Educators seek support due to ‘venomous’ public discourse

ELLSWORTH — The School Board held a special workshop on Wednesday, July 27, to hear from educators who feel as though they have been under siege and to decide on the best course of action going forward.

Amy Boles, director of the Hancock County Technical Center, opened the meeting by recognizing the element of hostility that has crept into certain corners of the public discourse surrounding education in Ellsworth and the nation as a whole.

Boles, who possesses her superintendent certification and so has filled in for regular superintendent Katrina Kane while Kane is away on vacation, theorized that “closed-door policies” during the COVID-19 pandemic may have soured what has been an important part of the education process.

“How do we encourage the public to participate with us at the School Department,” Boles asked the group, “but do it in a way that protects our most important resource: our people who serve the kids that we’re here to educate?”

Individuals invited to speak at John Linnehan’s Constitution Hall and subsequent social media interactions were cited as a source of tension. A speaker at the hall in February accused Dave Norwood, a physical education teacher at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School for the past 28 years, of making children identify gender-specific body parts and then lie about it.

“I think that the situation in Ellsworth is a little more venomous than in other communities,” said Norwood, going on to explain to the board how he and his wife had pursued their own legal action but ultimately lost a large amount of money on a suit that never materialized.

The American was not able to reach Linnehan for comment before press time.

Navigating the often costly legal process on their own is something that Norwood feels educators shouldn’t have to go through when they become the target of attacks and accusations.

“We’d rather have the feeling of being protected by the school system,” Norwood explained. “And if that means litigation on behalf of the school system, using the school’s lawyers, then that’s what I hope for. That’s what others who have been attacked hope for.”

“Who knows if it will work,” Norwood continued. “But they’re not going away unless someone hurts them like they’re trying to hurt us. And that may be a coarse way to put it, but that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to hurt us. They think awful things about educators.”

“I think by protecting your staff you’re also sending a message about how we communicate, about our schools, about what our schools stand for,” said EEMS Principal April Clifford, who spoke after Norwood at the meeting. “And I think that’s really important.”

Clifford described the experience of being surreptitiously recorded while speaking at a previous board meeting held in the council chambers, a meeting that was already being recorded by the city and broadcast online.

“I have not seen anything come from that, but it was unnerving,” she explained to the board.

Clifford had previously been scrutinized after photos of her office were posted on Facebook and the titles of various books — including one about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a Common Core textbook — were discussed. She told the board that she chose not to read or engage with any of the comments on social media so as not to affect her ability to run the school effectively.

“I admire you for making that decision not to read the comments,” said School Board member Elizabeth Alteri. “That speaks volumes of the type of educator that you are.”

Board member Paul Markosian also read a recent commentary written by Ellsworth High School Spanish teacher Carrie Kutny, the faculty advisor to the school’s Gender/Sexuality Diversity Alliance, who detailed a similar experience of an event at Constitution Hall that “… produced slanderous, untrue statements against me and other educators in our school district.”

While some educators like Norwood advocated for libel lawsuits, litigation was not a part of the recommendations made by the Maine Education Association.

MEA representative Misty O’Leary spoke to the board following the personal testimony and laid out a list of recommended next steps that she says have been successful when employed by other schools in a similar circumstance. O’Leary stressed the importance of having a clear communication pathway and expectation of protection coming from the board.

“The best way to show that very clear support and expectation of protection is by having board members and building administrators making direct communication with the individuals and having those personal conversations and letting them know that they are not alone,” O’Leary explained. “When you experience these attacks, you can feel very isolated and have the very opposite effect of why you come to work every day in these public school systems.”

The MEA recommended creating support structures within school buildings that had administrators routinely checking in with staff members who have been attacked instead of just once directly after the incident has occurred. Some districts have also contracted out work with a local therapist.

O’Leary also recommended instituting mental health days outside of the regular sick days teachers are allotted during the year.

“When we look at what staff are experiencing coming out of COVID, mental health concerns are on the rise and then just this broad public education attack on staff students and school board members is escalating some of those concerns,” O’Leary said.

“I greatly appreciate the mental health time piece of this as well,” Alteri said. “And I know budgets are always tight and tense but having that time that you don’t have to worry about ‘if I use this time to stay and focus on what’s going on emotionally, I’m not going to have it if I get sick.’ … Because when you go through a situation like that and you go into a classroom full of faces and you want to give them your best, but your heart is aching, it can be more difficult and challenging to do that. And I have every belief that all of our educators would do our best to do that, but sometimes in situations like that it’s not fair.”

A longer-term solution to the problem, O’Leary explained, was to create a stakeholder group that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion, and would begin to develop a mission statement for Ellsworth schools that clearly states the values and goals of the district.

The next step for the board will be to decide which of these recommendations it would like to put in place and how to go about doing it.

“Holding a meeting where we take a vote to put some of these things in place will show our community and our staff that we’re behind them,” Markosian said.

The next School Board meeting will be held on Aug. 9 at 6 p.m.

Zachary Lanning

Zachary Lanning

News reporter Zach Lanning covers news and features in the Ellsworth area. He comes to Ellsworth by way of New Jersey, which he hopes you don't hold against him. Email him at [email protected].

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