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052014i Wairi slow response

Several School Committee members recently praised the city’s response to the April arrest of fifth-grade Graham & Parks teacher Josh Wairi for allegedly trafficking in child pornography. Twice at the same May 6 committee meeting, members took time to single out Superintendent Jeffrey Young and G&P Principal Sarah Fiarman for their “outstanding” performance. One suggested Cambridge could be a state model for how to handle such crises.

Many of the parents whose children were in Wairi’s classroom this year couldn’t disagree more. The response by the school officials, in their words, has been “wanting,” “appalling” or “ridiculous.” “If this is a “state model,” one parent said, “the state’s in big trouble.”

In separate interviews, several of the 16 families in Wairi’s classroom said they were upset at what they see as a lack of communication and support from their principal, the superintendent and other administration personnel. They and others presented a packet of letters and documentation expressing their deep disappointment to the superintendent, their principal, the committee and City Council this week. A cover letter with 17 signatures and accompanying letters from nine families include information about what they feel has a been a pattern of poor oversight and support for the entire school year, with some also focused on poor communication since Wairi’s arrest.

Lack of contact

On April 17, the day of Wairi’s arrest, the superintendent and mayor held a press conference shortly after being notified by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The press conference and subsequent news reports included information that Wairi confessed to videotaping children in locker rooms.

At the same time, the superintendent emailed a letter to the school’s community and committee members telling them of the arrest and the charges related to child pornography. The letter necessarily conveyed minimal information: the school department had been made aware of the allegations; Wairi was placed on administrative leave; and the department and city were cooperating with law enforcement on the investigation. This email was also how most parents of the children in Wairi’s classrooms learned about the arrest of their child’s teacher.

Families already had access to more alarming information. The criminal complaint, though not provided by the school department, is a public document easily accessible online. It provided graphic and alarming information about the type and amount of child pornography, along with recording devices and evidence of the making of child pornography allegedly found in Wairi’s possession. The superintendent’s letter and criminal complaint quickly spread across the city and beyond.

The families in Wairi’s fifth-grade class expected that someone from the school or superintendent’s office would call with more information, or a personal message of concern and condolence. No one called. Instead, worried and mystified, families started contacting each other to see if anyone had any ideas about what to do, what this might mean for their children, and how to talk to their children about their teacher’s alleged pedophiliac crime.

“We were all in our houses alone not knowing anything,” said one parent, who like other G&P parents asked not to be named for fear of repercussions to them or exacerbating their child’s new privacy issues. “What kind of community wouldn’t call to check in and say, ‘Are you okay?’”

“That night I slept for maybe two hours,” said another parent. “They completely disregarded the reaction that many parents would have to that kind of news.” Another parent put it this way: “Even just to call and say, ‘Look, we’re trying to beat the news here,’ to tell us about the adult that spends six hours a day with our children,” said another parent, who described herself as very upset. “The 16 families should have had a personal call that night.”

No outreach planned for six days

The superintendent’s email announced a G&P community meeting for April 23, six days later. “As this community meeting is during school vacation week and I know that many families and staff may not be able to attend this meeting, a second meeting also has been scheduled for Tuesday, April 29,” the letter said. Families with questions or concerns were told to feel free to email the superintendent. But the families said in interviews that when they sent emails or left telephone messages, they got no replies. Emails to the family liaison had an auto-vacation response. Calls and emails to the principal and the school psychologist were likewise not returned.

Parents said that they waited for further information, including some list of resources for families about how to talk to their kids about a sex crime directed at children. “I thought that by Friday morning at the latest [Good Friday, the first effective day of April vacation] they would have reached out with some resources for families,” one parent said. “But, no, I woke up and looked and there was nothing. So I started trying to find resources myself that I could share.”

Meanwhile, she noted, in Somerville, where Wairi had worked before, the school department was having its first community meeting that morning. Somerville’s informational meeting was followed by several hours of drop-in time available to all families for one-on-one counseling, including with counselors from a rape crisis center.

Community pressure builds

At a loss, many parents started calling School Committee members and city councillors to urge that the city muster some response before the following Wednesday. These parents and others felt it was only through public pressure that an earlier meeting was scheduled for April 19.

A letter announcing the meeting was posted on the superintendent’s website, along with a link to a handout from the Riverside Trauma Center, “Talking with your Children About Highly Stressful Events.” It was the same one handed out during the Boston Marathon bombing, one parent noted. It had some good basic information, “but they seemed to miss the point that this was about sexual trauma,” she said.

“That was the most surprising thing,” another parent said. “I just needed to know how to talk with my child to tell him that his teacher was arrested for something we don’t talk to children about … I was frantically checking all the emails to see if I could get help … The administration wasn’t even worried about this aspect.”

Finally, on that Friday afternoon, Young and Fiarman began calling the families from Wairi’s classrooms who had tried to reach them. Some families were relieved to hear from them, even though they said the officials could not provide additional information. Several families got a message but were unable to reach Young or Fiarman when they returned calls.

Community meeting, with lawyer

The Saturday and Wednesday meetings for the G&P community were frustrating for many. “It was the least they could do at that point,” said one G&P parent who was there. “But it wasn’t an appropriate forum. There should have been a private meeting for the two classrooms [Wairi taught].” This was their first interaction with their principal, school superintendent and law enforcement, and “it didn’t feel right to have everyone there,” as one parent put it. That included not just the whole school, but also city councillors, committee members, the city manager and staff and the superintendent’s “cabinet.”

“So the superintendent got up there and he began with, ‘It’s not our fault,’” one parent recalled – a remark echoed by all the parents interviewed. Said another, “that wasn’t why we were there. We wanted information and help.”

The department’s legal counsel, Maureen MacFarlane, was present during the meeting, often moving among the principal, the superintendent and others in whispered communications. “It suddenly occurred to me that I thought that we had a lawyer. But this lawyer wasn’t our lawyer. It was the school’s lawyer. We don’t have a lawyer,” one parent said. It was the impression of several parents that neither Young nor Fiarman said anything at the meeting without consulting with MacFarlane first.

Parents were pleased with the performance of the attorney general staff and police staff, who were “excellent.” “They rocked,” said one parent, and others called them “straightforward,” “professional” and “clear and precise.”

Finally a meeting alone

“We had to ask for a meeting for just the families from Wairi’s class,” one parent said. “It seemed to have never occurred to them that that might be a good idea.”

It wasn’t until April 24 that the families from Wairi’s classroom had their private meeting with the principal. Parents from 10 of the families had met and sent her a letter outlining their growing concerns and issues they would like to cover in the meeting, focused largely on planning their children’s return to school. “She in turn sent us her own agenda for that meeting, ignoring ours entirely,” one parent said. “Did she even read our letter?” another wondered. Included in Fiarman’s memo was the announcement of which teachers would finish the year for the classroom, and though the families had been displeased that they had had no role in that decision, they were comfortable with the ultimate choice.

Much of that discussion was about what would happen when school started again Monday. Again, many parents reported later, they felt frustrated – that staff had already decided what was going to be said, how it was said and to whom. One sticking point was that Fiarman said they were planning on a statement to the children, and opening it up for questions. Many parents said that they did not feel comfortable with free-flying questions on this topic in a group of fifth-graders, but staff insisted.

As a result, a few families chose not to send their child to school Monday morning. The school arranged that other children would be allowed to go to the library to skip the morning discussion about Wairi.

At this meeting, it also became clear to several parents that the reason they had not heard from Fiarman or the school psychologist earlier was that they had been told not to contact families. A member of the school steering committee, G&P’s parent/staff governing council, later told one parent they had had a 24-hour “gag order” preventing them from reaching out.

“They lawyered up,” said one parent. “They forgot about the families.”

“They didn’t forget us,” said another parent in another conversation. “They had a different agenda.”

Communication gap continues

On May 6 the superintendent announced that his office had received a subpoena that needed to be sent to the Wairi families for photographs and information about their children. It was sent via email and regular mail with a one-page letter from MacFarlane, the department’s legal counsel, saying she was conveying the subpoena as required by law. Families said it would have been helpful to have more explanation; calling around, they found that no action needed to be taken by family members.

In describing the affected students, the subpoena refers to all fourth- and fifth-grade students enrolled for 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, including current fourth-graders who have had no contact with Wairi. It raised further questions and concerns.

If these families are involved, it is new information deeply worrisome to the G&P parents; if the inclusion of these families is the result of a mistake identifying the two grades Wairi taught over two years, no one with any authority has expressed interest in sorting out the mistake.

When the fourth-grade parents asked Fiarman why they were included, she was reportedly surprised and couldn’t see why, but did not offer to try to find out. When parents contacted MacFarlane, she reportedly wondered if it weren’t a clerical error from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but also did not offer to try to find out. Parents who have contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office have not had a response.

As one fifth-grade parent said, “I know why I got the letter, but if I had a fourth-grader, I’d be wondering.”

“I find it amazing that about 35 fourth-grade families were contacted, and no one can explain why or what happens next,” another parent said.

During the course of interviews, it became clear families had not heard Wairi was no longer part of the school department, as announced by Young at the May 6 committee meeting – news families said they would have appreciated hearing directly from the administration.

“I can’t believe that they didn’t tell us that he was fired. Now, that seems like the kind of thing that could easily have gone in an email to the community. What is going on with these people who are supposed to represent us?” one parent asked.

Find a new model

“There must be a way to talk openly about this [whole situation] and get clarification without hindering the prosecution,” wrote one parent. “There are precedents and resources to guide us in this,” one parent said. “It should be up to the administration to step up and help us.”

“The most difficult thing for me when this happened is the feeling of helplessness,” said one parent who reported trouble sleeping. “Their response of not giving us information and not involving us in the process of planning for going back to school made me feel worse … Had this been handled differently, I think a lot could have been done to make us feel less anxious and stronger.”

When she shared this sentiment at the private Wairi class meeting, where parents also expressed frustration they had not been involved in identifying new teachers or developing a plan for returning to school, the principal “chastised” them for not appreciating the sacrifices she and the staff had made during their vacation, according to interviewed parents.

“It gave me new insight,” said one parent ruefully.

At their May 6 committee meeting, members passed a joint motion by Kathleen Kelly and Patty Nolan that “the Superintendent [provide] an updated crisis communication and support policy … to use in the case of a crisis involving staff or student.” Nolan commented that there clearly were ways in which the family communications aspect of the administration’s response could be improved.

It was this comment that caused members Richard Harding and Fred Fantini to expound on the “outstanding” performance of Young and Fiarman, adding to comments Mayor David Maher made at the start of the meeting. Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney joined in, citing a timeline that included meeting with police, the mayor, holding a press conference and combing through Wairi’s personnel file. Kelly clarified that her co-sponsorship of this motion was based solely on her past experience of good management procedure and in no way was a reflection of her views of the “exemplary” performance of the administration.

Young seemed disinterested in examining the department’s performance in an interview this week. When asked if he might do anything different in retrospect, he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a little funny,” he said. “I’m not sure how to meet everybody’s needs for information. We try to do the best we can to relay what we know to be true. Not everybody will be happy all the time.”  Asked if he considered calling the 16 families the first night, even to see if they “were okay,” he shrugged again. “I can tell you,” he said after a pause, “it’s not my practice to blurt out things I don’t know.”

He did say that he had heard “a mention of a ‘gag order,’ and I can also tell you that there was no ‘gag order.’ That’s a strong term.” When told that at least another G&P staff member implied to parents that they had been told not to respond to families’ initial messages, Young frowned and shook his head, but said nothing.

Requests for comment from Fiarman have not been returned.

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