Neary teacher on paid leave for allegedly inappropriate behavior (Updated)

A district message referred to reports of a mock slave auction, use of a racial slur, and calling out student for raising issue.

Above: Southborough’s school for 4th & 5th graders is making headlines for incidents reported this spring and just made public this week.

I just learned about the alleged racially charged incidents in a Neary School classroom that prompted investigations and led to two educators being put on paid leave this spring — one temporarily and one ongoing.

According to the statement by Northborough-Southborough Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Martineau, a 5th grade teacher is under investigation while on paid leave. In addition, Principal Kathleen Valenti was temporarily put on leave but has returned to her job.

Superintendent Martineau issued a statement with an apology through Parent Square two nights ago. But, it wasn’t forwarded to the entire NSBORO school community. Instead, it was tagged specifically for Southborough K-8 schools.

The Superintendent writes that he was informed about issues on April 24th. Incidents he describes from January and April included a “mock slave auction” of two “students of color” and the teacher’s later use of the N-word.

The unnamed teacher was placed on leave, to allow “a thorough and unbiased investigation”. According to the message, Principal Valenti was also placed on paid leave for investigation from May 6th to May 16th.

No explanation is given as to why the district waited until two weeks after Valenti’s return to issue a public statement. But in a statement to the School Committee on May 8th, Martineau said that a communication of the events had been sent to the community. (Whatever that message was, it was apparently not sent district-wide and nothing related is posted to Parent Square for that timeframe.)

In this week’s message, Martineau wrote that the district is still involved in “due process procedures” with the unnamed teacher and that “All personnel matters will remain confidential.”

For highlights from the May 8th discussion at the School Committee meeting, scroll down. 

Here is the full message from the Superintendent dated 8:00 pm on Wednesday, May 29th:

Dear Southborough Parent(s) and Guardian(s),

As Superintendent, I strive to uphold and live by the District’s core values of equity, inclusivity, empathy, integrity, respect, and perseverance. In addition to holding myself accountable to these values, I am responsible for ensuring they are at the forefront of employees’ work. When any employee’s actions are not aligned with these values, it’s essential to understand why, take responsibility, learn, and ensure that these actions are not repeated.

Teachers who work day in and day out supporting students are at the heart of our organization. The District is fortunate to have faculty and staff who embody its core values and are committed to their work. As a District, we strive to be transparent when we make mistakes.

I want to communicate information about two incidents I learned about from parents on April 24, 2024. The first incident happened in January during a history lesson on the economy of southern colonies, which included slavery. An educator was teaching about the triangle trade, and slave auctions were discussed. During the lesson, the educator held an impromptu mock slave auction. The educator asked two children sitting in front of the room, who were of color, to stand, and the educator and class discussed physical attributes (i.e., teeth and strength).

Holding a mock slave auction is unacceptable and violates the District’s core values. Simulations or role plays when teaching about historical atrocities or trauma are not appropriate, and these teaching methods are not to be used. They are unsound methods of teaching because they trivialize the experience of the victims and can leave students with the impression after the activity that they know what it was like to experience these atrocities (Anti-Defamation League). Additionally, research shows that such simulations are inappropriate for any student and disproportionately traumatic for students of color.

“When we asked teachers to tell us about their favorite lesson when teaching about slavery, dozens proudly described classroom simulations. While simulating democratic processes is a proven practice for good civic education, simulation of traumatic experiences is not shown to be effective, and usually triggers families as well as children. Every year the news brings stories of teachers who get into trouble when families complain about this kind of approach. In particular, families of black students are likely (with good reason) to complain about slavery simulations. While no parent wants to see their child auctioned off or forced to lie still in conditions meant to simulate the Middle Passage, it is important to recognize that such simulations are disproportionately traumatic for students of color. Of course, they are inappropriate for any student; simulations cannot begin to convey the horror of slavery and risk trivializing the subject in the minds of students.” (Southern Poverty Law Center).

The second incident occurred in April when the same educator was reading a book aloud that was recommended by a colleague. The book was not part of the fifth-grade core English language arts curriculum. In reading and discussing the text, the educator used the ‘N-word.’ It was later brought to the District’s attention that the ‘N-word’ does not appear in the book. Dehumanizing words such as slurs should not be spoken by employees or students. Using such words can harm students and negatively impact an open discussion on a particular topic.

The parents of students in that class had an opportunity to meet with the educator and the principal to learn about the two incidents. The goal was to be transparent with families and take responsibility for mistakes. The next day, the educator inappropriately called out the student who had reported the educator’s use of the racial slur, which is not acceptable.

The District began a formal investigation at that time, and the educator was placed on paid administrative leave. Additionally, Principal Valenti was placed on paid administrative leave from May 6, 2024, to May 16, 2024. Paid administrative leave allows for a thorough and unbiased investigation. Currently, the District is engaged in due process procedures with the educator who remains on leave. All personnel matters will remain confidential.

I apologize for the events that took place in The Public Schools of Southborough. I acknowledge that there were missteps in this process that further complicated the situation. Ultimately, I am responsible for ensuring students are in safe and supportive learning environments.

The District will engage in the following actions to learn from its mistakes, improve our cultural competency, and further ensure our values remain at the forefront of our teaching:

  • Develop a professional development plan focusing on culturally competent pedagogy that will be implemented in the fall.
  • Continue partnerships, including MassInsight and Facing History in Ourselves.
  • Expand partnerships with consultants with the knowledge and skills to help lead and strengthen the District’s work.
  • Accelerate the professional development of all faculty and staff.
  • Strengthen our internal reporting and investigatory procedures by conducting formal training for all school and District leaders.
  • Partner with MassInsight to assess the District’s progress on the Equity Audit action plan.
  • Work with families and students directly impacted to ensure a smooth transition to sixth grade.

Respectfully,

Gregory L. Martineau
Superintendent of Schools

The agenda for the May 8th School Committee Meeting included “Parent Communication Regarding Incidents”.

During public comment, Meghan Cifuentes referred to incidents in her son’s classroom that she was happy the school was taking appropriate actions on. Reading from a statement, she called for a better policy and guidelines around literature and what is appropriate for classrooms and teachers. She urged the School Committee to invest in hiring someone to focus on the effort.

Noting that Martineau had said he was unaware of the January incident when parents contacted him in April, she stressed the need for “very clear understanding by staff and principals” of what must be communicated to the Superintendent. And she emphasized that adults should be held to the same or higher accountability as students are.

She told the committee that they had lost trust that her son had a safe place in his classroom with a trusted adult. She said they looked forward to hearing updates and resolutions.

[Note: WBUR spoke with Cifuentes. You can find that story here.]

Under the agenda item, Martineau vaguely referred to egregious incidents in a classroom that were reported to him and Principal Valenti.

He followed that he learned since that he “did not have all of the information when he communicated”. He acknowledged that the communication included missing or inaccurate information, and assured that was unintentional.

He followed that he had launched a formal investigation. He promised to sendout a follow up communication once he had all the facts.

Jennifer Primack (who is moving from the K-8 to Regional School Committee), told the committee that she agreed with sentiments raised in the public comment. She wanted to see the committees look at it as a priority in the policy committee and budgets. She also thanked the parents and their children for bringing the issues forward.

It is worth noting that the meeting took place during Valenti’s leave. The public was told at the meeting that she wasn’t there to provide the Principal’s Report because she didn’t feel well.

You can see more of the discussion starting about 20 minutes into the meeting here.

Updated (5/31/24 5:49 pm): I updated the story to include public commenter Meghan Cifuentes’ name, now that I have the spelling courtesy of a WBUR story in which she was quoted.

Updated (6/3/24 8:42 pm): A reader pointed out that while the story doesn’t directly include the N-word, there is a clear reference to it including its spelling. For more detail, see my June 3rd post. Reflecting on the details and the post, I revised the headline and the introductory paragraph. Rather than referring to allegations of racist behavior, I changed it to inappropriate and racially charged.

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