By Dan Hardenbrook
Concerns regarding a negative culture at Tahquamenon Area Schools took up a majority of public comment and became the focus of the most recent Tahquamenon Area Schools Board of Education meeting on Monday night.
Local resident Peter Wurdock has been interviewing concerned members of the community as part of an investigative piece on the district’s handling of controversial issues. These issues include bullying, vandalism, vaping, and student behavior and discipline. He interviewed students, staff, parents, and residents. Wurdock addressed the board for the second straight month.
Wurdock claims that in his conversations, he has been told that the issues are “a community problem and not a school problem” and that the things happening inside the walls at TAS “happen in every school.”
Wurdock disagrees with those claims. Believing that response isn’t acceptable, he is speaking up to highlight issues facing the district that many might not hear about. Wurdock is also concerned that bullying, vandalism, and vaping are not directly addressed or specifically mentioned in any student/parent handbooks or related documents.
“Students deserve better,” exclaimed Wurdock as he completed his time in front of the board.
Poor behavior going unpunished brought another local mother to the meeting.
“My daughter was just involved in a physical altercation today where she was pulled down from behind by her hair before a girl pinned her down and punched her in the face multiple times,” said Tracy Taylor, a parent in the district. “This came after there were already issues involving this student that have been reported.”
Though the student was disciplined, Taylor asked why the student, like many in the district, hasn’t faced serious consequences after multiple instances. The girl, whose identity was not shared, has been previously suspended and placed on probation for bullying, Taylor said, but allowed to return.
“Who is going to be the next student targeted after a student just gets suspended and then let back in the school system and does it over and over?” she asked.
Fellow parent Gerard Pappin says he pulled his two oldest children out of the district due to uncomfortable and obscene language in the classroom as well as continued harassment of students and staff. Pappin asked why the district wasn’t firmly enforcing rules, and in some cases laws, that are already in place.
“If I smoke a cigarette on this property, even in my car in the driveway, I can be arrested and taken to jail under state law,” he said. “If teachers are catching students smoking on this property–and vaping is considered smoking–[the students] are breaking the state law! I don’t care how old a child is, if it’s a faculty member, they need to leave here in handcuffs like the rest of us would! I don’t care whose kid it is.”
Staff members also spoke, asking the community to help rather than add fuel to the fire. Sixth grade teacher Lynn Evans offered up an opportunity to unite the two sides. “The community is upset about the current behaviors at our school. Well, so is everyone that works in our school!” she said. “We don’t like this and we aren’t allowing it. So I’m going to ask: What are your suggestions?”
Evans said that students sometimes refuse to work, curse at teachers, disrupt classes, crumple and throw assignments back at staff, ruin classroom materials, and tell teachers they can’t “make students do anything.”
“All of this while you’re not just teaching, but oftentimes parenting 20-plus different students,” Evans said. “Children learn at home and they repeat what they hear. So when you are speaking poorly about the school, teachers, administration,and other staff, these children are soaking it all in.”
Staff and parents have common ground in wanting the best for students, Evans said. “This needs to be a partnership between the school, the community, and families. We need to support each other and stop ripping each other apart.”
She suggested that parents and community members find ways to support the staff, and even offered up her classroom as a place where people can come see the great things the school is trying to do.
TAS Food Service Director Kristen Salter says her staff has been pushed to the point that some want to walk away from the job.
“I have staff that will not pick up the phone at work because we get yelled at all the time,” said Salter, who got emotional as she spoke.
Everything the kitchen staff does is inventoried and monitored by the state, Salter said, but parents blame her staff for issues.
“We literally have parents calling on the phone and shouting at me and I don’t know what to do about that,” she said. “I go through staff repeatedly, and it more so comes from parents. The parents are incredibly hard to deal with.”
In other business, the exodus of employees continues with another staff resignation and retirement. Fourth grade teacher Katie Parker will be leaving her position at the end of the year, and longtime Spanish and history teacher Tim Whitehouse is retiring effective at the end of the month. The board approved both staff moves, as well as the resignation of Girls Varsity Basketball Coach Jim Dzelak.
One addition was made as former teacher Gene Schroll was hired as the cross country coach. The board also received an update from Craig Myers from Wolgast, which oversees the upcoming bond work. Myers said the first floor work in the elementary and old middle school wing should be completed by the end of this summer, with second floor work targeted for completion the following summer. Students should be able to move into the renovated middle school building at the start of the 2024-2025 school year.
In other news, a new Sexual Education Advisory Board will be assembled and tasked with researching and evaluating the current district curriculum. It will also address how the district should handle sex education in the future. The new board will be composed of parents and also involve at least one community health and one local clergy representative, as well as staff and students. The district will soon be seeking interested individuals before determining the size of the board and who will be appointed.
Price also updated the board on the status of remaining days for the district. The recent ice storm and sewer pipe closures put TAS over the maximum allowed days to miss, causing the school to modify the end of the year calendar. April 14 was added back as a full day, which replaced a scheduled staff development day. Friday, June 2 will now be a full day instead of half day, with Monday, June 5 being added as another half day to end the school year for students. Staff will now hold their PD day on Tuesday, June 6.