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Group of Alexander parents express frustration at how school district is handling discipline, student safety

By Howard B. Owens

A number of parents in the Alexander Central School District are unhappy with how some disciplinary issues are being handled and are speaking out at school board meetings, expressing frustration that district administration is, in their views, failing to meaningfully meet the requirements of safety and Code of Conduct policies.

The school board, and Superintendent Catherine Huber, for their part, are trying to limit what parents can tell them about their concerns and how Huber and her staff have responded to specific complaints.

Attempts to interview a board member or any board members after a meeting Monday night were rebuffed and a reporter was told only Huber could speak for the district or the board.

"Student safety and student well being is our top priority," Huber said that night. "Every parent who approaches the board or any administrator in the district, their concern is heard."

She would not comment further, she said.

Asked if based on parental feedback there was any need to make policy changes, all she said was, "I can tell you our Code of Conduct is updated on an annual basis."

Board President Reed Pettys was not present at the meeting. Reached the next day by email, Pettys issued a statement (copied in full at the bottom of this story) and said he could not and would not comment on specifics.

At a March 28 meeting, a mother of an elementary school student, Liz Felski, spoke during the public comment period and told the board a child in her daughter's class was continuously disruptive.

After mentioning she is an Alexander alumna, she said, "So you cannot imagine how disappointed I was when my daughter came home and said she was terrified to go to her class. She has encountered many violent disruptions in class, including hitting and kicking..."

At that point, Pettys cut her off and said she couldn't talk about specifics in a classroom.

Felski, herself an educator with a docorate in education (Ed.D.), then cited the Code of Conduct's language on providing a safe and orderly school environment. 

She said she doesn't believe the Code of Conduct is being followed.

"My daughter has told me her class is disrupted five or six times to redirect and get them focused," Felski said.

Felski's remarks were captured on an iPhone recording of the meeting provided to The Batavian by another parent.

"After I conveyed my concerns to Dr. Huber, she said all she (Felski's daughter) was entitled to was an education and this would be in a classroom."

Pettys interrupted her remarks again and said Felski could not mention specific individuals.

After some cross talk, Pettys said, "This is public comment and I understand there are emotions behind your thoughts. Talking about our policies is appropriate. We can’t speak to specifics in the classroom."

Felski responded, "I'm talking about my daughter's comments to me. I’m not talking about a specific student. I’m talking about what my daughter is witnessing in a classroom on a day-to-day basis."

Pettys told her specific issues should be taken up with the administration. A parent in the audience said, "they were repeatedly ignored."

Pettys said, "We are a policy-making board."

The audience member said, "We know your policies and we don't believe you're following them."

Felski tried to continue her statement and was admonished by Pettys again not to discuss classroom specifics.

"That is something to be addressed with the superintendent or the administration," Pettys said.

A parent in the audience said, "If they don't respond?"

Pettys said, "This isn’t a discussion. We’re just here to listen. This back and forth is not what it is intended for."

At which point he called another parent to the podium, who also raised concerns about student safety and the Code of Conduct. Then another parent spoke.

"Many parents are worried on a daily basis about some things that are occurring," said the mother whose name wasn't clear on the recording. "Hopefully, we can all work together to improve on the policies so they make sense for everybody."

After her, another mother spoke who said her child was also in the elementary school and she was very worried about the safety of her child.

Before Felski spoke, another mother addressed the board and laid out at least a half dozen proposed policy changes.

None of these suggested changes were captured in the board minutes, so as to give the board a better chance to consider them and discuss them at a later date.

At Monday's meeting, among the speakers was Jerome Morrison, father of Liz Felski, who said he was speaking on his daughter's behalf after she left the previous meeting in tears because she was repeatedly interrupted at the March 28 meeting and wasn't allowed to finish her statement.

"She is as well qualified as anybody in this room and she was treated like she doesn’t belong," Morrison said.

He said he didn't think the district was being responsive to the concerns of parents.

"When you refuse to grant meetings to concerned parents, or do not respond to emails, and threaten teachers and staff members about speaking out ,and cut people off who are trying to voice serious concerns, you leave parents with no options but to be heard," Morrison said.

As for his granddaughter, he is much less concerned about her safety in school. 

"There’s good news on my granddaughter’s account," he said. "She now goes to school safely and without fear. Unfortunately, she had to change schools to do it."

Outside the board meeting, Morrison told The Batavian, the child who is reportedly disruptive once raised a desk over his head threatening his granddaughter. He said the child wasn't disciplined.

Another parent said the same child brought a knife to school a few days later and received a three-day suspension.

Three other parents spoke Monday, including two who said they were frustrated because their children had been given lengthy suspensions for minor violations while the elementary school student who is said to be so disruptive never receives serious punishment. 

One of the parents, Casey Scott, said her teenage son is part of the program for students with disabilities and he used to struggle in school. This year, he had been doing great academically until he was suspended for the rest of the school year and now he's failing two classes. She said one of her complaints is that he's been out of school for nearly two weeks and she has been unable to get his assigned homework so he can keep studying.  She got some assignments from his BOCES instructor, but not from Alexander HS.

"I was also told if I pursued the issue any further it would backfire on us," Scott said.

Another parent shared similar concerns about homework for her suspended child.

Outside the meeting, Scott said her son was suspended because, on a bus trip to the BOCES campus, her son and another boy grabbed and bear-hugged another student. She said she thought it was playful, the school took it as bullying. She said he had no other disciplinary issues.

Below is the email The Batavian received from Reed Pettys (Note, in our initial set of questions to him, we asked a general question about whether he prevented a parent from speaking at the "previous" meeting. It turned out, that was actually a meeting before the last meeting. We say that to explain his final sentence.)

Thank you for attending our Board meeting last evening.  

The District takes matters of student safety, discipline, and learning very seriously.  

The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority.  

We cannot and will not comment about issues specific to any student or staff.  

Our Code of Conduct is updated on an annual basis.  I can assure you that in all cases, the Code of Conduct is and has been applied fairly and consistently.

The administrators and Board of Education listen and take action as appropriate to all concerns brought to us by students, parents, and community members.

Please know that no members of the public spoke at our last meeting on 4/11/18.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: At 11:24 p.m. The Batavian received an email from an attorney for the school district demanding that The Batavian retract this story. While alleging many faults with the story, the attorney did not assert that it was in any way libelous or defamatory. We are not going to retract this story. We stand by our reporting. We affirm the story is factually accurate and does not suffer from the deficiencies she claims; though, in fairness, we should acknowledge one point she made. The school board, as with all public bodies in New York, is under no obligation to provide for public comments on its agenda. Further, it is not legally obligated -- though it might be wise -- to keep minutes on public comment.

Christopher Putnam

Alexander alum here. Since my graduation in 98, my sisters in 2004, and my brother in 08, i have heard from them and experienced for myself the messed up application of their code of conduct. It is selectively enforced and no one knows who exactly is in charge of when or how it is applied. Everyone wants to pass the buck and no one wants the responsibility for enforcing it equally.

Apr 26, 2018, 7:49am Permalink
Michael Hutton

This is an ongoing issue in most if not all school districts. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard of kids being bullied this school year, it's frightening. There used to be a Zero Tolerance policy but that surely isn't the case not has it been in the last several years. Why is it not being enforced? Why do the bullies remain largely undisciplined and their victims are? Why do teachers and administrators keep passing the buck around when approached with these issues?
Here's the million dollar question....when are parents going to realize they have failed or are failing their kids and society? Bullying issues and dealing with them have to start at home and parents have to be in touch with the school system showing they are doing something. Instead they get all over the school admins and protect their little snowflakes. Get off the boat ride down the river denial and be a parent.
If it doesn't start at home I'm not sure what else to do. Any suggestions?

Apr 26, 2018, 1:10pm Permalink
Daniel Palmer

This is a clientele issue. It's easy to point the finger(s) at the board, the administrators, the teachers; all thankless jobs, in my opinion. However, these 'behaviors' are learned. School districts all around the country, including rural districts like Alexander, are scrambling to implement programs that aim to redirect or change these behaviors. Schools are in the position of trying to instruct an ever evolving and rigorous curriculum all while these 'behaviors' escalate, become more physical, and often times lead to criminal behaviors.

All of these facets are intertwined and related. Schools have never had better teachers, training, equipment, facilities, strategic plans, communication protocol, special education resources, safety procedures...I could go on. Students are coming to our schools with needs that are beyond anything educators have ever seen or experienced. Educators from top to bottom are doing EVERYTHING they can to provide a safe learning environment for this changing population. Sadly, many great educators are choosing to abandon the profession because of the increased rigor placed on young aspiring teachers by the state. See for yourself. Go check out the requirements for a new teacher in their first few years of teaching. Look at the hoops they must jump through to become certified and maintain that certification. While you're at it, check out the starting salary for these young professionals. Summers off, you say? Try again. Many of them are working a second job or obtaining credits for re-certification.

In closing, let's focus our efforts on improving society's expectation on children. Let's hold parents accountable for their namesake(s). I don't care what color you are, what religion you are, what type of relationship you are in...Our education system will only improve if the quality of human being attending improves. In my opinion, this starts with the expectations from our parents and guardians.

Apr 26, 2018, 3:31pm Permalink
Rich Richmond

I hate the false narrative of "thankless job." and all the whining, self-accolades, and excuses that follow. Exactly what does "thankless job" mean? Many people would be thankful to have a "thankless job," with benefits, modest or otherwise, that go with it, and especially to have a guaranteed pension. Do I hear, thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer? Taxpayers, people who are working two or more low wages jobs, with no benefits whatsoever, to make ends meet. Do I hear thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, for my thankless job?

Apr 26, 2018, 6:03pm Permalink
Kyle Slocum

The last refuge of the moron is a threatening letter from their attorney. Especially when it is obviously an asinine attempt at government sponsored censorship of actual issues and news.

There is obviously a problem going on in Alexander. It will not be fixed by trying to shut up parents or the press. It's time for the school board to act like actual, real, functioning adults and do hard things.

Ignoring issues is not a winning strategy. The board needs to grow the hell up and act like responsible adults.

Apr 26, 2018, 6:50pm Permalink
Christopher Putnam

I love how they tried to silence the parents in the meeting. Now they want the story removed. Both actions of someone that knows they are in the wrong.

Apr 27, 2018, 7:00am Permalink
cj sruger

The Attorney is correct they don't have to allow public comment, however, it says in the ACS Board Policy Manual section 1520 page 2 of 3; (page 35)
Public Expression at Meetings:
Public expression at such meetings shall be encouraged and a specific portion of the agenda shall provide for this privilege of the floor.

Is this Attorney suggesting they not follow their own policy?
Being that this is a safety and constant disruption issue, you would think concerns should be allowed to be shared and expressed.

Apr 27, 2018, 9:43am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

The attorney is not suggesting there not be public comments. She was just pointing out what the law says.

Apr 27, 2018, 11:53am Permalink

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