The Town Council will begin looking at ways to help the Watertown Public Schools address racial harassment and bullying following reports made a middle school student about her experiences at Watertown Middle School.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Council voted to start discussions about how they could help the Schools with racism issues. Also at the meeting, the Council adopted a proclamation opposing racism and bulling in Watertown.
The School Administration and School Committee will take the lead on how to deal with racial harassment, said Town Council President Mark Sideris, who is also a member of the School Committee. Superintendent Dede Galdston announced she will be putting together a a citizens advisory board which will include parents of children who have been harassed, Sideris said. He added that he believes the issue is broader than just what is happening at the Middle School, and said that the Town Council can also help and support the effort.
“I did commit, as liaison to Town Council, that I would do the best I could to make sure the Council and the Town was willing to be a participant to help to solve the issues that continue to come up, that we can’t seem to find a way to stop them, but we are going to do our best to do that,” Sideris said.
The proclamation declared: “That the Watertown Town Council opposes racism and bullying in any form, and believes that all people who live, work, or visit Watertown deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and live in peace.”
It also states that: “WHERE AS: We have made efforts to address these issues, we have not done enough; and” … “WHERE AS: We have fallen short of our goal to create an environment where all students feel accepted and included;” and “WHERE AS: We, as residents of Watertown, are heartbroken to hear reports that children in our community are subject to such treatment and as leaders of Watertown, we are obligated to take an active role in combating these issues.”
See the proclamation at the bottom of the story.
Councilor Tony Palomba submitted a referral to the Town Council’s Education & School System Matters subcommittee to “discuss what the protocol is when a student reports racial-based harassment, how is a student held accountable, and if he or she is responsible for the harassment, as well as, what steps the Watertown School district is taking to address racism and how can the Town Council assist the district in their efforts.”
The referral was unanimously approved.
Palomba said he received numerous calls from residents after the student’s story was reported by local news outlets, as well as, after a forum held by the Watertown Schools on Dec. 3, in which more than 150 people participated.
Retired Watertown teacher Mary Russo said she likes the proclamation in general, but had a problem with the way the reports of harassment were described.
“Your proclamation is nice, but it states ‘allegations,’ which seems to minimize them,” Russo said. “It took tremendous courage to take a stand. They are not allegations, she was ignored until it was publicized through the media. This has happened over and over, many students, parents and employees have dealt with this until we had the courage to speak up.”
Councilor Lisa Feltner thanked Sideris for putting together the proclamation, on which he said he got assistance from Galdston and Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli. She also took part in the School’s forum.
“It was very upsetting for me to hear the stories and see that much pain in the recent community forum of the schools,” Feltner said. “I hope all the citizens of Watertown join us in our efforts to solve these problems and work toward peace and living with one another.”
Councilor Anthony Donato said voices of the student and parents at the forum were powerful.
“I would suggest taking the time to watch the video because I think when you hear the raw emotion that was expressed by many parents it really brings to the forefront that this is an issue that needs to be addressed head-on,” Donato said. “I am happy to see the School Committee and the Council tackling this together.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Councilor John Gannon.
“Anyone who attended the School Department forum last week would come away with shock and a realization for the need to address these problems head-on,” Gannon said. “As has been said it is not a Watertown-only problem. It is systemic, and there is a lot Watertown can do to assist the School community and act as a larger effort in preventing our children from being bullied and harassed, and welcome all members of Watertown into all aspects of life in Watertown.”
Councilor Caroline Bays said the problem is not unique to Watertown, but action is needed locally.
“I assure people we know that this is a Townwide, statewide, nationwide problem, but we need to do our part in our Town to affect change,” Bays said.
She added that the Town Council’s Personnel and Town Organization subcommittee will be looking at issues of “diversity, equity, and inclusion
within Watertown Government.” The subcommittee’s first meeting will be on Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m., Bays said.