HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Teachers’ allegations of students assaulting other students and faculty, as well as abuse of power by administrators, have led the school district to launch an investigation into the incidents.
The investigation comes after dozens of staff members alleged that their concerns were being ignored by the district.
Several dozen members of the faculty and staff have attended the last three Board of Education meetings — held March 13, March 27 and Tuesday — and spoke for hours in public comment sections on the matter. They have detailed incidents of violence among the students and aggression to staff, incidents they say have not been properly investigated or handled.
One incident involved an alleged sexual assault by a student on a teacher that faculty members at the March 27 meeting said occurred at the William Davies Middle School in December. Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti confirmed at that meeting that the incident, which she said “met the legal definition of sexual assault,” did occur.
Police Capt. Mike Petuskey said the department investigated the incident and that it was handled as a harassment case.
“In my opinion, it was not to the magnitude that would require a press release,” he said. “The matter was rectified, and there have not been any problems since.”
Karl Kruger, the husband of Terry Kruger, a first-grade teacher at Joseph C. Shaner Elementary School, mentioned an alleged sexual assault that occurred on a bus a few weeks ago. Petuskey said police are investigating the incident but police do not believe it rose to the level of a sexual assault.
“As far as discipline problems, the Police Department has not seen an increase in calls for service from any of the schools located within the township,” he said. “I will add that the administrators, supervisors and teachers at the grammar, middle, and high school levels do a fabulous job at making sure the well-being of the students is a priority, and they should be commended. The working relationship we have with our schools is unparalleled.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, President Anne Erickson said Cappelluti is collecting information on the problems and the board will investigate the complaints.
“We all heard you,” she said. “Those issues will be worked on and addressed.”
Erickson said the district is working on a survey with specific questions to ask the staff and to try and identify the problems. The board is working on a plan for how to best attempt to resolve the problems.
“It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “Just because we can’t say everything has been fixed a week later doesn’t mean things aren’t being done.”
Erickson declined to discuss specific incidents at the meetings or in an interview Thursday, stating she wants to protect the victims’ identities and the district from a lawsuit. She also said the employees who spoke out have presented some constructive ideas to come to a resolution.
Cappelluti said at Tuesday’s meeting she will meet with principals and promised the audience the district will work on the situation.
Members of the Hamilton Township Education Association, the union that represents the district’s staff, have been present at the meetings but have declined to be interviewed, including President Patricia Fleming who did not return several calls seeking comment.
Other staff at the meetings also declined to be interviewed, stating they were afraid they would be retaliated against by administrators. Many of the employees at the meetings are paraprofessionals who work individually or in small groups with special education students.
Staff members and some relatives who did speak at the meetings said child behavior has become increasingly problematic at the district’s three schools.
“We need change in the district, and we need it now,” said township resident Jeff O’Sullivan, the husband of a district teacher.
Terry Kruger said that a substitute teacher was allowed to make changes in her classroom while she was on jury duty. She said there has been a lack of respect for the teachers by administrators, and teachers feel threatened.
“Other teachers have seen what has happened this year and are afraid to speak up,” she said. “They’re afraid to speak to me (at school).”
The union’s contract with the district expires at the end of the academic year. The union has started negotiations with the district on a new contract.
Kruger declined to be interviewed after she spoke at the meeting.
Cappelluti said she will pay closer attention to student behavior after hearing from all of the employees at the recent meetings.
Cappelluti also said she would never retaliate against a staff member who raised a problem, and they should not be afraid to bring issues to their attention.
“I would never do that,” she said. “Everyone has a right to bring up a concern — especially when it regards a child.”
Cappelluti said this is still a quality district, but she will look into the concerns.
“Our district has gotten bigger. It’s very diverse. We have new district leaders. A lot of things could have compounded and caused (behavioral incidents),” she said.
Jeff Gildiner, a sixth-grade teacher and vice president of the union said Tuesday a big issue is lack of communication among administrators and the staff in the schools.
“I hope you are sincere when you say you want to fix these problems,” he said. “We want to have a good relationship with the board and students and parents. To do so, communication must be open. That has been the biggest problem.”
Patti Stard, a teacher at William Davies Middle School, said there are still a lot of positive attributes in the district, and she doesn’t want this situation to overshadow that.
“Do we have bruises yes. Everyone does,” she said. “We have a dedicated staff, a dedicated environment to provide for our children.”
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