The Nevis School Board meeting was packed Monday night with parents concerned about the lack of communication regarding what happened when their students were in former science teacher Joel Blanchfield’s classroom.
Superintendent Gregg Parks said in an interview with the Enterprise after the meeting that there were issues about inappropriate discussion of topics in Blanchard’s classroom and questions about inappropriate materials displayed on the classroom Smartboard.
“That was the culminating event,” he said, “Blanchard was not meeting district standards of professionalism expected of a teacher.”
Parks said, as soon as they knew about the incident, they conducted an investigation to determine what happened.
“There were allegations and we investigated those,” he said. “We conducted our own internal investigation. That is complete. As a result of the investigation, we felt like we needed to report items to the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board and they are in the process of investigating.”
A student council member said students were very unhappy and emotionally concerned about what the science teacher said.
The board accepted Blanchfield’s resignation under Monday’s consent agenda. Blanchfield’s resignation letter simply stated, “As of 11-1-19, I hereby resign from my position as science teacher at Nevis Public School.”
“When I had the resignation in my hand I was the happiest guy on the planet,” Parks said, adding that he takes full responsibility for hiring Blanchfield. He said the normal hiring process was followed, which includes a criminal background check, license lookup and reference checks.
“I called multiple people that had fairly glowing things to say about him,” he said. “I now understand that there’s a teacher disciplinary information system, something I have never used, but a tool I will have going forward.”
Parents demand better communication
Jeanne Thompson, whose son is a sophomore at Nevis School, expressed concerns with the district’s lack of follow through and communication about the alleged incidents in Blanchfield’s classroom.
“There was no communication from the school to anyone,” she said at Monday’s meeting. “I’m very aware the school can’t speak specifically to the disciplinary action of an employee. I understand legal advice tells you to keep it as quiet as you possibly can. But the school needs to reach out to parents.”
Thompson said parents have entrusted the district to keep their children safe and that the lack of communication is unacceptable.
“There was a specific issue in the classroom that put our children in a place of awkwardness and there was no discussion to families,” she said. “I find that appalling. I am very frustrated that there has still not been communication to parents about what happened in that classroom. … I have that legal right, I have that expectation.”
Thompson said she is also concerned that the emotional well-being of students was not addressed until more than a week had gone by.
She emphasized the lack of communication isn’t going to make the issues go away.
“What are we going to do going forward?” Thompson asked.
Karrin Lindow, who has a Nevis seventh grader, said she would have liked to have known about the incident so she could have discussed it with her child. “I didn’t know for days,” she said.
“I admitted right up front we made some mistakes,” Parks said. “We could have done this much better, but having zero experience, we stumbled along the way. We didn’t get everything out that we needed to get out.”
PTA president Emily Whitaker said there needs to be a point person of contact who gets the word out immediately.
“I think there is definitely a communication breakdown between the school and parents when it comes to major issues that go on in the school,” she said. “You need to have a communication plan.”
Parks said he is that person who conducts communications with the community.
Thompson said children are vulnerable and parents need to be notified when there is an issue in the classroom so they are aware of it even if the details can’t be shared.
“I would know then as a parent that you are taking it seriously,” she said. “If I hadn’t called you, all I would have known is the science teacher is gone and the rumors. There has to be a balance between the employment rights and the rights of the students and parents to know what’s happening. That’s what I’m feeling most frustrated about – that there wasn’t that communication piece.”
Parents at the meeting suggested using the same ways the district communicates other information to parents such text messages, emails and voicemails.
Progressive discipline system
Parks explained that, when any staff member is “not a good fit,” there is a progressive discipline system that starts out with an oral discussion about the district’s expectations. From there, it goes to a written performance improvement plan and finally discussions about termination, which is a board process. He said his concerns about Blanchfield’s job performance were shared with every member of the board and administrative team.
Parks said, during his 10 years as an administrator, he has hired 230 people. “On occasion, we’re going to have that bad apple,” he said. “I followed the process. One of the issues we ran into is none of us have encountered this before. It’s kind of like building an airplane in mid-flight, at that point. ... We’ll openly admit that we made some mistakes along the way as far as when to contact, how to contact.”
Parks reiterated he has to be cautious about what he can release about a district employee.
“Just imagine for a moment that you were accused of something and it wasn’t true,” Parks said. “We put it out and the allegations then turns out to be false. We’ve basically ruined that person’s reputation forever.”
Parks said he will be attending a professional development seminar Dec. 6 related to these issues. He learned that the Park Rapids district has a “snooper,” someone to check out accounts like Facebook and that he plans to use that in the future.
“I’m professionally embarrassed by the situation,” he said. “I’ve hired hundreds of people, and this person will stick with me the rest of my life as being someone who shouldn’t have gotten through.”
Parks said high school social worker Heidi Wormley has assured him that she has been working with kids from those classes who have emotional issues.
“I want to thank everyone for coming tonight,” he said. “We definitely hear you. This is the largest meeting that we’ve ever had in the last six years I’ve been here. I take that to heart, and we will continue to get better as a result of you helping us along the way. That’s my promise to you.”
The board approved a long-term substitute teacher contract with MaryKay Moe to teach science classes while a search is made for a new science teacher.
“I really want to thank the science department for stepping up, getting on board and putting together quality lesson plans,” Parks said. “We’ve had our principal in teaching classes, too. Our science teachers will be working with the long-term sub to ensure that all of the standards are completed by the end of the year.”
School climate questioned
Thompson said her second issue is a negative climate at the school. “I see teachers leaving left and right,” she said. “I hear from other staff who are friends of mine who are disgruntled, frustrated, unhappy.”
She said board members need to talk to teachers about their concerns.
Parks said they poll staff leaving the district. “Over the last three years, we had 30 people leaving the district and I believe 14 of those were teachers,” he said, noting eight of those retired and the others cited various reasons, such as moving closer to family.
Whitaker asked Parks if he was talking to current teachers about what could be done to improve school climate and help them in their very tough jobs.
“Talk to your teachers,” she said. “See what they’re happy about and what they’re not happy about and see what we can do to support them so they feel like staying.”
“It’s happening,” Parks said. “We’re having conversations with the teachers.”
Board chair and former teacher Larry Smith said he is in the building quite a bit.
“Teachers can talk to me,” he said. “I know some of the concerns they have. I take them to heart and am doing the best I can, passing information on to the superintendent and powers that be. There are frustrations out there. There is a process of where you should go if you have issues. We can make change. I sincerely believe that. When we have problems, we’ll fix them.”
Board member Andy Lindow said everyone wants what is best for the school and community.
“We are all working for the same goal and need to keep collaboration paramount because that’s how things get accomplished,” he said. “We need to focus on people and keep striving to be better.”