Group aims to reduce bullying in Lenox schools

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LENOX — A group of faculty, staff and parents will explore methods to prevent and reduce bullying in public schools, Superintendent Kimberly Merrick has announced.

The Social Emotional Task Force also is designed "to ensure that all students have strong self-awareness, self-management skills, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making skills," the new superintendent said in a message to the entire school community.

"Every district in the Commonwealth is dealing with the social and emotional needs of students," Merrick said in an interview at her Town Hall office. It's a national problem, she noted.

"It's something that's been on my mind that I have a very strong background in," Merrick said. Before her appointment by the School Committee to succeed Timothy Lee as superintendent as of July 1, she was director of special education and special services at the five-town, 7,300-student Wachusett Regional School District based in Holden, near Worcester.

"I'd like to see what the Lenox district is doing well and perhaps what we could do better," she said.

Merrick acknowledged that Eagle coverage of a recent School Committee discussion on bullying in the middle and high school "made the impetus for this a little more urgent and timely. So, it comes as a very opportune moment to talk about how we can make things better in Lenox."

At the committee's annual retreat Aug. 25, a publicly posted meeting, elected members of the group candidly assessed school culture issues, and cited multiple instances of bullying and harassment that caused several students to transfer to other high schools.

Merrick's task force will be on the agenda at next Monday's School Committee meeting at Town Hall.

At the committee's first televised meeting of the academic year, Aug. 27, Chairman Robert Vaughan cited The Eagle's article on school bullying as "a true reflection of the discussion we had and our concern because we want to be educating all students, and we want students we've accepted as Lenox students to receive a strong education but also social and emotional learning."

"We want to be a safe community for everyone," Vaughan said. "There are times when it's not a safe community for everybody, and times when people leave because there has been bullying and it hasn't been safe. We're always a work in progress, and this is something that we'll be putting the administration to work on."

He added that "when we have Lenox students leaving because of something we should be able to have an impact on, it affects all of us, and that's why we had a very candid discussion on this topic. We want all students to feel that our schools and our community are an emotionally and physically safe environment for them to learn in, and sometimes that doesn't happen."

Merrick plans to establish an informational baseline by sending a survey to all students and faculty. "They'll respond to their feelings about how they think students feel about themselves socially and emotionally across a bunch of different factors," she said.

The data from the districtwide online survey of faculty, students and parents will be compiled and analyzed, she said, with the primary focus on the students. All respondents can take part in the survey anonymously.

District programs she described as "very robust and sound" will be reviewed, Merrick said. "We have excellent educators who are implementing them, but how can we tweak a few things to maybe address some of the needs of kids that maybe we aren't catching, and then we'll re-evaluate, see how we're doing and decide next steps."

The superintendent noted that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has adopted required standards for social and emotional learning — self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, social awareness and self-management.

"I'm going in with an open mind, listening to what people know and don't know, and where we need to go," Merrick said.

She said that her superintendent's entry plan lists several key focus points, including meeting the needs of all students, social emotional learning and instructional technology.

The social emotional learning task force will meet monthly through May and will prepare a report with recommendations to take effect starting with the 2019-20 academic year.

The first three sessions are scheduled for Oct. 17, Nov. 14 and Dec. 18 from 3:45 to 5 p.m. at Town Hall. Dates and task force objectives are subject to change, based on committee members' input.

Those interested in joining the task force can email the superintendent at kmerrick@lenoxps.org by Sept. 30.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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