Bullying, behavior problems at BMS leading to changes, calls by some parents for ban on cell phones

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BURRILLVILLE – Noting that teachers and administrators saw a significant increase in behavioral problems at Burrillville Middle School during the 2021/2022 school year, parents and administrators discussed ways to address the issue this week, with efforts that include limiting cell phone usage.

“Last year we saw a real escalation in inappropriate student behavior, not just at the middle school, but at all schools, and not just here in Burrillville, but everywhere,” said Supt. Michael Sollitto. “A lot of it, I think, was the impact of the lingering effects of COVID-19, and the pandemic that had significant social and emotional impact on kids.”

A lengthy conversation on the topic that included input from administrators, School Committee members and parents followed a plea from at least one parent in attendance for action at the meeting Tuesday, August 9.

Jeanette Runey, a mother of three who works as a school bus driver, said her son experienced, “horrific bullying,” at the middle school.

“At this point it is getting out of hand,” Runey said. “I know I’m not the only parent that has experienced this. There’s a lot of cyber bullying going on, a lot of physical bullying going on. My son himself characterizes that the kids run the school.”

“The zero tolerance needs to be seriously enforced,” Runey said. “I honestly believe that it’s affecting them mentally.”

Runey noted that many districts are passing bans on cell phones during school, and pointed to a town where academic testing showed huge increases as a result.

“The kids were more engaged,” she said. “I believe it’s a trigger if a child has a phone on them. It’s going to beep. It’s going to vibrate. The kids need to pay attention to the educator that’s in the room.”

Sollitto said the district is planning several new initiatives to address the issue of bullying at the middle school, including emphasizing a theme of kindness.

“We’re trying to get the word out that positive behaviors are rewarded and negative behaviors have consequences,” Sollitto said.

Other initiatives include reenergizing certain student groups including the Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition, addressing safety issues and improving the bland, brick foyer that provides entry to the building.

“We’re also making physical changes to the building to hopefully create a more welcoming atmosphere,” he said. “You almost feel trapped in this little vestibule.”

The superintendent said the school logo has been added to the area and he plans on installing a television streaming pictures of kids as well as hanging student work. He said the district also plans to take down three bays of unused lockers to open up the hallway.

“That will really open up the hallway,” said Sollitto. “We’ll do our best to monitor kids during those problematic times, which is usually between classes and after school.”

Principal Kathryn Johnston Lord agreed that the school experienced more issues than usual last year.

“We definitely did see a major shift in some of the behaviors we see with students,” Lord said. “We were noticing that kids were lacking the skills to address problems with their peers and with teachers.”

Lord said she’s also planning to implement tech-free days in the cafeteria and hold weekly meetings during student advisories.

“The intent is community building. We really want to put an emphasis on kindness, but also on our community as a whole,” Lord said.

School Committee Chairperson Alexandra LeClair said she likes the idea of the meetings.

“That strengthens the bond of the advisory as well, and I know that advisory is really a safe space for a lot of our students,” LeClair said.

Committee member Jill Calapai said sometimes people forget how hard the pandemic was on both students and the community at large.

“I love the community-building aspect,” Calapai said. “I think as a community, we’ve lost sight of what we can really do to build each other up. I see social media and I see just how negative and draining and terrible it is. The parents also need other people to speak to. We need to get back to having parents’ groups, and just community all the way around.”

Sollitto noted that the district had a forum on the use of social media last year for all students in grades K through 12, which was also later offered to parents.

“I think we had four or five parents in there,” he said.

“We need help at the middle school. We need parents to help,” Sollitto said. “We’re asking parents: we need your help as part of this.”

Parent Suzanne Connolly said her child has also experienced bullying at the school.

“My teenager cried many times,” Connolly said. “They get so in the drama, they don’t even pay attention to the teachers.”

Committee member Terri Lacey said that most kids at that age don’t understand the consequences of things posted on social media.

“These kids don’t realize, if they do something really inappropriate, that’s going to follow them for the rest of their life,” Lacey said. “No parent wants that.”

Member Donison Allen said that discipline also needs to play a role in district strategy.

“There should be that element. Not everybody’s always going to get along,” Allen said. “Detention could fill that void and remind kids that there are consequences to poor behavior.”

It was an element also cited by Runey, who referenced a fight at the school at the end of the year.

“There were probably 50 kids out there with their phones up,” Runey said. “The kids that shared that video did not get in trouble.”

“There’s got to be consequences for the kids who pull up their phone,” she added. “They’re not being forced to follow the rules in the handbook.”

Overall, the meeting struck a positive tone for collaboration, with both Runey and Connelly stating they were, “all in,” for whatever they could do to help the school.

“I really hope we can try this school year to do something,” Runey said.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. It would be nice if parents decided to put a ban on cell phones by sending their kids to school without them. I’m sure the district’s teachers and administrators would love not having to deal with them 24/7. Bullying happens when out of school issues come through the front door in the morning. It’s more than a school problem and parents should get together to stop it instead of expecting 50 or so staff members to police 600 students.

  2. Re-decorating the entryway and removing lockers?! The word needs to get out that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior has consequences?!
    This is ridiculous. I know for a fact that one bully was given a school wide recognition award for kindness after verbally and physically assaulting a fellow student. And the administration knew about the incident!!!!
    As a teacher for 25 years, I can tell you that I know first hand that Covid was a terrible time for students and educators alike. But Covid didn’t cause these issues BMS is having, it revealed them. There will be no education or feeling of safety without clear eyed and swift consequences for bad behavior. You cannot give kids a free pass or gentler treatment because you feel bad about Covid. This school and administration need to get serious.

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