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Woodstock parents express concern about school safety

By Katy Savage

Nearly 200 parents sounded off at Windsor Central School Board members at a meeting, Monday, Feb. 6, for lack of transparency about a potentially violent incident at Woodstock Elementary School, which led to a School Board member’s and fourth grade teacher’s resignation.

“I am disturbed by the latest incident at WES and how our district handles communication to parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large,” Todd Ulman, who resigned from the School Board effective immediately on Tuesday, Jan. 31, said in his resignation letter. Ulman had one year left in his term.

School administration has repeatedly declined to comment on the incident, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but fourth grade teacher Stephanie Petrarca detailed the issue in her resignation letter on Jan. 29.

“I no longer feel as though I am physically safe in our school community,” Petrarca said in her letter. “I have felt unsupported, misled, and disrespected as a professional since I first spoke up.”

Petrarca, who started teaching in the district in 2020, said the issue started Jan. 24, when a student in her class allegedly told a counselor he had a 9 mm bullet. Later that day, the student told two students on the bus that he had a hit list. 

“The threat was … paired with the presence of ammunition that matched the weapon with which the threat could be carried out,” Petrarca wrote, explaining she was told about the incident by another female student.

The female student came forward on Jan. 25 when she was “overcome with emotions,” Petrarca said. The student told Petrarca she didn’t feel safe on the bus.

Principal Mills met with the offending student’s parents later that day and decided the student would be allowed back to school to serve in school suspension.

Petrarca protested and emailed Superintendent Sherry Sousa and Mills that evening to tell them she would not return to school until further notice “due to my disagreement with how the incident was being handled.” 

Petrarca’s letter detailed a culture of silencing and hiding behind federal laws when violent threats occur. 

Petrarca met with administration virtually on Jan. 26, where she was told the “message will not be shared with families to ‘not incite further panic,’” Petrarca said. “I did not agree with this statement and made it clear in the meeting.” 

Sousa responded with a vague response to Petrarca’s concerns, telling Petrarca, “We are a district that focuses on restorative practices so that the student learns new behaviors and makes amends to the decisions they have made.” 

Petrarca said the student was eventually suspended and she was told a safety plan would be put in place for the student and the student’s victims.  

“Mrs. Mills insisted that the child is not a threat to our safety and that she was/ is comfortable with the student returning on Monday,” Petrarca said.

Mills also met with fourth grade students during this time and instructed them to keep quiet, according to Petrarca. 

Petrarca returned to school on Jan. 27 and during a schoolwide meeting about the incident, Petrarca said she and her teaching partner were again silenced about the issue and kept from communicating their concerns with the wider school community. 

Mills sent an email to fourth grade parents the afternoon of Jan. 27 and assured them there was a safety plan in place. But, when a school guidance counselor asked to see the plan, it appeared it wasn’t ready yet.

“I have nothing to show you,” Mills told a guidance counselor, according to Petrarca.  

At the meeting on Feb. 6, dozens of parents echoed Petrarca’s concerns about the lack of communication regarding the incident.  

“One day after the incident the children who knew the details of the incident were instructed by Principal Mills not to discuss nor speak to their friends because that is how rumors are spread,” Zoe Horneck said. “She continued to silence our children that week when she spoke to the entire fourth grade, telling them not to speak about the incident to each other. 

“No matter what the intent of Principal Mills’ message was, her words have created fear in our children, fear for their safety, to speak up and fear to feel,” she said.  

Sousa sent an email to all parents in the district on Jan. 30, explaining the district was going through a “deeply challenging time,” providing no other context.

“I want to assure you that violence has no home in our school district community,” Sousa wrote. “If there is an immediate threat to our students and school, law enforcement is called without hesitation.” 

The lack of detail only escalated concerns among parents.  

Sousa later clarified via email to the Mountain Times before the meeting that she had no specific concerns regarding school violence. 

“We have strong support in all of our schools for students and families,” she said. “I do know that violent acts in our nation’s schools and communities have become common events which elevates all of our fears for what could happen.”

Parents said the issue in the past week is nothing new. Many of them detailed bullying incidents involving their own children and the school leadership’s lack of response. Incident after incident, parents were told the same thing — the school was handling it. Parents said the offending students often immediately returned to school.

Mallory Bennett said a student yanked her daughter’s ponytail back on the school bus about eight months ago. The student “got in her face and called her an f’ing ‘B,’ among other things,” Bennett said. 

Bennett’s other child in third grade was hit and shoved against a desk earlier this year. 

“Nothing has ever been done,” Bennett said. “We’re all fed up and we need change. We’ve been saying it long enough. What we’re doing is not working.”

Several months ago, Holly Gaspar said her daughter walked off the bus with an unfired bullet in her hands.

“We brought it directly to the school administration and were asked to wait while the principal finished a meeting,” she said. “Our child was scared, we were scared as parents.”

Gaspar said she asked the school administration to take safety precautions and be transparent with the wider community.  “We were told that this is not what the administration is being advised to do,” Gaspar said. 

“All of these repeated incidents have been shared and communicated to us by our 7- and now 8-year-old, never from the school,” she continued.

Andrew Cleland said a student threatened to choke his 6-year-old son on the bus. 

“My 6-year-old son should not be coming home thinking he is going to die,” Cleland said. “My son was harmed, even if he wasn’t physically choked.” 

Jen Harris got emotional when she spoke.

“I haven’t been sleeping at night,” she said, alluding to an incident in Virginia where a teacher was shot by a 6-year-old student in early January.  

“For so long I’ve been watching things on the news and feeling so thankful we live in this wonderfully safe community,” Harris said. 

Mills declined to comment on the status of the offending student or details of the incident in an interview before the meeting.  

“I have a lot of faith in our students,” she said in an interview. “I think we have kids that speak up when there’s a problem. I think we’re able to address problems as they come along.” 

Mills said a school counselor is currently substituting in Petrarca’s 13-student class while they search for Petrarca’s replacement in the fourth grade.

“We’re working on that right now, we’ve posted the position and we’re exploring that,” she said.

Mills said Petrarca was planning on leaving at the end of the school year. 

“She stated that she was going to explore other career opportunities,” she said. 

Mills said she heard the feedback regarding transparency from parents and would take action.

“We need to continue to examine best practices in communication with families,” Mills said. “The feedback in that area is clear so that’s something I’ve definitely reflected on.” 

School Board chair Keri Bristow, a longtime teacher, said the threat was “words only.” Bristow has friends in Woodstock Elementary School and admitted she knew more about the incident than she should as a School Board member. 

Bristow said the school handled the problem well,  “A threat was made, that’s very clear,” Bristow said. “(The threat) was found to be untrue. The school moved forward with the emergency operations plan.” 

The School Board went into executive session for over an hour at the Feb. 6 meeting.

Bristow said there would be another open meeting for parents to share concerns. A parent/student survey regarding school safety is also being circulated and the issue will be discussed at an upcoming school policy committee meeting.

One comment on “Woodstock parents express concern about school safety

  1. Awful lot of cloak and dagger, lack of transparency, telling children not to speak out. Very troubling. It sounds like Nazi Germany is alive in Woodstock. That teacher will soon be cashing a large check once she hires an attorney.

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