This is the thing I have been saying I would not do: Write a public piece with a critique of the Bangor Public School system. I have been afraid that if I do my children will wind up targeted. That I might somehow be blacklisted. Because that’s the climate the system administration has created. But let me back up.
As a parent at the start of a long Bangor public schools career, I would like to make the following observation.
Bangor schools are full of heart. I’ve met teachers and principals whose love for their students and teaching bursts at the seams. This is no surprise, matching the heart of this community at large, a community that has made my from-away family sink in our heels, wriggle our toes and stay here. Here is home.
This foundation of heart is what makes the next part harder to bear. There seems to be a jarringly different standard of behavior in the system administration. Where coolness — if not outright coldness — condescension, defensiveness and rigidity seem to rule. And it’s a bit scary.
I have a specific critique regarding the recent intercom announcement of a high school student’s suicide. Others have voiced concerns about the way the announcement was made. My focus here is on how the system administration is responding to those concerns. I find it astonishing that they continue to defend, to try and shut down the conversation, to push us away and brush us off.
Someone asked me what I would hope to see from the administration.
I would hope to see a statement to the following effect: “Under the circumstances we felt we were doing the best we could. With hindsight we see that we could have done better and that we even made some mistakes. Please rest assured that we will work on improving our plan so that we can do better in the future, with the hope, of course, that such a plan might need never be utilized again.”
I would hope to see the emergency plan, both the one that currently exists, and then the future one after they revise it. I understand that some components of an emergency plan should be confidential to actually be effective. As far as I can tell, a suicide response is not one of those. I should note that in the process of writing this piece Betsy Webb has sent to all Bangor School District families a list of the main resources used to inform Bangor’s protocol for handling student suicides. Out of the seven resources that she sent, four make explicit statements against announcing suicides over the intercom. The other three resources omit guidelines on how schools should communicate with students in the immediate aftermath of a suicide because they focus on other aspects.
Finally, I would want to see the plan of review and evaluation for the current system administration, the frequency with which it is conducted, and by whom. As a new parent in this system, it is uncomfortable feeling as though I should not offer critiques. And yet over the six years that I’ve lived here, the mood and mode of response to constructive criticism seems similar each time: We know better than you. Rather than drawing upon the foundation of heart, it leaves some of us with a lack of faith, a lack of confidence, doubts about students’ well-being, doubts that the administration listen to, let alone hear, us.
I worry about the example the administration is setting for students about accepting responsibility, adopting a growth mindset and conducting conflict resolution. Let’s say that in this recent incident the high school administration had done everything perfectly, mental health experts had agreed with their actions, but some parents still had concerns. I would still expect the example to be set of listening with respect, of explaining clearly and openly (show the plan, allow review to take place now), and inviting conversation. Politely. Without condescension. Certainly without blocking press for even a minute. In our current divisive societal climate, these are crucial skills we should teach.
It is difficult to trust the current system administration, their decisions and their curriculum when those qualities are not displayed. Test scores mean little when citizenship and human relationship skillsets are not incorporated as well, and when they are not exhibited by the supposed leaders.
I for one do not feel led. I feel like I am waiting. For the door to open for new leaders, for true leaders, for change.
Alexandra Hinrichs is a children’s book author, reference librarian and mother of three children.