Committee Approves Reorganization After Airing Haverhill’s St. James School Concerns

In an at times emotional plea, parent Trish McDonald came to the defense of Haverhill Alternative School Principal John DePolo. (WHAV News photograph.)

Haverhill students enrolled in the Haverhill Alternative School will move to Greenleaf School, while those attending the Therapeutic Education Assessment Center of Haverhill will move to Bartlett School next fall.

School Committee members cemented the plan Thursday night to move the special education programs out of the leased St. James School. The schools, though, became centers of attention in the weeks after a principal and four staffers were suspended as part of an investigation into restraining a student there. A union official, teachers, parents and former students weighed in on the controversy. Haverhill Education Association President Ted Kempinski received support for his plan to have a committee review “emotional or physical incidents impacting the classroom.”

“There have been an increase in reports of assaults on staff as well as an increase in classrooms disruptions caused by students in crisis throughout all grade levels,” Kempinski said.

For the first time, Superintendent Margaret Marotta made clear the paid suspensions are routine and do not necessarily suggest wrongdoing on the part of Alternative School Principal John DePolo or his staff.

“It is not a condemnation of the people. It is simply the fact that we have an obligation to look into it and these agencies have to look into it,” she said.

Most speakers either came to DePolo’s defense or criticized changes in the special education programs. DePolo, an 18-year-veteran of the school, had overseen both programs until the beginning of the school year when he was replaced at TEACH by Lyn A. Snow. He was also suspended three weeks last fall for a similar incident for which he was eventually cleared. The collection of events caused some to speculate DePolo is being targeted by the new administration.

Parent Trish McDonald, whose daughter attends St. James, emotionally told Committee members her first experience with DePolo—even though it involved restraints—gave her confidence. “Safety restraints when done properly will not hurt a child. Safety restrains are part of an effective plan of action. It works and I’ve seen it firsthand,” McDonald said.

Mayor James J. Fiorentini questioned any outright ban on safety restraints and whether suspensions are appropriate for staff that “may have done nothing at all.”  Member Paul A. Magliocchetti said the administration followed district policy which, itself, is based on state regulations in handling the March 29 incident.

School Committee member Gail M. Sullivan said she is pleased the administration told members about the issue unlike a previous incident at Crowell School that was exposed thanks to a complaint lodged by the Disability Law Center. In that case, the agency charged the kindergarten improperly used “restraint, time-out and disciplinary” actions against children.

Two previous students said DePolo personally turned their lives around. Jake Robinson, now head custodian at Consentino School, said DePolo spent $300 of his own money to buy clothes and shoes when Robinson needed them as a student. Kenneth McDowell, a former TEACH program manager, said DePolo’s efforts have not only saved the district money by keeping students in Haverhill, but also brought in money by attracting out-of-town students.

There were also those who support Marotta’s changes. Teacher Karen Thornell said there has been “numerous and exponential progress.”

Speaking directly to the reorganization question was Neil Wilkins, who has taught for 17 years. He opposed moving programs out of St. James because students would lose a gymnasium, culinary program, garden and other teaching benefits. He said the reorganization is “not a benefit, but a detriment.” He sought to counter Marotta’s comment to WHAV that “change is hard.”

He said, “Change that is right does not need to be hard. For TEACH and Haverhill Alternative students, we believe this redistricting model is not right or ‘rightsized.’”

The plan calls for St. James to house fourth to sixth graders, taking pressure off other middle schools to reduce classroom sizes as high as 44 students. It also involves moving kindergarten from the Bartlett, Greenleaf and Crowell schools to the Tilton, Silver Hill, Bradford, Pentucket Lake and Golden Hill schools.

Voting in favor were Fiorentini, Vice Chairman Sven A. Amirian, Magliocchetti, Sullivan and Richard J. Rosa. Opposed were Scott W. Wood Jr. and Maura L. Ryan-Ciardiello.

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