WATERTOWN — Seven minutes is the length of time Shawna M. Dodge said her daughter had before another student came toward her in a threatening manner, fists raised, during an altercation at Watertown High School on May 5.
Ms. Dodge wished to share the story of what happened to her daughter Gracie, 16, at Wednesday night’s Watertown City School District Board of Education meeting, but was not allowed to proceed with her prepared speech. She said the way she was treated had her feeling hurt and embarrassed and she left the school in tears. She intended to talk about the events leading up to the fight as well as what happened during and after. There are two videos of the incident that she was shown by the school district.
“May 5 my daughter went to school like any other day,” Ms. Dodge said. “Around 1 o’clock in the cafeteria, a student went through the lunch line, stopped in the cafeteria, and looked for my daughter. Once she found her, she pointed at my daughter and did that eye-to-eye thing to her and yelled to her that she will be back for her in 10 minutes.”
She said Gracie, not knowing what that meant, sat at her lunch table trying to figure out if it was a threat. In the second video from that day, seven minutes later, a friend of the girl begins recording her and Ms. Dodge says it’s clear that the intent was to go after Gracie. Seeing the other girl coming, Ms. Dodge said Gracie stood up prepared to defend herself and did just that, throwing the first punch. The two wrestled around the table and fell back. The struggle continued and eventually the two girls fall to the ground and it’s then that Gracie’s head hits the floor, knocking her out.
“In the video you can see my daughter is completely knocked out after that,” Ms. Dodge said. “While my daughter is knocked out you can see that the girl is on top of her punching my daughter’s head. At that time you will see a teacher finally stepping in to get the girl off of my daughter.”
Describing it as a parent’s worst nightmare, Ms. Dodge recalled seeing Gracie unresponsive. She was airlifted to Syracuse for assessment and treatment. Gracie was able to communicate with blinks and later mouthing of words before regaining mobility and verbal communication hours later. Scans came back clear and she was sent home later that evening.
Now two weeks later, Gracie is doing OK physically, but is still coping emotionally with what happened. Ms. Dodge said she is scared to go back to school. She will not be sending her to Watertown next year and plans to transfer her to another district.
“Clearly there is a problem at this school and they don’t want to deal with it head on,” she said. “So the best thing I can do is protect my daughter if they can’t when she’s at school.”
Following the incident, Ms. Dodge went to the school that Monday to speak with the school resource officer, as well as the vice principal. It was then that she was informed that her daughter had been suspended for five days. She said no one from the district had previously contacted her about this or to check on Gracie.
“When I took her in Monday, they interrogated her for about two hours,” she said. “I believe that the school district is retaliating against my daughter because I took this to the news and to the radio stations for support and to notify the parents around Watertown about the fighting and bullying going on in our schools. Administration did not send out anything of any severity that took place that day at the school.”
She said the district later told them that Gracie would not be allowed back at school for the remainder of the year for the following reasons: That Gracie did not go get help in those seven minutes or find an escape route; because she did not go find an escape route, she disrupted the entire school for the rest of the day; and she took staff away from their jobs.
During a hearing last Friday, a manifestation hearing due to Gracie’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP for comprehension, Ms. Dodge said two teachers said Gracie is a well-mannered student. Ms. Dodge said her daughter has never been in trouble before and does not have a history of fighting. She also noted that the school district refuses to cover medical bills and that she was sent a letter in the mail stating that she needed to go after her insurance company.
“I’m just ashamed at our school district, I thought the way that they acted was very embarrassing,” she said. “We are taxpayers. They should have sat there and gave me the respect and any parent really, to hear them out and to listen and find the solution. Their thing was, ‘stop them from speaking, let’s go hide.’ Where’s the solution going to come in when you do that?”
Another district mother, Milly C. Smith, took to the microphone Wednesday but was also cut off, with the board leaving the room for 10 minutes halfway through her allotted public comment time. On Thursday, she spoke out against the lack of communication about violence within the district. Mrs. Smith, a physician assistant with QuikMed Urgent Care down the street from the high school, said that over the last six weeks at least five kids who had just gotten into fights at school have come to her practice for care. But because of liability issues and lack of equipment, she had to send them on to the emergency room.
She said she has received an outpouring of support from the community for standing up to the board Wednesday and standing up for Ms. Dodge.
“What our board did to Ms. Dodge and to me is unacceptable and it’s unethical,” she said. “We were simply there to communicate in a public forum what our concerns were. … This is a violation of our First Amendment rights. We are taxpaying citizens, we elect those people to the board. They’re supposed to be our ears, our eyes, and they have failed us gravely.”
According to the district’s school board operations policy No. 2306 regarding public participation at board meetings, “the Board will not permit in public session discussion involving individual Watertown City School District (the District) personnel or students.”
The policy continues: “Persons wishing to discuss matters involving individual District personnel or students should present their comments and/or concerns to the Superintendent of Schools during regular business hours. … The president shall be responsible for the orderly conduct of the meeting and shall rule on such matters as the time to be allowed for public discussion and the appropriateness of the subject being presented. The president shall have the right to discontinue any presentation which violates this policy.”
Board President Maria T. Mesires prefaced the public commentary section Wednesday with information from the policy and was the one who made the call for the board to recess during Mrs. Smith’s comments.
According to the National School Boards Association, based on court cases interpreting the First Amendment, school boards that allow public comment — which is not constitutionally required — generally “must allow the public to speak about any matter within the school board’s authority.”
“To curtail this, school boards can adopt policies that restrict the length of a person’s statements, prohibit someone from repeating the same comments at multiple meetings, or limit the amount of time for public comment at the meeting as a whole. Any such policies, however, must be consistently enforced on a content-neutral basis,” the NSBA says.
Mrs. Smith said she was cut off Wednesday when she began to say that there was a child at Case Middle School who falsely pulled the fire alarm. She said that should have constituted an expulsion from the school or suspension for the rest of the year, but because the student didn’t have a previous disciplinary record, they were given a three-day suspension.
“On the other side of that, you have a child who gets airlifted to a trauma hospital 60 miles south of us, unresponsive,” Mrs. Smith said. “The mother has no idea whether this child is gonna live and she gets expelled from school for the rest of the year. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
All but one member of the school board, Rande S. Richardson, also executive director of the Northern New York Community Foundation, retreated from the public commentary portion of Wednesday’s meeting as Mrs. Smith spoke. District Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr took time later in the meeting Wednesday to address parent commentary with a prepared statement, which was later shared with district families via ParentSquare. She did not release further statements Thursday and was not available for additional comment.
“Do you know the courage it took for that woman to stand up in front of all those people and try to share her version of the story? She gets there, builds up the courage and they cut her off and tell her she’s not allowed to share her story,” Mrs. Smith said. “This is not acceptable community behavior from our board members other than Rande Richardson, who was a complete hero to stay back by himself, which spoke volumes about that board. All of us reached out to him this morning and said thank you because that took a lot of courage.”
Mrs. Smith noted that like Ms. Dodge, she will be pulling her child from the district. Her daughter will attend preparatory school in Massachusetts instead. The reason she is still speaking out, she said, is because she cares about the families and the community.
“I’m doing this because I just feel that at its core it’s wrong and someone needs to stand up to these people,” she said. “And I’m going to do it.”