Scores of parents of students packed Monday night’s St. Louis Park School Board meeting, furious at what they say is a principal who fosters a dangerous school environment that rewards bullies and who does not “provide leadership” to the school’s teachers.
Parents also lashed out at a school board that they suggest has tried to sweep the issue under the rug. Some raised the specter of pulling their students out of the district if Aquila principal Freida Bailey is not removed.
“We’ve been greatly disappointed in the level of disarray at Aquila. You can feel it when you walk in,” parent Loren Wheeler said. “For us, especially, there’s a real insensitivity to the needs of our child (a fourth grader who is autistic).”
“Amazing teachers are all we have going for Aquila right now,” added parent Liza Jacobson. “Horrible things are happening there.”
For more than an hour, these and other similar allegations were leveled at the school board and at Bailey. Both district administration, including Bailey, and school board chairwoman Julie Sweitzer declined to comment, citing data privacy laws that prevent them from publicly discussing personnel matters.
Chris Clarke, Parent Teacher Organization co-chair at Aquila, said the group of parents pushing for Bailey’s ouster is focusing their criticisms on three documented cases of serious bullying at Aquila where, they claim, Bailey did nothing to help stop the threats and — in one case — physical violence. Bailey, they say, did not explain her alleged inaction. Clarke told the board that he and other parents — numbering about 65, by their count — expected a reply to their allegations by the April 12 Aquila PTO meeting. Clarke added that while he is affiliated with the PTO, these parents are a separate group and these actions are not being done as official PTO business.
“Nothing is handled, nothing is done,” parent Julie O’Connor said, accusing Bailey of ignoring an incident where her autistic daughter was reportedly punched on the school bus. “She tends to advocate for the children who have committed the disruptive behavior, not for the children who get hurt.”
Many parents at last night’s school board meeting also repeatedly attacked the “leadership” at Aquila — because the school district was televising the meeting, they could not refer to Bailey by name — for not supporting most teachers and for not showing adequate “leadership.”
“I asked (my children) to describe this year versus last year. Aquila last year: ‘happy, fun, cheerful, exciting, we always loved morning announcements,’” parent Karen Hoeschen said. “This year: ‘sad, boring, gloomy, frustrating because teachers are always yelling because students are always misbehaving.’”
Teachers’ union president Ann Jurewicz declined to comment on the parents’ allegations.
Hanging over last night’s proceedings, though, was the specter of what some Aquila parents speaking at the meeting suggested were efforts by the school board to protect Bailey.
“The response (of the board) has been to stand behind procedure,” Clarke said. “But how do we know you’re making progress in your procedures?”
O’Connor and other parents say they have repeatedly emailed board members and Bailey about discipline and other problems at Aquila, but say they do not receive substantive responses.
Sweitzer said she could not remember if she had corresponded with any of the parents who leveled these charges at the board last night.
“Specific names of people, I’m never very good at,” the board chairwoman said. “We often receive emails about parents concerned about students at all buildings.”
Generally, the concerns are passed on to superintendent Debra Bowers, she said, and added that board members try to “not engage in substantive discussion over email,” preferring instead phone calls or in-person meetings.
Sweitzer and Bowers invited parents to a Tuesday “listening session,” where school board members will be able to converse with the public on the issue.
IF YOU GO
What: School board listening session
When: Tonight, 7-8 p.m.
Where: West Atrium. Go in the entrance to district headquarters, up the ramp, and turn right.