JACKSON – School officials discussed diversity, a well-publicized racial incident, and vaping on school property during a recent Board of Education meeting.
District security director Cliff Menafra gave two reports which covered a variety of topics including vandalism, violence and bullying during the period of July through December 2017. This period of time included an incident at the Jackson Liberty High School where several students had posed for a photo that was posted to social media and which involved a racial slur. Although it had been stated that the students who had posed for the photo were attempting to demonstrate racial unity, the incident became a point of controversy among students, staff and parents.
The incident, which took place last fall, generated a student protest and a special board meeting that focused on race relations within the district. Board members heard criticism about how it was handled at the time.
Superintendent Stephen Genco said following Menafra’s presentation that “we do talk about diversity at the student luncheon with the student council representatives from across the entire town whether it’s Goetz and McAuliffe or Memorial and Liberty.
“The same concerns are on both sides of town. We may not have seen it as much but the concerns are there and these all need to be district initiatives. We are seeing the same things and the Board needs to hear that because whether an issue happened at one particular location doesn’t mean it only happens there,” Genco said.
Board members and staff discussed the plan for district guidance counselors to serve as student mentors due to the nature of their job. They would seek students out who are struggling academically or socially.
The guidance counselors are already certified in anti-bullying and related training. It was noted that the administration is planning to split up the current anti-bullying specialists a bit. Several will be moved around. One specialist will be assigned to the Goetz school.
“There is a lot of dialogue within these investigations. We follow the letter of the law and do what is best for the students,” Genco said.
Board member Sharon Dey asked about the issue of vaping (electronic cigarettes) by students in district schools that was referenced in the report.
Genco said that when students test positive after vaping, “it is not just for tobacco, it is what they are taking in that involve other substances.”
Genco added that in speaking with other superintendents at a recent round table meeting where mutual issues are discussed, “unless they’re reporting it inaccurately, everybody is having the same issues with it.”
Dey asked if vaping is considered to be a controlled substance.
Menafra responded that “it’s everything. We speculate what it could be and talk with the school resource officers about it. It’s become a way of life with both college students and high school students. It was initially seen as a way to help people that smoked to stop smoking but the kids look at it as a way of smoking thinking it’s cool.”
Genco said “we had a decrease in smoking cigarettes when we started signing complaints and that is something we’ll be talking about this summer with trying to combat the vaping and obviously you see why we will be having that conversation this summer to change the policy.”
Menafra responded vaping that is not allowed in school “but they’re ridiculously small and not easy to spot. The up side is while there are students that are doing it, there are students who will not tolerate it and report it to an administrator or security guard.”
Moving to incidents of conflict among students, board member Scott Sargent asked when the state provides the information for doing an investigation with guidelines, “how often do we find the language is ambiguous, in other words, when you’re looking at a case, it could go one way or the other and how do you determine whether you’re correct or whether the person is not guilty.”
“There are things that are not always clear-cut,” Menafra said. “You have to ask what is being said. There’s a trigger word that you base on the characteristics of the situation; such as – was the conflict motivated by the words that were said or was it motivated by a fight with boy A and boy B. The same for the girls, too, noting sometimes the words that come out can prove to be more troublesome.”
Board member Michael Walsh noted in the report that “I see that it says Jackson Police Department, does that mean there is a tipster where we are sharing data with them?”
Genco clarified this saying “no, but only if there is a criminal offense noting the M.O.A. (Memorandum of Agreement) is clear on that. If there is something we believe where someone is breaking the law, we are sharing that with the police department.”
“I’m pleased to see the efforts in the anti-bullying program. The state takes this very seriously and I can say the Jackson School District obviously does as well. Thank you Mr. Menafra for all your services, you’ve done an amazing job,” Sargent said.
This was Menafra’s last report, as he retired this summer. Genco praised Menafra during the meeting saying he has “done his job tremendously in light the expanding role of security. Anything I asked of Cliff, he carried out; if he was needed to be here at midnight Saturday night, he was here midnight Saturday night.”
“We looked to create stability and going forward we were making some big decisions on how to move forward in better securing our schools,” Genco said.
Menafra said he had enjoyed his last five years with the district. “I am excited about retiring but I will miss what I do and will miss everybody here. I liked coming together as a group in solving problems and accomplished a lot, I’ll miss the interaction.”