Teachers, parents concerned for safety at Green Bay School

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) -- UPDATE: Green Bay School Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld and many of the school district's community partners spoke publicly Wednesday afternoon about efforts to resolve problems of violence and verbal abuse at Washington Middle School.

At the news conference, Langenfeld said some students come from complicated situations, and "we have been reaching out tirelessly to our community for support."

"We're at a place and a time where schools can't do this alone," she said.

Langenfeld introduced a number of representatives of local organizations working with the district, including the Boys & Girls Club, mental health organizations, Achieve Brown County, the Green Bay Police Department and Oral Health Partners.

School Board President Brenda Warren said Washington Middle School "has been an ongoing topic of conversation" over a number of years.

She said the school board was "very saddened" by teacher Kerstin Westcott's resignation, and said the board members were restricted from responding to Westcott at the meeting by state open records laws.

"We did take Ms. Westcott's concerns very seriously, we just weren't able to express that during the open forum of the school board meeting," Warren said.

Langenfeld and the school board president emphasized they're committed to the staff at Washington Middle School.

Police Lt. Jeff Brester, who works with school resource officers, encouraged parents to support their children's school community, hold children responsible and discipline them if they do wrong, and be a part of their child's school life.

School District staff say they are working on forming a community committee to address the problems the district has been facing.

People who are interested in joining the committee can call 920-448-2000.

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ORIGINAL REPORT

A Green Bay Area Public School District board meeting is making waves, after a Washington Middle School teacher resigns, among concerns of violence at the school.

“None of us are safe right now. We are sworn at and called vile, crude and sexual names every day,” Kerstin Westcott said on June 5th, in a testimony in front of the board. “I have a list here of horrifying things that were said to your employees and students in just the last two days. It fills a page.”

Action 2 News reached out to multiple current, and former, Washington Middle School staff members, who all echo Westcott’s statement.
While all staff members would only give out anonymous information, for fear of losing their jobs, all confirmed violence is prevalent at Washington Middle School.

Many pointed to events in Westcott’s testimony, citing constant swearing from students to teachers, physical abuse toward both teachers and students, even students starting fires in the school hallways.

“I look out to the faces of the students in my classroom and I see fear in their eyes,” Westcott said in her testimony. “Students and staff are physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally and sexually abused every single day in the building.”

Action 2 News has heard comments like these from several teachers – and parents, who say Washington Middle School isn’t doing enough to keep their children safe.

“It's just, it's appalling. To listen to the teacher, and a teacher coming forward saying all these things,” says Danielle Hilke, a Washington Middle School parent. “A lot of the parents don't know. You hear things from your kids, and it's sad that the kids now see this as just day-to-day living at school, and this is what they have to deal with.”

Multiple parents say their children have been physically and emotionally abused at the school, over the course of several years. Some are afraid to send their children back to school in the fall, for fear that nothing will have changed.

“I was told from the district that there's going to be changes taking place, and it's going to be a safe place,” Hilke says. “I don't think that's going to happen within the year.”

School board clerk Andrew Becker disagrees, saying the issues will all be resolved come fall semester.

"I was very confident that when I visited Washington in late May already that that was a safe place for kids and staff to be,” Becker says. “And I'm very confident that it will be in the fall because we're going to be on top of it.”

Becker says he was first made aware of issues at the school in May 2017, just before Westcott’s resignation.

In a statement Michelle Langenfeld, the superintendent of the Green Bay Area Public School District, said issues started arising in winter 2017.

After that, “A District office student success team was created that included administrators and staff from the departments of special education, teaching and learning, technology, and pupil services, who meet with Washington Middle School administrators on a regular basis to continue to strategize how to best support staff and students.”

In another statement, the Green Bay Education Association released a similar statement, saying around the same time, a outreach committee was formed.

“Our association in January launched our own behavior committee and will share our findings from teachers’ perspectives about what more could be done to keep students and staff safe.”

Statement from Dr. Langenfeld regarding Washington Middle School:

On behalf of the Green Bay Area Public School District, I would like to assure our families and community that safety is our highest priority. We have and continue to be committed to the Washington Middle School students, staff and families to ensure a positive learning environment. District administration and the Board of Education have taken all concerns brought forth seriously and have been working with Washington Middle School administration and staff to improve student behaviors and to address any safety concerns for both students and staff.

Executive Director of Secondary Education Tom Hoh, who supervises all secondary principals, has worked closely with Washington Middle School administrators to provide direction and support. As concerns emerged in the winter of 2017, a District office student success team was created that included administrators and staff from the departments of special education, teaching and learning, technology, and pupil services, who meet with Washington Middle School administrators on a regular basis to continue to strategize how to best support staff and students. These supports were implemented due to our recognition that additional resources were required to address student academic and behavior needs at Washington Middle School.

In early May, the Board of Education and administration became aware of the growing staff concerns similar to those shared by Ms. Westcott in June. Upon learning of these concerns, the Board of Education and District Administration took the concerns very seriously. In response, the following occurred:
• We held a meeting with staff.
• Mr. Hoh increased his time at Washington to provide daily on-site support.
• Two District office administrators were deployed daily to Washington Middle School until the end of the school year. Additional staff resources were also provided.
• A second meeting was held in June with Associate Superintendent John Magas, Director of Pupil Services Vicki Bayer and myself after Ms. Westcott’s address to the Board. The purpose of this second meeting was to listen to staff concerns following the infusion of the additional resources and to continue to strategize solutions. Staff reported concerns, but also reported improvements in behavior and reinforced their commitment to the students and families of Washington Middle School and to improving the environment at Washington.

Due to our observations and staff reporting improvement in student behavior based on the actions taken in the spring, the District will continue and expand our support of the efforts described above. The District’s plan for next school year, with input from staff and community, includes additional school administrators and staff to provide support with counseling, ELL and special education services, family engagement, and student behaviors.

Specifically, in response to Ms. Kerstin Westcott’s statement to the Board of Education on June 5, 2017, first, I would like to state that Ms. Westcott is an excellent teacher. I know this because I have been in her classroom as recently as April of this year, during an unannounced visit, where I found students to be engaged in learning. I also visited Washington Middle School two other times in May, and at those times I did not witness behaviors that would have raised concerns. So it is with deep sadness that Kerstin had not shared her concerns with me prior to her resignation in June.

I do think it is important to note that Washington Middle School staff and its students have many wonderful achievements and much to be proud of and we ask for our community's support as we continue to ensure student success and a positive school culture for all.

Statement from Green Bay Education Association:

“Student safety is a top priority of Green Bay educators and we work every day to help our pupils overcome the increasing barriers to learning with which they’re entering our classrooms. We’ve urged the state and district to fund more mental health services and trauma-informed care, and to be sure staffing levels are appropriate. In addition to serving on the district behavior task force, our association in January launched our own behavior committee and will share our findings from teachers’ perspectives about what more could be done to keep students and staff safe. From more supervision in hallways to restorative practices that build healthy schools and reduce violence, Green Bay teachers will continue advancing solutions and partnering with families to make sure students are safe.”