PORTSMOUTH — An assault or other crime that takes place on school property, but after school hours, is a police matter, the School Committee’s attorney said during a public …
PORTSMOUTH — An assault or other crime that takes place on school property, but after school hours, is a police matter, the School Committee’s attorney said during a public discussion to clear up any confusion on the matter last week.
The dialogue during the committee’s May 25 meeting came in the wake of an incident on the Hathaway Elementary School playground on May 5, in which a local 15-year-old had been dragged on the ground, punched and kicked by several juveniles, according to police. A video of the assault circulated on social media, and after an investigation police charged five juveniles, ranging in age from 13 to 15, with assault.
Emily Copeland, who chairs the School Committee, said she put the issue on the agenda because there should be some public discussion in light of the incident.
“The question that was asked was basically, for after-hour events, how is that handled as a school issue? What’s the line between school, police? I think there’s some confusion on that,” Copeland said.
“When something happens on school property, after the school day, evenings or weekends, that basically becomes a police issue, and the police need to be the ones that are doing the investigation and determining if the children, for whatever happened, are going to be charged,” replied Mary Ann Carroll, the committee’s attorney.
Juan Carlos Payero, the committee’s vice chair, questioned whether there was a flaw in the current school policy’s definition of “on school premises” after Carroll said it that policy pertains to “during the school day.” Carroll acknowledged the board may need to look into revising the policy.
Karen McDaid, who chairs the policy subcommittee, said the matter will be discussed at the group’s next meeting, scheduled for 2 p.m. on Monday, June 5, in the School Administration building across from Town Hall.
“Part of the understanding behind that policy, I believe, is that when we’re talking about bullying, we’re talking about a sequence of events that do have carryover into the school day because an incident that happens outside of school can be related also to bullying in the school,” McDaid said.
Carroll replied yes — any bullying outside of school that’s in addition to bullying inside the school can be looked at by the building principal, and a consequence could be determined. “But activities that happen outside of school can’t be consequenced unless it’s brought into the school. Remember, bullying is ongoing, pervasive activity … and there is a form that a child or parent would fill out to be able to address the bullying piece,” she said.
Carroll said she researched the school districts her firm represents and also spoke with other school attorneys throughout Rhode Island and could find no example of a district with a policy addressing students’ after-hours behavior.
“If we put something together where on weekends and after school we’re going to monitor school playgrounds and school grounds, we could be in for quite a liability issue because number one: How do we ever enforce it?; and number two: Who polices it? Are we ready to hire 24-hour people to be on our playgrounds, to be on our school grounds. That would be quite an expense,” Carroll said.
Residents speak out
Several residents told the board something needs to change to stem the tide of bullying here.
“We’re not talking about kids not being nice on school property, we’re talking about a violent criminal act,” said Nicole Prestipino of Birchwood Drive. “If an adult came on school property and committed a violent crime or something of that nature, I’m positive there would be a no-trespassing order for that adult. I know when we’re talking about students, that gets sticky. But we’re also talking about, in this situation, a school that they don’t attend; this is a school property that doesn’t affect their education. You have now students with a violent criminal history, so how are you going to protect other students?”
The district also has to be careful not to set up the juveniles who committed the assault for failure, she said. Without consequences, there’s no reason they won’t re-offend, she said. “As time goes on and you get away with certain crimes, you can get more brave and you get bigger with your crimes,” Prestipino said.
It would be up to the school superintendent to determine whether to issue a no-trespassing order, and police would enforce it, Carroll said.
Nina Weiss, of Easton Avenue, a licensed mental health counselor, said a psychiatric evaluation should be required for any students whose bullying rises to the level of violence.
“That should be communicated very clearly and upfront in the policy manual, so that everybody knows if you make a bomb threat, you have a psych eval at Newport County (Mental Health Center). Not with the school personnel, not with the school social worker. They can be a part of it, but it has to come from outside,” said Weiss, adding a followup plan is also needed.
Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy said in the event of a violent threat, the first step is for school personnel to do a risk assessment. If it’s warranted, the district will contact an outside agency, which Charity Shea, director of student services, said is usually the Newport County Mental Health Center.
Copeland reminded everyone there are “very strict rules” on what can be made public when a student is disciplined. “It’s important for the public to understand that there are things that the superintendent cannot share in terms of consequencing. I am worried that some people might think of that … as sweeping it under the rug, and that is not sweeping it under the rug. That is basically state law, student privacy, and while we might want to know certain things, we don’t have the right to know certain things,” she said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting held earlier in the evening, Tara Aboyoun, of Spring Hill Road, said the district’s policy needs to differentiate between bullying and violence. “Bullying is bad, violence is worse. Bullying is often a precursor to violence,” she said, adding that school personnel isn’t properly trained to deal with students who have violent tendencies.
Aboyoun made several suggestions to the committee, including educating families regarding the Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO). “Basically it’s a red flag law. If somebody has intimate knowledge of a person who is suicidal, homicidal or both, and they’re threatening other people or themselves, you can go to the attorney general, you can go to the police, and exercise this ERPO. If you think they’re a threat to themselves or another person, it allows police to go in, call a wellness check,” she said, adding that any weapons found can be seized, although a family can petition to get them back.
Committee member Sondra Blank said although there seems to be some “division” on the bullying issue, it’s clear that everyone in the room cared deeply about students and that the school community should come together to find a solution.
“Bullying, in my opinion, has been an issue in the Portsmouth school system much longer than just the month of May,” Blank said, adding a balance needs to be struck between responsiveness, accountability and also compassion. “Children that are supported, loved unconditionally and feel safe at home, do not hurt others and feel the need to put others down. More hate and anger will not solve this problem.”