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
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.