December 7, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
The Hingham Public Schools intends to partner will the Hingham Unity Council, the Commission on Disabilities, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, and other interested community members to address not only a recent racially-charged social media post aimed at a particular student, but also the overall uptick in the reporting of such comments and posts made by students at both the Hingham Middle School and Hingham High School.
The above groups reached out to the Hingham Public Schools in response to the recent incident, which Katie Sutton, representing HUC leadership, referred to during Monday's remote School Committee meeting as "racism and ableism."
She commended the HPS for the "thoughtful work" already done to address incidents such as these, but she went on to say that more work needs to be done. "Until every [student] feels safe, we need to do better."
Sutton referred to "an ongoing series of aggressions toward students, including the use of the "N" word and other pejorative remarks. "No clear consequences have been laid out to address this harmful behavior," she said. "Students can't focus and learn if they don't feel safe and supported."
Sutton reiterated the HUC's willingness to be part of a collaborative solution. "There are dozens if not hundreds of community members willing to help. HUC has the talent and the resources," she said. "We need policies in place now before we lose yet another student to another school district, private school, or worse. We're here to help."
School Committee Chair Kerry Ni commented, "We know the HUC will be a good partner."
Parent Lyda Vanderhoven asked for an update about the HPS recently-completed Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Plan at a future meeting, in part with regard to how the district will deal with bias incidents "systemically, rather than on a case-by-case basis. [It's difficult for] my kids to concentrate and learn in school without being concerned about whether they will be the next victims," she said. "We can't wait until someone reacts with rage or suicide when they are subjected to public taunting."
Interim Supt. of Schools Gary Maestas said he appreciated Sutton's and Vanderhoven's comments, noting that he has received a large number of emails on the issue. "It's the utmost desire of the HPS to work with these organizations to take Hingham to a different level regarding the issues described tonight," he said. "A lot of work had already been done prior to my [appointment as interim superintendent], but for us to wrap our heads around it is one thing and to implement [the plan] with integrity is another -- and HPS is in a position to do that. We want to create an atmosphere where anyone walking through the HPS doors feels that they belong."
He thanked the HUC, SEPAC, and the Commission on Disabilities for reaching out and offering their support. "We will be joining with them in this effort, which involves not only the schools but also the entire community," Maestas said.
Maestas also said better communication is needed and that the recent hiring of Heather Kashman as the HPS communications director will go a long way in accomplishing that goal. "There will be a significant increase in communication [between the HPS and the school community] in the near future."
There's a great deal of work to be done in response to reports from some parents of incidents that have occurred, he said. "We take this all very seriously."
Even though he is interim superintendent, Maestas said he is extremely motivated to help the community, school district, and the next superintendent "make significant progress in this area."
Elijah Webber, the student representative to the School Committee, said he and other students are looking forward to joining this effort.
As part of the intent to further better communication, the School Committee will resume its "office hours" from last year to allow an opportunity for parents and other members of the community to have a conversation with a couple of Committee members in an informal setting.
In other business at the meeting, the School Committee and the Hingham Education Association, Unit A, recently arrived at a lengthy Memorandum of Agreement regarding the reopening of schools for the 2021-2022 year, in what Committee member Liza O'Reilly called a "very collaborative and open discussion." The overall goal is to help ensure a safe and productive school year.
"We agreed on many health and safety provisions from last year, including HVAC-[related measures] with regard to air quality; and the provision of PPE as needed for staff; among many others.
A key part of the agreement, O'Reilly said, is that HEA members are expected to "follow the options available to minimize employee time out of work, with the expectation of maintaining full vaccination status subject to any exemptions" and to participate in the "Test and stay" program.
The "Test and stay" approach allows students and teachers who have been in "close contact" with another student or other individual within a school building who tested positive to remain in school and to be tested daily as opposed to having to quarantine right away.
The MOA also requires members of the HEA to provide their vaccination status by early December. "That information and any exemptions will be kept confidential," O'Reilly said.
On another subject related to the MOA, O'Reilly explained, "We all understand that the district is experiencing staffing shortages due to the pandemic and are working together to provide full staffing for our students, who are our first priority."