District Responds to Last Year’s Sexual Harassment Issues at Maplewood Middle School

by The Village Green
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During the 2014/15 school year, at least two parents came to South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meetings to speak about the harassment of their daughters by male students at Maplewood Middle School.

The parents talked about their daughters being grabbed in the hallways and cafeteria either by individual boys or groups of boys. In one incident, Maplewood Middle School administration called the police and filed a report.

Village Green was able to follow up with one parent earlier this summer. The father spoke with us on condition that we not use his name or his daughter’s name. We also received a response from the district regarding the reported incidents.

In short, the parent said he was satisfied with some of the response by the school and, in particular, the school counselors, but felt that other parts of the process and response — particularly from building leaders — needed vast improvement.

For its part, the district administration says that it is stepping up opportunities for students to communicate such problems to teachers, counselors and administrators, and is providing more education for students about harassment.

“The first time she reported anything was in the fall of this past year,” the father of a former MMS eighth grade girl told Village Green. “She told me that a boy had grabbed her butt and that she turned around and pushed him away. She said that a teacher saw the whole thing but did not say or do anything – other than smile at her pushing the boy away. We sent an email to the Vice Principal [Louis] Brown and he said he would alert the school counselor. My daughter then reported that she did speak with the counselor. For a while it seemed like an isolated incident.”

However, in February, the girl “reported that it happened again, this time by a bigger group of boys and she was more scared.” The father said that he again reached out to Vice Principal Brown. Brown wrote that he had asked the girl’s guidance counselor to have a conversation with her “so that she can offer her support and so that we can follow up appropriately with individuals.” Brown also extended the invitation to the father to join the Positive Behavior in Schools Committee (PBIS) which meets Friday afternoons after school and was “looking into issues of respect and behavior and we will work to fold this concern into the work that they are doing.” Brown also thanked the father for making him aware of the situation.

“I was not asking to volunteer at the school,” wrote the father. “I wanted the school to respond. There was never any follow up on this email – no idea what the ‘appropriate action’ was that they decided to take.”

The parent then took to MaplewoodOnline — connecting with other parents who said their daughters were experiencing similar harassment. After creating this MOL thread, the father said that the school contacted him with followup.

Then, in May, his daughter was surrounded by a group of boys while leaving the cafeteria. Her said that she reported that the boys “were grabbing her on the butt and chest, saying awful things like ‘look at that a**’ ‘let me get up in that,’ etc.” The girl immediately went to see her counselor, and, “This time the school did call to tell us what happened and they said they filed a report with the police, interviewed a couple of the boys she could identify and that they would follow up with us. There was no follow up.”

The father expressed disappointment that Principal Jerrill Adams did not reach out to the family until the father sent an email expressing his feeling that there was “a lack of leadership at the school.”

“He basically told me to come to the board meeting to complain and he would present all the evidence of everything they have done – I asked to see that evidence and never got a response,” wrote the father.

This summer, Village Green reached out to the district to follow up. When asked how the incidents are handled, district spokeswoman Suzanne Turner wrote, “Discipline is handled by the Principal and Assistant Principals. If a student is found to have harassed another student, we follow the District Code of Conduct and issue appropriate consequences. We cannot comment on the actions of or consequences for specific students.”

Turner said that there was not a special assembly, but rather special programming to address the incidents: “In direct response to the allegations, a program was held for all 8th grade students during their PE [physical education] classes. Students met with representatives of the CHS POWER Club and the Peer Counseling Class for small group sessions on Respect. Discussion topics included gender, consent, coercion, sexting, harassment, violence, bystanding vs. saying something , and healthy relationships.”

Going forward, Turner said that the district plans to address the issue as follows: “This year, we are adding a 50-minute weekly advisory period for students and teachers to engage in restorative circles,” wrote Turner. “These circles are designed to foster better communication so that students have opportunities to discuss important topics such as character and behavior, and to address any issues that make them feel unsafe at school.”

“We will also continue the work begun last year by the PBIS [Positive Behavior in Schools] Committee to strengthen and improve school culture at MMS. We will, of course, continue to investigate any allegations of harassment, to enforce the District Code of Conduct, and to administer consequences to individual students when appropriate.”

The father’s recounting of the story echoes parts of Turner’s response: “My daughter did organize a group of girls, did a powerpoint presentation and met with the administration to talk about the issues – this was facilitated by the guidance counselors (all good people). … I was proud of her and her friends for doing this. They also met with some mentors from the high school who helped them feel more confident in their dealings with the administration.”

Now that his daughter is at Columbia High School, the father says he is very happy to have her there. “I know some of the administration there and am quite confident that they would and do handle these issues better than MMS.”

Meanwhile, Johanna Wright, Second Vice President of the Board of Education does not feel that the district is doing enough. At the August 24 Board of Education meeting, Wright addressed the sexual harassment issue during her Community Engagement and Outreach Committee report by saying, “Our lack of response to bullying and sexual issues as they relate to students and staff need to be dealt with.” Wright called the district’s response thus far “absolutely not acceptable. We need to be a little bit more responsive and creative with that and get it done.”

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