In last week’s newspaper, Vineyarders were confronted by a story of an incident involving a Martha’s Vineyard public school educator allegedly acting inappropriately, and as a result, I feel compelled to address this type of situation with the entire Island community. Let me say first that in our legal system, everyone is innocent until proven guilty; therefore, nothing I say here should be construed to indicate that I believe last week’s story details guilt on anyone’s part.
The community should take comfort in knowing that the vast majority of our public school educators — clearly over 99.9% of our 600 employees — are hard working, dedicated professionals who go the extra mile for Island students. Our administrators, teachers and support staff work diligently to provide a safe, secure place in which students can learn and grow.
I was as upset, as were other Vineyarders, to learn of these most recent allegations against a school employee, especially following so closely on incidents at other Island schools. While there are no guarantees in this world, it is clear that we must do more to ensure the safety of every student who passes through our doors, and I want to assure the Island public that we had already begun to address these issues prior to this most recent incident. Now we will certainly need to do even more. The community probably already knows that all staff that come into contact with students are required by the commonwealth to undergo a criminal records check, called a CORI, to determine if they have broken any laws within our state. For the past few years, the public school system has gone further in investigating employees who come from out of state by employing a private investigator to do additional background checks.
Our elementary school health curriculum includes grade-appropriate lessons for students on such topics as drugs and alcohol, and we stress the importance of personal safety and help students learn to identify situations that may be inappropriate. We employ programs like Responsive Classroom (elementary) and Responsive Design (middle level) to assist our young people in knowing how to be a responsible member of a community — in school, at home, on the playing field or in other situations. Our trained guidance staff is always available to help students work through difficult situations and to address problems that might occur. We also work closely with local agencies and groups such as the Youth Task Force to build a strong community connection for our young people.
Earlier this fall, I redrafted the required staff conduct policy to make our expectations for every staff member clear, and I will bring that revision forward to the local school committees in January for their review and ultimate approval. Once approved, this document will be available to all in our community, making clear what they should expect from school staff. Working with the local teachers association, we will also conduct a series of workshops for all staff reinforcing the clear boundaries that staff members must observe when working with students both in and outside of school. There can be no question about what is acceptable and how we will deal with those who cross the line. Finally, we will include sessions in our induction and mentoring program for new teachers that are devoted to appropriate behavior and the consequences of violating the trust that the community has placed in us.
On behalf of all those who work in our schools, please accept our sincere apology for any discomfort these incidents have caused you, and please know that we will do everything we possibly can to make our schools the safe, secure place we all want them to be. Should you wish to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me at the superintendent’s office at 508-693-2007.
Dr. James H. Weiss is the superintendent of Vineyard schools.