A Hartford Courant story this week detailed one side to a brother and sister at Berlin High School who said they were bullied so much that they were forced to leave the school.
Berlin High School Principal Francis Kennedy said the story was surprising because the environment at Berlin High is nothing like that portrayed in the article.
"We do not and will not tolerate bullying," Kennedy said. "That conduct is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. Myself, Mrs. Gagnon and Mrs. Parlato are also parents. In these situations I can only put myself in a parent's seat. We have a zero tolerance to bullying or any mean behavior."
Kennedy explained how the school handles things if a claim of bullying or mean behavior is made.
"We investigate any claim, no matter what the circumstances," he said. "If there is a complaint, we investigate immediately and keep investigating if there is a stone to be unturned. We question the offended and also the person who is being accused. We try to gather witnesses and talk to them as well. We review the evidence and make the best decision possible with all the information we gather. From there we execute the appropriate follow-up which could include support or counseling for one or both of the people involved, some kind of punishment, which could be detention, suspensions or expulsions. Expulsion hearings are held at the Board of Education level and we give our input."
Kennedy said sometimes the follow-up with the complainants and parents is the most difficult step.
"We will follow-up with the complainant to make sure they are satisfied with the results of how we did things and what happened," he said. "We will then follow up with the parents but that can be problematic. We will never tell the parents exactly what punishment was handed out because the offending student has rights as well. We will tell them there were 'proper' punishments handed out but that does not always satisfy the parents. They want to know who the person is and what the exact punishment was. We can't be that forthcoming."
Kennedy said there are many programs to promote kindness and teacher take it upon themselves to take on the bullying issue.
"The UpBeat program does a lot of work and its programs really deal with kids who like to have fun at somebody else's expense," Kennedy said. "With the new statute on bullying, we have to have a safe climate plan and we are following that process in all of the schools in town. We have peer leaders and training for teachers and counselors. Guidance counselors are now considered school counselors and while they can help kids with their class choice and college choice, they can also help and are trained to help with mental health issues as well."
One of the parts of the Courant article that drew a lot of comments on both their site and the Berlin Patch site was when Kennedy talked about using a contract with people who were not getting along. Kennedy talked in more detail why he used the contracts and the advantage of using them.
"In some instances, we have entered into agreements with parents when there was no innocent bystanders involved," Kennedy said. "The contracts kept the people who were not getting along away from each other just as a way to stay away from possible conflicts. With a written version, it spells out the expectations and what I think is helpful is that it lets everyone know what we hope to happen.
"It is used to give each other a wide berth instead of one purposely walking by another one where a conflict could occur. Like I said, this is a mutual problem between two students. This would not work if one person was a consistent problem to another and we would never wan to penalize a student for reporting an incident of mean behavior. Also, nobody is forced to enter these agreements if they do not want to."
Some of the comments on both sites also talked about a dislike for students from outside of Berlin. The town school system participates in Project Choice where students from inner city towns have a chance to go to school in suburban towns. Kennedy said the program is one of the best the town offers.
"It is an excellent program," Kennedy said. "We graduated a student last year who came to Berlin in second grade and stayed in the school system until graduation. Every school in town has students from other tons. We have 15 at the high school and it is excellent for BHS and all of the students. A great sign that this is a good program for Berlin is that of the 15 we have, not one of them has gone back to their hometown school system.
"Why is it valuable to us? It's very simple. Our differences are what makes us great. Any time we can offer a more diverse student population to Berlin High School students I think it makes us a stronger school system."