SPRINGFIELD, NJ—A crowded Jonathon Dayton High School Media Center was the setting on Monday evening as Springfield residents told stories of bullying in the township schools. They also once again urged the school district administration to allow more flexibility and a greater parent voice in the looping system used in many Springfield elementary school classrooms.
Much of the discussion was centered on the story of nine-year-old Emma Spektor, whose complaints to her parents about bullying she said she suffered throughout the third grade in Springfield’s Thelma L. Sandmeier School led her mother, Irina Spektor, to press for an exemption to looping in the school so that Emma would not have to be in the same fourth grade class as the students she said bullied her.
According to a report on the situation on WPIX-TV News, Emma said a number of children in her class stole her school supplies, made fun of her freckles and birthmark, called her stupid and an idiot and said she didn’t belong in their class.
The looping system in Springfield’s schools allows a teacher and class to remain together when they advance to the next grade level.
Springfield Superintendent of Schools Michael Davino refused to allow Emma to transfer out of her incoming fourth-grade class into another class at the Sandmeier School as requested by her mother. Her mother, therefore, has kept her out of classes at the school for six weeks.
During a 20-point recitation of his view of the situation at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Davino claimed Mrs. Spektor’s focus in initial discussions on the situation was on her dislike of her daughter’s teacher and not on the allegations of bullying.
He said the parent used “the media to spin the situation,” adding Emma had told school officials that she liked her teacher.
The superintendent added that the district “takes care of your children as if they were our own,” and decried what he called “half truths” that were reported about the situation.
He also said some parents and other adults had sent obscene emails about district staff and accused some of “adult bullying” in their dealings with Sandmeier School principal Michael Plias over the situation.
Davino added that there is no specific policy on looping in the district, but he considers the system part of sound educational policy which is used in eight classes in Springfield.
He also said the parents were offered the option of having their daughter transferred to the district’s James Caldwell School rather than returning to Sandmeier.
Later in the meeting, Irina Spektor disputed many of Davino’s statements.
She said she never requested a new teacher for her daughter, and that she personally has no problem with looping and had, in fact, grown up with the concept.
The mother added, however, that looping has benefits for some and not for all.
She also said that it was incorrect that she brought up looping as a complaint only after requesting that her daughter receive a different teacher.
Mrs. Spektor said her opinions on her daughter’s situation were based on how her daughter felt about the situation and, if her daughter felt bullied, “then her opinions are the only ones which matter.”
The mother said emails she sent to the principal and teachers about the situation were ignored, and Davino only responded when she reported her concerns to the Union County executive superintendent of schools.
She added she did not even want to get the children her daughter accused of bullying in trouble, but only wanted to remove her daughter from the situation.
Irina Spektor also said it would not be advisable to remove her daughter from the surroundings with which she was familiar at Sandmeier to send her to Caldwell School.
Although the mother said the offer of the transfer to Caldwell was made just before Monday’s school board meeting, school officials disagreed with her on that statement.
Spektor also said she did not appeal the decisions of township school authorities to other levels of government because she felt very little new evidence could be presented. She also said it was unrealistic to interview classmates of Emma about the situation a year later because children have fleeting memories, adding that those accused of the bullying we not likely to admit they did it.
Throughout the meeting a number of parents related stories of bullying in township schools over a number of years. They also expressed support for the requested transfer of Emma to another class at Sandmeier and urged the superintendent to form advisory groups to open a dialogue with parents on looping.
Among residents expressing concern that the ongoing situation was doing to the district and the township was Ricarda Freydel of 2306 Park Place.
She said, “the board and the school administration simply do not work well enough with parents to avoid litigation. From my personal experience, and others of whom I have discussed with, there is not enough collaboration between the school and the parents to work together towards amicable solutions to avoid the need for lawyers and unnecessary legal fees, which come from our taxpayer dollars.”
In statistics Freydel distributed at the meeting, Springfield budgeted $42 per pupil for legal services in school year 2014-2015 but actually spent $162 per pupil. The state average for that year was $39 per pupil.
The following school year, according to the statistics, the township schools budgeted $44 per pupil for legal services but spent $143 per pupil, while the state average that year was $41 per pupil, and for the last school year, 2016 to 2017, Springfield budgeted $43 per pupil but increased that budget to $87 per pupil. The state average for last year was $41 per pupil, according to Freydel’s charts.
Freydel went on to say that Emma Specktor “has verifiable medical and psychological reports that are being ignored.”
She also said the negative comments generated by the situation on social media and on TV news create negative public relations for the school district and the township, adding, “this demonstrates that we have very little partnership between the schools, the Board of Education and the parents.”
Freydel also said the school board has not been answering parent questions about looping raised in the last several board meetings and has not taken into account that nearby districts such as Fanwood and Livingston allow parents an “opt-out” option for their children in looping—something which Springfield does not offer.
Another parent said looping promotes bullying because it enables “cliques,” which exclude some children, to move from one grade to the next.
“It is like creating a pride of animals which preys on other animals,” he added.
David Pilverstein of Park Place, who is running as a write-in candidate for the school board, urged the district to allow parents to submit letters so their children could opt out of looping, just as other districts do. He also urged the parents and school officials to work together “as a team” for the good of the children.
Instances of bullying throughout the years in many of Springfield’s schools were presented by a number of parents.
One resident said he encouraged his brother to enroll his niece in township schools, but she later was subjected to bullying at Florence Gaudineer Middle School. He added his brother, who spent many years trying to correct the situation, eventually came down with high blood pressure which took his life.
Parent Anderson Blair of 570 South Springfield Avenue, who is African-American, said his daughter, during a time when the township was much less diversified than it now is, was taunted at Caldwell School about her natural African-American hair, asked if she tanned darker in the sun and was subjected to the “N” word.
He added that her teachers, during a lesson on national origins, insisted that she tell her classmates which country her ancestors came from.
When the daughter replied “the United States,” because the ancestors of most African-Americans came here as slaves and only knew they came from the continent of Africa, Blair said the teacher insisted she name a country of origin.
The father said he had a video of bullying incidents at Caldwell that he sent to the Caldwell principal and nothing was done to the 10-year-old boy doing the alleged bullying.
He said only through counseling from his church’s pastor and a great deal of perseverance his daughter was able to make it successfully through school.
Another parent said those responsible for throwing urine on her child in township schools were not punished, and another mother said her son became socially isolated when some of his classmates formed an “Anti-Gio Club” to taunt and exclude because he was different than other students.
Board member Steven Wolcott, who was raised by a single mother, apologized to the Blairs for what their children suffered for not reciting their country of origin, and said he would have been equally disturbed if that happened to him.
Board vice president Scott Silverstein added that he was troubled when parents said there was no appeal on harassment, intimidation and bullying complaints.
He noted board members do hear many appeals, and, even if every incident does not meet the state guidelines for bullying, the underlying problems with create the complaints “are not acceptable.”