School Committee summer wrap-up/election preview
On May 27 and 28 and June 1, 28 fifth- through ninth-graders in nine Cambridge public schools were searched and interviewed, part of an effort to decrease perceived gang activity, according to Superintendent of Schools Bobbie D'Alessandro. Two weapons (a knife and a meat tenderizer) and graffiti tags thought to be gang symbols were found, and all 28 students said they had some knowledge of gang activity, according to school officials.
But for the students' parents, the searches were not simply a matter of safety but perhaps one of racism. Of the 28 students searched, 21were black or Hispanic, five were white and two were Asian. Also, they criticized the failure to inform some parents that their children had been searched, and the effects the searches had on their children's self-esteem.
"No one has the right in this town to search our kids without a parent permission," said Lawrence Adkins at a meeting of parents in the Cambridge Community Center on June 15.
Lorraine Woodson was one of the most visible leaders of the parental backlash this summer.
"We are here talking about innocent children being searched," she told the Cambridge Chronicle. "I do not want my son stabbed, but I also want him safe from adults who want to tear down his self-esteem."
School Committee members criticized the event as well.
"This should never have happened without parental notification," said E. Denise Simmons, vice-chair of the School Committee, at the June 15 meeting. "How could this happen?"
At its June 22 meeting, the School Committee passed several motions in response to the searches after emotional parents testified. These included ordering the superintendent to write letters of apology to the 26 weaponless students searched, and that an administrator familiar to the children be present during future searches.
D'Alessandro, who took "full responsibility" for the searches, defended herself and Director of Safety and Security John Silva in the face of calls for their resignations.
"Safety is the number one issue for this system," she said at that meeting. "I need to be proactive and find out from students if they have been intimidated or threatened and how we could help."
However, at the meeting, the superintendent expressed "regret" that not all parents were notified. "Mistakes were made," she said.
At its most recent meeting, the School Committee approved a 3-page policy on how security officials should interview or search students in the future. The policy is based on a motion brought to the Committee by members Joseph G. Grassi, Robin Harris and Simmons that was modified after parents said they were "still a lot of problems with it," Committee member Susana M. Segat said.
"We went through the motion line-by-line" and made some changes in comparison with a list of items parents proposed, Segat said. The policy will be sent back to the Committee for final approval after minor modifications.
Segat said a positive result has emerged from the turmoil of the summer.
"In terms of the searches, parents will be informed, which is a good thing," she said, adding that the security guards would "be more accountable in what they do" as a result.
The other big news of the summer came when a new principal was hired at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), the city's only public high school. Paula Evans was chosen in June after a yearlong search to become only the second full-time principal in CRLS's 22-year history.
Evaluating the School Department's system-wide goals and getting the new Family Resource Center at CRLS in operation have been some of the Committee's other major issues this summer, Segat said.
Segat said she expects the Committee to focus on after-school activities for kids, better training teachers, and starting foreign language instruction in kindergarten.
These issues, along with the aftermath of the school searches and the proposed mergers of several elementary schools because of declining student enrollment, should play large roles in November's election.
Thirteen candidates, including incumbents Grassi, Segat, Simmons and Alice L. Turkel, are running for six spots in what Cambridge political analyst Glenn S. Koocher '71 has said will be a tight race. Cambridge's mayor--who doubles as the chair and seventh member of the School Committee--will round out the new board after the new City Council chooses a new mayor in January.
Challengers include Alfred B. Fantini, a longtime Committee member who lost his seat in the 1997 election; Alvin E. Thompson, a former State House representative who lost his seat in 1998 to Jarrett T. Barrios '90; and Nancy Walser, a parent and author who "wrote the book" on the school system, A Parents Guide to Cambridge Schools. Melody L. Brazo, Shawn M. Burke, Donald Harding, Michael Harshbarger, Elizabeth Tad Kenney, and Jamisean F. Patterson are also running for the board.
David P. Maher and Harris are not running for re-election, though Maher is trying to make the traditional jump from the School Committee to the City Council.
Several upcoming debates will give the candidates a chance to discuss the issues and attract voters. Candidates will debate at Howard Johnson's Oct. 13, at the Haggerty School Oct. 14, and at CRLS Oct. 28.