Branford’s Bullying Concerns Resurface

What programs are in place within the Branford school district to combat bullying?

Although towns locally and nationwide have specifically addressed the problem and abundant resources are available, Branford’s programs, if any, lack transparency – all in the name of allegedly protecting the privacy of students.

Bullying at Branford schools was back in the news recently after the mothers of two children who were bullied – one at Tisko Elementary School and another at Walsh Intermediate School – contacted WTNH television to openly discuss their cases.  Their hope was to call attention to the ongoing school bullying problem and their frustration with the school district.

This is not the first time bullying in the school district has been in the news.  A year ago, the Eagle reported on the bullying of a Jewish student, which included an assault. The incidents, detailed in a series of stories, ultimately led to investigation by outside agencies. According to children’s advocate Adrienne Serra in a recent interview, the complaint was subsequently heard through a mandatory mediation session with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Serra had advocated for Orit Avizov and her son. Avizov hired a lawyer, who told her not to communicate with Serra, she said.  Serra maintains that bullying is an ongoing problem in the school district that is not being addressed by the superintendent and the Board of Education.

Enter: A New Group of Parents

Alicia Mullen’s son, Cash, attends Tisko, and Melissa Virostko’s 12-year-old daughter, who attended Walsh, has since transferred to West Haven. Both students were bullied verbally and on social media, and worse, encouraged to commit suicide. Mrs. Virostko said in a subsequent separate interview on WTNH that for months she contacted the Board of Education, “from the principal all the way up to the school superintendent.” When nothing came of it, she transferred her daughter to another school district.

According to the first WTNH report on May 3, Mullen described Cash’s encounters with school bullies over a period of time, encounters that intensified after his father, Deputy Fire Chief Ron Mullen committed suicide in 2015.  Kids taunted Cash, saying he should be run over by a train on a railroad track as his father had been, Mrs. Mullen said. Mrs. Mullen did not discuss in her television interview how the school district responded in her son’s case. He is now 10.

Neither Mullen nor Virostko responded to attempts to contact them.

Superintendent of Schools Responds

File Photo After the Mullen incident was described on television on May 3, Hamlet Hernandez (pictured), the superintendent of schools, issued a formal written statement. He issued the same statement in response to various media outlets on May 8 after Virostko was interviewed on television.  He made no reference to either bullying event in his statement. 

Hernandez maintained the “safety and wellbeing of each and every one of our students is of paramount concern.” The statement says that inappropriate conduct is not to be tolerated and that claims will be taken seriously and investigated.

The statement continues, “In each situation, our goal is to provide for the wellbeing of all of our students, to educate students about the inappropriateness and harmfulness of improper conduct, and to prevent recurrences of inappropriate conduct.” Because of respect for federal laws, the statement concludes, Hernandez say he cannot comment on an individual student.

No Comment on Bullying Programs

Indeed, that message is being passed down to school officials. The Eagle reached out to school principals to learn what kind of programs are in place in Branford to combat bullying. James O’Connor, principal of Tisko, refused to comment, citing the privacy of his 400 students. Robin Goeler, Walsh principal, did not return the Eagle’s phone calls.

Not every school district confuses student privacy issues with overall policy decisions and programs designed to combat bullying.

The Kerrigan School in West Haven, the Second Step program in Wallingford, the Say Something program in Sandy Hook, and town of Guilford officials were interviewed on WTNH for their programs. Kerrigan’s principal described the school’s Unity Day program where everyone wears orange; classes in bullying prevention are also held. Guilford’s Project Purple is designed to combat drugs, alcohol use, and bullying.

Tisko PTA president Jennifer Guandalini said that the news reports on bullying do not reflect the Tisko community.

Guandalini said that bullying hasn’t been specifically discussed. “It’s not reflective of the community… it’s between her and them,” she said referring to Mrs. Mullen and school officials.  Then she enumerated the many good things done by the school.

She described the school’s two-week gratitude campaign, “Look for the Good,” where kids decorated the school in rainbows and expressed things they were thankful for. “It made a huge impact,” she said.

At April’s Board of Education, as part of an update to the district’s Safe School Climate Plan, an expansion to the school’s definition of bullying was discussed.

The definition would be broadened to include attacks against groups of people as well as individuals. The district’s policy also includes specific recommendations in regard to cyberbullying, which it is mandated to investigate per the Safe School Climate Plan.

“We’ve always had a plan,” Hernandez said in response. “We are updating and enhancing it… these are difficult issues.”

What To Do

Bullying among children and teenagers is not a new problem. However, in this era of investigative reporting and access to social media, awareness has increased, but the easy availability to social media adds another layer to the issue.

It raises questions of how to deal with bullying behavior. What is the role of parents in monitoring their child’s behavior and following up on their concerns? How can teachers create an atmosphere of acceptance? What is the role of peer support? And, at the top, how can a superintendent move beyond what is stated in policy to address concerns as they are presented?

There has also been a move toward mindfulness – a basic attention practice that promotes awareness in the present moment – in some schools. It’s a practice that enables students to relax and deal with stress, and hopefully, create greater self awareness.

A new public service spot, “I am a Witness,” is geared toward cyberbullying. Emojis are used to send inspirational messages when bullying is seen online. Its slogan is “I see that and it’s not OK.” The PSA notes that 7 in 10 kids are affected by cyberbullying.

And that doesn’t include encounters on the bus, playground, bathrooms, and in the locker room.

While there are many good team-building programs in Branford schools and a policy in place that states how bullying should be addressed, there appears to be a reluctance to publicly address the problem, forcing parents to seek help beyond the parameters of the district, the Eagle was told.

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posted by: Adrienne Serra on May 17, 2017  8:48am

This is an on-going problem that can only yield tragic consequences for the students and families in Branford. If the continued conduct of the administration and Board of education are allowed to continually deflect student and parent reports of all types of bullying, harassment, and assaults happening within schools, it is time for the families to demand a change in this administration. When Chairman Krause states, “I will take these concerns to heart and there will be a full investigation…” as early as May 2016, and now we are at this day where families and victims are still made to share their mistreatment via news outlets because these statements are allowed to be made with no intention of verifying what is transpiring, investigating, or ultimately remedying the situation for the victims, or even acquiring supports for the school climate at large in the form of educational programs such as the programs noted in this article. Perhaps funding should be utilized to meet the need and request of students and families, and not used to silence them in the form of outside law firms. I happen to believe families would not want to foot the bill for this. State mandates should be adhered to by professionals in the care of our children with the intent of fulfilling them and not systematically abusing them.

posted by: Frank Columbo on May 17, 2017  12:23pm

I recall reading last year that one of the continual bullying incidents involved a New Haven transfer Magnet school student.  The reported violent behavior inflicted upon one child in particular was beyond typical bullying.  It was felonious.  Can someone please provide updates regarding resolution of this really scary situation?

My heart breaks for these children and their families who’s anguish is met with lip service and no action from the taxpayer salaried impotent Board of Ed to protect the innocent students who attend school to be educated.

posted by: Adrienne Serra on May 17, 2017  3:22pm

You recall well. Chairman Krause’s statement in May 2016 was in response to that incident in addition to other parents’ reports of administration withholding instances of their children’s attacks in school, of repeated pattern bullying, and of pervasive harassment occurring within the school. Parents had to find out that their child was attacked from students witness to these acts, traumatized by what they saw and told their parents. Parent to parent they informed each other of what was happening to their children in school and being hidden from them. And, they all then reported this to the Board of Education and Superintendent Hernández in May 2016. The incident you recall was not verified by the school’s “full investigation” and did not appear on the verified bullying log, and neither, by the other parent’s account, had their children’s. The safe school climate coordinator, nor the committee, had been involved. As it stands currently, school district’s only have to “invite in” the State Department of Education, the Police, or any other agency or organization that would actually remedy this for the children. The SDE doesn’t “hear from the victims” either, so they are often made to believe such reports have been resolved and remedied on the school district’s word. With no oversight, no accountability, and really blanket immunity, they can continue to do whatever they want. It is a fear based and bullying system that exhausts families emotionally and financially, to the point where some children tragically decide they can’t endure it anymore. This is not resolved by any means for any of these children or their families.

posted by: Frank Columbo on May 18, 2017  6:25am

Ms. Serra what you describe is so disturbing that it begs a to be thoroughly vetted by a national news organization such as Pro Publica, Center for Investigative Reporting and Center for Public Integrity. Please reach out to them. I am curious to know if the school receives Federal funding and if Senator Blumenthal or Murphy’s office has been contacted.

posted by: Adrienne Serra on May 19, 2017  3:44pm

I agree that this is very disturbing. My families mistreatment had begun in Branford in 1999. The Administration had conducted themselves in the same manner as they are now. School’s do receive Federal funds. That funding is sometimes threatened when there are investigations from outside Offices, such as the Office of Civil Rights. In my experience school’s will hide any evidence and lie easily to not be found at fault. They will even lie at Freedom of Information hearings under oath. After the statute of limitations, I had acquired evidence this school district denied having. The Law firm that my tax dollars had paid for happened to be copied on to this evidence. But because law firms and administrators keep profiting off the abuse of the system and of our families, this will continue. I know because I have experienced this for more than 17 years. This ongoing treatment had been my impetus to join CT Kids First. It had been the Organization that has reached out to Senators. I encourage other families to contact: CT Kids First 860-878-9202, ctkidsfirst.com to share their experiences. The Organization will then use that information to acquire audience with the Senators you had mentioned and possibly Senator Fasano as well. Coincidentally I had recently emailed Senator Blumenthal regarding his comment on the news that he was being bullied. I informed him under CT’s current law it would not meet the definition of bullying. I did this hoping to draw his attention to the need of families in CT that are enduring school’s own abuse of power, and conducting themselves as though they are above the law. Senator Blumenthal I feel may see the possibility that current law as it stands may be violating children’s rights, and may be prohibiting families legal remedy. I sincerely appreciate the recommendation of the news organization. It is a national epidemic and I will certainly contact them.