us know,” she said.

She also expressed disappointment with district administration over what she perceives to be their unwillingness to work with the school board. Ryan acknowledged that the school board has no authority under receivership but said that the administration should work with them, as elected representatives of the voters in town.

“It hurts me to say this because it’s not something I wanted to say, but I am not feeling that the school department, the receiver and the state are acting in good faith and transparency with the public,” Ryan said.

School Committee member Amelia Peloquin said that the school system is not provided with the resources to succeed. She pointed out that our district is one of the lowest funded in Massachusetts.

“We are not being supported as I believe we should be by the Town Council. The state aid funding formula for schools has not been recalculated since 1993,” Peloquin said.

The committee members urged parents to attend the next meeting, which will be a joint session of the Town Council and the School Committee. That meeting is scheduled to take place  Tuesday, January 8th at 7 p.m. in council chambers.



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