The School Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 13 voted to support this year’s round of policy resolutions from the Mass. Association of School Committees.
The panel approved six of nine resolutions without discussion, but policies about zero tolerance, school committees in receivership and prohibiting use of Native American sports mascots drew discussion. A vote by the MASC delegate assembly is slated for Nov. 6, when it considers resolutions submitted in conformance to its by-laws.
“The School Committee voted 9-1 in favor of supporting Resolution 9. The resolution called for: ‘regulations prohibiting public schools from using an athletic team name, logo, or mascot which names, refers to, represents, or is associated with Native Americans, including aspects of Native American cultures and specific Native American tribes,’” Chairman Christopher Howard stated after the meeting. “The Whitman-Hanson Regional School District does not have any athletic team name, logo, or mascots associated with what is described within this resolution.”
Members submit resolutions to be considered at the Assembly, which often result in the filing of legislation by the MASC or the establishment of official positions on legislative or other issues, according to the MASC website.
Committee member Fred Small spoke up for the tradition behind sports names at some schools.
“I don’t think there’s any malice in any mascot name,” he said. “Granted, we’re Panthers, so it doesn’t effect us.”
Whitman member Beth Stafford noted that Hanson’s elementary school is called Indian Head and that the resolution specifically mentions images.
“We can’t change the name of a school in a town, I don’t think, as a School Committee,” Jones said.
Howard reminded the committee that the resolution focuses on mascots, not the name of schools.
Committee member Hillary Kniffen noted that two years ago Hanover changed it’s mascot from the Indians to the Hawks, after having Native Americans speak about how the Indian mascot was offensive to them because of their heritage.
“I’m not native American, so I can’t speak to the offensiveness of something, because that’s not me,” she said. “That’s what we have to keep in mind when we’re looking at this. We don’t know what’s offensive if we’re not that ethnicity, race, gender – any of those things.”
Committee member Christopher Scriven said among other members of his family his mother is a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, so the subject is a sensitive one for him.
“If you go back in history, look at what we did to these people …” he said. “But, even now, you go into these communities and you see the devastation … It’s important for us to remember that.”
He asked if a name or logo change “really impacts us to the degree that it matters?” He said he doesn’t think so.
“I have a very hard time with people getting uppity about this because it comes from a position of privilege,” he said. “That’s just a matter of fact. You’re not on a reservation. Your culture wasn’t devastated, so that’s something to think about.”
Committee member Steve Bois, who volunteers at schools, said the Indian Head School students embraced a name change for its mascot to the Eagles several years ago.
“The kids embraced that like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “We moved on.”
Committee member David Forth suggested that youth sports in both towns should be called the Panthers, as the high school teams are.
The committee voted to support the resolution.
Committee member Dawn Byers said that the zero tolerance advocated that the legislature enact or amend legislation to encourage the use of restorative, therapeutic and educational approaches to incidents as soon as possible over the use of “zero tolerance” policies in order to help keep students in the school system. Whitman resident Shawn Kain had spoken in the meeting’s public forum about such an approach to vape use at the high school.
“Sometimes those are necessary in certain circumstances … but there are other areas where we have zero tolerance in the district community and perhaps there are other alternatives to better support students so their first offense might not be a suspension so they are out of school and it might snowball from there,” she said.
Bois pointed to exceptions in the resolution language where violent, criminal or drug-related situations are involved and vaping could be considered drug use.
Thar policy was supported by the committee.
Byers also noted that online feedback sought to differentiate between receivership and state control of schools. The regional school committee advocacy group supports the measure because school committees lose all their powers when the state takes over under receivership. While W-H may never go into receivership, which happens when a district underperforms educationally, it should support other districts.
Small, however, argued if a School Committee performed so poorly that a district goes into receivership, that committee deserves to lose their jobs.
The committee voted to support the policy.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said school councils have been so far this year, set up at the elementary level, where there are formalized PTOs, which make it easier to do than at the middle and high school level.
PTOs vote as to who will serve on school councils, required by state law to help principals develop school improvement plans and/or discussion on the budget. Students, teachers, parents and at-large community representatives are included on the councils.
“It has to be equitable,” he said. “If you have two students, you’re supposed to have two parents.” He said the elementary PTOs have selected parent representatives.
“The middles [schools] are struggling mightily,” he said, noting the principals in both towns have sent out “multiple communications to parents” with no response.
The high school does not have a PTO, so Principal Dr. Christopher Jones is holding a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 27 to proceed with deciding how and who to elect to that School Council. The meetings to appoint council members are public meetings.
Howard asked that Jones outline the selection process for the high school, in view of a resident’s expression of concern on the matter in the meeting’s public forum.
“The fact that community members don’t necessarily want to participate is another challenge for us,” Szymaniak said.
He also said the law, on the books since before the Education Reform Act, needs to be updated regarding how members can be selected.
“The fact that community members don’t always want to participate is another challenge for us,” he said.
Szymaniak also asked committee members for ideas in getting the word out that he is seeking residents who wish to join a school council. Representatives are needed for all school levels.
The School Committee tabled a proposal for a Student Advisory Council at the high school. Szymaniak said he meets with all student councils in the district on a regular basis.
A state law provides that schools should have a Student Adisory Council, with five members elected by students.
“Kids deserve to be heard, especially now,” said committee member Michelle Bourgelas. “It’s not easy for them. It’s not.”
Howard said he knows students need to be heard and is a proponent of student engagement, but is concerned with putting the committee in a pretzel over process.
“I want to do what’s required, but I want to do things thoughtfully,” he said. He also wants to hear more than just from high school students, suggesting the committee give it more thought and return to the issue at its next meeting.
Forth pointed to Boston where the student rep is involved in meetings to the point of being an unofficial 11th member, and is seeking home rule legislation to give that student voting rights on the committee.
“That’s how much they believe it’s such a central role,” he said. “If there isn’t someone here to be the eyes of the students, how will the students know what is going on?”
Byers noted there is a W-H student on the Southeast Advisory Council, but Superintendent Jeff Szymaniak said that is a different committee.
Howard said the number of councils and committees is what makes the situation confusing. Scriven suggested the Policy Subcommittee be charged with forming such a council and really sell it to students to spark involvement.
Only one school district in Massachusetts has achieved the 80-percent vaccination rate required for rescinding mask requirements — but don’t plan on removing masks yet — with four more districts pending. W-H schools reported no cases of COVID at the high school as of Oct. 6, none at Hanson Middle School; three at Whitman middle and one staff member, two students and one staff member at Conley, one student at Duval, none at Indian Head and none at the preK program. No positive cases stemmed from contacts at school.
The high school has more vaccinated students than they had thought, according to Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak, mainly because reporting has been poor. When the district hits 80 percent, he said he would petition to be granted permission to lift the mask requirement.
For the 20th year in a row, W-H MCAS scores are in line with state averages, according to Assistant Superintendent George Ferro
“I’m not quite sure what MCAS measured last year during COVID,” he said. School districts had many different learning programs because of the pandemic, but W-H still had upwards of 90 percent of students taking the tests. He said a lot of districts had trouble even finding their students, let alone getting them to take the tests.
No district did well in writing essays W-H did well in constructed responses from prompts and short answer objectives. Ferro pointed to remote learning and the effort to keep students engaged, which does not translate into writing essays.
W-H did not do well in a lot of the grade seven and 10 math standards, which are generally taught at the end of sixth grade — during the pandemic lockdown and remote learning. The data does provide information on how to approach remediation of skills, according to Ferro.