January 17, 2019
FALL RIVER — School officials from across Fall River will meet Jan. 23 to start developing a city-wide, anti-bullying initiative, according to Superintendent Matthew Malone.
Administrators from city schools, Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, parochial schools and charter schools will attend next week’s planning meeting, said Malone.
“This is something that we feel very strongly about; we’re going to be proactive in addressing the issue as a city,” he said Wednesday.
Malone said he and Diman Superintendent-Director Thomas Aubin decided to hold the meeting while at Mary L. Fonseca Elementary School on Saturday, where counselors spoke to students and faculty affected by the Thursday death of 11-year-old Fonseca student Javen Haskett.
The cause of Haskett’s death remains under investigation by the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office.
In the child’s obituary, Haskett’s family requested memorial donations to be made to a suicide prevention hotline, Samaritans of Fall River and New Bedford, in lieu of flowers.
The death of the fifth-grade student touched off debate online and at a public meeting about bullying in Fall River schools.
One Fall River parent, Melody Rondeau, told the Fall River School Committee at its Monday meeting she pulled her child out of Fonseca last February because of bullying, and started homeschooling.
“He has not yet returned to Fall River schools, and given the events of last week I don’t think he ever will,” she told the committee.
She asked the committee how they intend to tackle bullying in light of the boy’s death. In response, Malone said the community is grieving, and commended district staff and Diman regional, who sent councilors to Fonseca on Saturday.
“We want to thank them from the bottom of our heart, and I’ll say that Principal (Alicia) Lisi has been fantastic leading through this very troubling crisis,” he said.
Rondeau said in an interview Tuesday she spoke up at the meeting to start a “constructive dialogue.”
“It’s the elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about,” she said. “We need to have a real conversation about what’s happening in the schools.”
Malone urged the community not to “jump to conclusions” about the cause of Haskett’s death. He said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner as of Wednesday had not yet released its report.
“We have to be very careful looking at the situation at Fonseca with the young boy, because again, we don’t know what the cause of his death was,” he said.
Malone noted the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education deemed Fonseca a Level 4 under-performing school in 2016. Administrators implemented a turnaround plan, he said, that included more social-emotional training for teachers, reducing class size and adding additional staff and programming.
The superintendent sent a written response to Rondeau on Wednesday. He said the district has eight, grade-specific curricula that deal with anti-bullying and emotional skills. Massachusetts has strict anti-bullying laws, he wrote.
Within the school system, a formal complaint of bullying, made by a parent, student or third party to a teacher or administrator, is investigated by school leadership and a designated bullying coordinator.
Malone encouraged parents who fear their child is being bullied to report it to classroom teacher, a student counselor or school administrator. Parents with “larger” concerns should bring them to the office of the Superintendent, he said.
During the Wednesday phone interview, Malone said the school is still investigating Haskett’s death.
He said school officials have not received any official complaints of bullying targeting the 11-year-old Fonseca student.
“As of right now we have no allegation of bullying involving this young man, nor do we have any complaints of any others of bullying involving this young man,” he said.
Malone could not rule out the chance that Haskett may have been bullied outside of school or online, on social media.
While he said bullying does occur in Fall River schools, he also said it is not “rampant.”
“Our schools are safe and well run; 95 percent of the time our kids are outstanding to one another. But we do live in a society where bullying occurs,” he said.
According to Malone, administrators confirmed 10 instances of bullying during the 2016-2017 school year. The following year, two instances of bullying were confirmed, and one instance of bullying has been confirmed so far this year.
“That suggests to me that we’re doing a really good job in being proactive in addressing bullying,” Malone said.
Referencing state law, Malone defined bullying as a “targeted act meant to cause fear and anxiety and create a hostile environment.”
Fall River Public Schools and Diman have been collaborating on social and emotional initiatives for the past three years, according to Malone.
The anti-bullying initiative is an extension of that collaboration, he said, pulling in representatives from parochial schools and Atlantis Charter School and Argosy Collegiate Charter School. The kick-off planning meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday at Diman.
“I hope to have a discussion on how we can do some community outreach, share best practices and pool resources to ensure were addressing this across the city,” Malone said.