A recent workshop on kindness held for 285 eighth-graders at West Allegheny Middle School has resulted in a flurry of criticism on social media from some parents and others who say the personal information gathered during the program could be used by bullies or may even be a data-mining tactic employed by the district.
West Allegheny officials objected to those criticisms and said that when the program was held seven years ago with grades 6-8, there were no issues. The Kindness Workshop, held Jan. 12-14, was conducted this year because principals at the middle school were concerned about bullying among eighth-graders.
“There were significant student issues, some of those were definitely intentional acts of bullying, but there were also many unintentional acts ... perpetuating common stereotypes on certain groups of students who are traditionally marginalized,” superintendent Jerri Lynn Lippert said Tuesday afternoon.
In response to the complaints, school officials held a meeting Tuesday evening for parents that was closed to the media. The session lasted for more than three hours and filled the middle school cafeteria. Many who left early said they were frustrated by the district’s attempts to demonstrate the techniques employed in the workshop instead of allowing them to ask questions and voice concerns. Those who remained eventually began speaking over the demonstration to ask questions.
West Allegheny parent Marie-Noelle Briggs said she objected to the student workshop asking personal questions about her son’s family life.
According to documentation provided by the district, in one exercise students were instructed to step into a circle if “you or someone close to you has been impacted by alcohol or drugs,” or “you or someone close to you identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,” or “you or your family has ever worried about not having enough money,” or “you or someone close to you has been imprisoned.” That exercise was removed after the second day of the workshop because of concerns about responses from students, the superintendent said.
Students also were asked to respond to a series of questions aimed at demonstrating that the students come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Ms. Briggs said the workshop produced “more ammunition to bully” and called Tuesday’s meeting “damage control” by the district. She also said she was concerned that teachers presented the workshop instead of trained psychologists.
A letter sent by the district Tuesday stated “Dr. Lippert fully supports the district facilitator and the middle school administrative team that designed and conducted the workshop in response to specific incidents around bullying including but not limited to racial and religious insensitivity as well as body image and sexual orientation.”
Student response gathered after each session of the workshop was mostly positive, Ms. Lippert said.
The district also noted in the letter that few parents called the school to voice their concerns or gain a better understanding of the workshop and that a “vast majority of individuals who engaged in social media regarding the workshop do not have students in the district, or more specifically in the 8th grade, and never contacted the school.” School officials said they reached out to 12 parents last Friday who had posted concerns on social media but had not contacted the district.
District officials also noted that they sent a letter explaining the content of the workshop on Jan. 4, allowing parents to opt out of the program on behalf their children.
Oakdale parent Lauralee Nuckles said her daughter came home from school Jan. 13 upset because an answer she had written on the back of a notecard was inadvertently read aloud during the session and that a student who had been bullying her this year picked up on the connection.
On Jan. 14, Ms. Nuckles sent an email about the matter to several district officials, who she said responded and scheduled an in-person meeting with her last Friday.
Her email was then posted without her name on a local Facebook account geared to oppose Common Core standards for the district with her permission. The response from parents and others reading the email blew up from there, she said.
Ms. Nuckles said she wants the district to offer services to students and parents who have been hurt by the program.
The workshop will not become a districtwide program, Ms. Lippert said. She has called for a committee to be formed involving students, parents, teachers and administrators to evaluate the district’s current anti-bullying program, Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.
Editor’s note, Jan. 23: A previous version of the article implied that a community page, West Allegheny: Choose to Refuse Common Core did not have a permission to post Ms. Knuckles’ text, the story has been clarified.
Sonja Reis, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.