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How to prevent hiring snafus and mishandled bullying incidents? Lenox school leaders suggest solutions

Marc J. Gosselin Jr. (copy) (copy) (copy)

Lenox Superintendent Marc Gosselin Jr. on Wednesday reviewed steps the district took in hiring a principal who left after just weeks. 

LENOX — During a nearly four-hour meeting billed as a “retreat,” the School Committee took a deep dive Wednesday into damage control following a hiring disaster and a law firm’s audit depicting a failure to enforce anti-bullying policies at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Members of the committee concluded that its limited powers under the state’s 1993 education reform law mean it’s down to the superintendent to fix the flaws.

The recent forced resignation of Principal Salvatore Frieri after seven weeks on the job was a front and center issue.

During the hiring process, he had not disclosed his brief employment as a substitute teacher at BART — the Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public Charter School — where Adams police accused him of an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old student. No charges were pursued and he was never charged with a crime.

For hiring a principal, Superintendent Marc Gosselin Jr. described a shared responsibility by parents, community members, students, faculty, staff and administrators.

“For the last principal search, that’s what we did,” he said. The search involved rounds of screening, interviews and a community forum. Prior to making an offer to the candidate, background checks included calls to listed references, contacts to “folks in education circles” and to a list of former employers.

Without mentioning Frieri’s name, Gosselin explained that “in the last case, the one employer where the problem seemed to lie was not listed.”

A state police and FBI database known as CORI — the Criminal Offender Record Information — was checked. It lists convictions, but Frieri had not been prosecuted.

In future searches, Gosselin proposed asking candidates for a written response to this question: “Is there anything from your personal or professional life in the past that would be an embarrassment to the district moving forward if it should come to light?”

“That would give us the ability — if the candidate was honest and chose to disclose that — to say this probably isn’t the right fit,” said Gosselin. “That’s one step we should certainly build in.”

He said the question was only posed to the recent candidate orally, with this response: “There is nothing, my background is impeccable, you can call whomever you want.”

A written statement “would give us more of a leg to stand on, should we ever have an issue in the future,” Gosselin said. “We asked, and the candidate intentionally misled us.”

For hiring of principals and superintendents, he said, there are outside organizations that conduct detailed background searches and deep investigations, including an examination of social media. That’s worth considering, but it comes at a cost, Gosselin said.

“Having been burned this time around, we may want to think about engaging one of those companies on some of our high-level hires to do an enhanced background check,” he said, although he wanted to avoid “being overly reactive, doing things that are more hassle than they’re worth.”

Several committee members, including Vice Chair Veronica Fenton and Meghan Kirby, voiced support for Gosselin’s proposal.

As for the recent audit by the district’s law firm on bullying incidents at the school that were mishandled or ignored, the superintendent asked for guidance from the committee.

Gosselin suggested conversations with the community and with families about the findings of the report, as well as for faculty and staff, since some complaints were made against employees.

“We could be far more transparent, and make learning about bullying and reporting bullying far more easy,” said Gosselin. A tab on the district’s website linking to policies on bullying was among his recommendations. He also urged “reducing the barriers to reporting” incidents, whether or not an official form is filled out.

“If you’re having a problem, you want the problem solved,” said Gosselin, citing the report by the law firm Murphy, Heese, Toomey & Lehane.

He also proposed a “universal complaint form” on the website that would allow a student, parent, teacher or someone anonymous to describe an incident witnessed or experienced. Such a form would indicate whether it was a single occurrence or ongoing harassment that may not rise to the state law’s definition of bullying.

“How can we quickly learn about this and get a resolution?” he asked. He mentioned speculation and anecdotes about complaints over the years, “but in a lot of cases, they never filtered up.”

“It’s really important to me to demystify the process,” Gosselin said. “To have more insight. Yes, the law says it’s the principal’s job, but as the principal’s supervisor, I need a way to know whether or not the principal was doing that job. I think in the past, it was very easy to keep a lot of that off the radar.”

School Committee member Oren Cass said the panel needs results. “At our next meeting, it would be good to make sure we have a plan of action that we can all hold ourselves accountable for,” he said. “It makes sense for it to come from Marc, to drive getting this out very soon.”

Committee member Robert Munch said the school district has seen rapid change and expressed optimism.

“It may not have been as controlled as we like, but we’ve overhauled our entire administrative structure,” Munch said. “We’re now able to hopefully get a leadership team that’s willing to hear new ideas and make new changes. If we can get a principal in place who is rock solid, we can do great things.”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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