A key special education teacher alerted Manchester school officials more than a year ago about understaffing of the Webster School’s magnet program for troubled kids, warning of “a disaster waiting to happen,” according to an email obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
The November 2017 email to Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen focused on the Emotional Behavioral Disorder (EBD) program at Webster School. That program is the subject of a lawsuit brought by Sarah Lynch, the fired Webster School principal who said she lost her job after raising issues with the program, including understaffing and failure of officials to report student assaults against her.
The Nov. 3, 2017, email was sent by Nicole Lavallee, the districtwide consulting teacher for EBD programs. It was sent a little more than a month after a stabbing that Lynch spelled out in the lawsuit and several months before she claimed she was beaten to the point of a concussion.
Meanwhile, logs of calls for police at Webster School, provided to the New Hampshire Union Leader upon request, seem to back up the concussion claim, noting an unruly juvenile that day. The only entry for the day of the stabbing was a call about a missing young juvenile. And Webster was the only Manchester school not to file Safe School reports with the state for the past school year.
The Lavallee email references an undescribed recent “incident” at Webster and said it is not the first of its kind.
“The lack of staffing is a safety concern and will become a liability if we can’t find staff to implement the behavior plans developed as well as the students (Individual Education Plans),” Lavallee wrote.
At another point, she said the school resource officer at Hillside shares her concerns.
“He agrees the lack of adults we have to manage the unsafe behaviors is a disaster waiting to happen,” Lavallee wrote.
Manchester school officials said they are constrained to what they can say about the email, given Lynch’s lawsuit.
But in an email to the New Hampshire Union Leader, outgoing schools Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas said the district responded to Lavallee’s email.
“We take every concern seriously. The district responded to the email sent by Ms. Lavallee in November 2017 and action was taken,” he wrote.
As a result, progress took place over the year, he said.
But Lynch’s lawyer said he has heard from teachers who fear losing their job, like Lynch did, if they complain about school conditions.
“That (Lavellee) email said we’ve got this liability soup brewing and we’re pouring more and more ingredients into it,” said Manchester lawyer Kirk Simoneau.
Lavallee’s warning of the situation at EBD differs substantially with the rosy description that Vargas sent in a letter to Webster families in a Dec. 21 letter.
Students. In late 2017, there were 23 students in the program, Lavallee wrote. Vargas reported 17 students in late 2018.
Staffing. In late 2017, the EBD program had three teachers and three paraprofessionals, which works out to 1 adult to 4 students, Lavallee wrote. In late 2018, the Webster EBD involved a staff of 10 — two EBD special education teachers, a special ed teacher with a focus on disabilities, a behavioral health counselor, two behavior specialists and four paraprofessionals. The ratio there is 1 adult to 1.7 students.
Interpretation. Lavallee wrote that staffing deteriorated whenever a teacher or paraprofessional removed a student from the room because of unsafe behaviors. That would leave a single adult with 10 children to care for. Vargas wrote that the state Education Department has approved an EBD program at Webster since 2013. “It has been a successful program for many years under the leadership of several past principals.”
Assaults. In her lawsuit, Lynch contends she was subjected to two assaults this past school year. The stabbing on Sept. 27, 2017, and the beating on Feb. 22, 2018. Vargas wrote that the district has no report of a stabbing in the past school year. “That an alleged ‘stabbing’ of an administrator was not reported to the district is extremely troubling and the district will be looking further into this alleged incident,” he wrote.
The police log of calls to Webster includes three assaults during the past two school years. One assault report was logged Oct. 8, 2016. Two assault reports were logged on Oct. 4, 2107.
No assault was logged on Feb. 22, 2018 the date of the concussion beating, but a report of an unruly juvenile was reported that day. The following day a “special attention” report was made.
The calls for service include three calls for missing kids under the age of 10 in the previous two school years and three older juveniles missing in the 2017-18 school year.
Others lack much description: 36 calls logged as “special attention” over the last 3½ years; 13 unruly juveniles in the 17-18 school year.
The New Hampshire Union Leader asked the state Department of Education for another data set — the aggregate Safe School reports, which are compiled at the state level and disclosed in the school report cards on the department’s website.
The Department of Education provided the data for all Manchester schools for the 2017-18 year, but the spreadsheet did not include Webster.
“The school safety report for the Webster School is not available because it has not been submitted to the New Hampshire Department of Education,” said department spokesman Anthony Schinella.
Schinella said School Safety 2017-18 data is not currently available on-line because the district is rolling out a new platform. The data for most schools should be on the platform by the end of the month, he said.