With interim school administrator's departure, Hartford families fear return of bullying

Sarah Reynolds, center, of White River Junction, Vt., asks board members what parents’ next steps should be during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Reynolds organized a petition with nearly 200 signatures urging the board to reject the resignation of former Hartford Memorial Middle School interim principal Justin Bouvier. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sarah Reynolds, center, of White River Junction, Vt., asks board members what parents’ next steps should be during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Reynolds organized a petition with nearly 200 signatures urging the board to reject the resignation of former Hartford Memorial Middle School interim principal Justin Bouvier. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Alex Driehaus

Rebecca Whitney, of White River Junction, Vt., wipes tears from her eyes as she recounts the bullying her son endured during his time at Hartford Memorial Middle School, which ranged from cyberbullying to being hit with a metal water bottle, during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Whitney credited former interim principal Justin Bouvier with making her son’s last year in middle school tolerable by creating a 10-point safety plan and looking out for him while he was in the building. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Rebecca Whitney, of White River Junction, Vt., wipes tears from her eyes as she recounts the bullying her son endured during his time at Hartford Memorial Middle School, which ranged from cyberbullying to being hit with a metal water bottle, during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Whitney credited former interim principal Justin Bouvier with making her son’s last year in middle school tolerable by creating a 10-point safety plan and looking out for him while he was in the building. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi speaks to parents during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. DeBalsi said that he has been spending time in the middle school following Bouvier’s departure and disagrees that it is “in chaos” despite concerns about bullying and safety that several parents expressed during the meeting. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi speaks to parents during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. DeBalsi said that he has been spending time in the middle school following Bouvier’s departure and disagrees that it is “in chaos” despite concerns about bullying and safety that several parents expressed during the meeting. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Alex Driehaus

Eighth-grader Mason Day, 14, of White River Junction, Vt., reads a letter he wrote to former interim principal Justin Bouvier, thanking him for helping him to feel safe and motivated in school, during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Eighth-grader Mason Day, 14, of White River Junction, Vt., reads a letter he wrote to former interim principal Justin Bouvier, thanking him for helping him to feel safe and motivated in school, during a Hartford School Board meeting at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-14-2023 9:42 PM

Modified: 12-15-2023 1:58 PM


WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Hartford Memorial Middle School parents and students on Wednesday delivered a petition to the Hartford School Board seeking the reinstatement an interim principal who resigned earlier this month.

The petition, which had nearly 200 signatures, credited Justin Bouvier, who had been appointed to the interim post this summer, for improving the school climate. In his absence, they said they are worried about student safety, including bullying.

“Under his leadership, the school has seen improvements in academic performance and student engagement,” the petition on Change.org states. “Furthermore, Mr. Bouvier has fostered a positive learning environment that prioritizes student well-being and inclusivity.”

Bouvier, who served as assistant middle school principal prior to stepping into the interim role, resigned Dec. 1, citing health concerns. The school currently is being led by interim Assistant Principal Sarah Hisman, with assistance from other district administrators.

The district is searching for a replacement for Bouvier. Hisman does not want the permanent principal post, Superintendent Tom DeBalsi told those gathered at Wednesday’s meeting.

For their part, board members made it clear that they did not think Bouvier would be returning but encouraged parents to work with district officials to improve its climate.

Parents and students lauded Bouvier’s efforts to institute a restorative justice approach to student infractions at the middle school.

Several said Bouvier was the adult at the school in whom students felt comfortable confiding.

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Sarah Reynolds, who organized the petition, told board members at the meeting, which was held at Town Hall and via Zoom, that her eighth grade son “actually enjoys going to school for the first time in middle school.”

Prior to Bouvier’s arrival, Reynolds said communication with parents was poor and punishment was punitive, with suspensions common.

“I think it came down to a lot of people wanting to transfer their kids or home school their kids,” Reynolds said. “When Justin came along, (we) finally felt heard.”

He brought restorative justice, mutual respect and a more inviting and welcoming environment, she said.

Eighth-grader Mason Day, who said he had been a “problematic student” before Bouvier’s arrival, read aloud a letter to Bouvier thanking him for making him and other students feel “safe, supported and motivated to become best versions of ourselves” by listening to their concerns and valuing their opinions.

With Bouvier in charge, Mason said he improved academically.

“It’s been hard, but I still hope even though you may not come back to go further and keep on trying to do good in your name,” Mason said.

Rebecca Whitney, a parent who works as the library and media specialist at Hartford High School, recounted her son’s experience with bullying at the middle school, which included cyberbullying, having root beer dumped on his head, pencil shavings forced down his shirt and being slapped and hit by a metal water bottle.

Whitney said her family was looking at sending her son, who is now in ninth grade, to a private school for his eighth grade year last fall, but they were encouraged when Bouvier came to HMMS as assistant principal.

“I want him to have power in knowing that people are not allowed to treat us this way,” Whitney said Bouvier told them. “There are consequences if they do.”

She credited Bouvier with creating a 10-point safety plan for her son so he could feel safe at school. When her son was a target of harassment by his baseball teammates, Whitney said Bouvier offered to sit on the bench with him.

It was “only ever through Justin’s actions and effort,” Whitney said, that she “felt (the) culture of HMMS was beginning to change.”

Without Bouvier, Whitney said she’s concerned about students who may be facing various challenges such as food insecurity, poverty, homelessness and substance use.

“School is supposed to be a haven,” Whitney said.

Meanwhile, she said she and her husband are beginning to search for a different middle school for her daughter in order to protect her from “the same feelings of fear and anxiety” their son experienced. But, she added, “not everybody has the privilege to make that choice.”

Board member Peter Merrill told the audience that Bouvier is no longer a district employee and the board is limited in what it can say about his employment without breaking the law, which makes personnel issues private.

“Our ability to talk about the details is zero,” Merrill said. He also said “there are factors that you cannot be aware of that we are aware of.”

He did seek to dispel some rumors, saying Bouvier’s departure was “not because of anything bad that he has done” and “he was not forced to resign.”

In response to a question from the audience, “How do we get Justin back?” Merrill said, “I don’t think you can.”

School Board Chairman Kevin Christie noted that Bouvier did not request a hearing before he resigned.

Reached via Facebook Messenger on Wednesday evening, Bouvier said he was not watching the meeting online but was “humbled by what I understand to be a showing of support.” He declined further comment.

In a Thursday email, Nichole Vielleux, president of the Hartford Education Association, declined to comment on the situation at the middle school.

She previously said the union was aware of the challenges there, including “an increase in alarming behavior and a divided staff” and was working with the administration to resolve them.

Merrill encouraged those gathered to work within the schools to improve the climate.

“We have struggled with what is going on with behaviors in schools, just as everyone else has struggled with what is going on in schools as a whole,” he said.

DeBalsi, who said he is among the administrators who have been working in the middle school while it has been without a principal, said he disagreed that the climate in the middle school is as bad as the parents and students in attendance described.

“I disagree that the school is in chaos. It’s not,” he said. “It’s well-run. There are behavior issues. There are behavior issues in any middle school I’ve ever been in.”

He indicated that the 20 or so people gathered at the meeting were a small segment of the school.

“There’s 315 kids, 45 teachers and a lot of other parents,” he said. “I listen to you.”

He expressed some concern that he had not heard some of the issues described at the meeting before.

“I’ll talk with anyone,” he said. “I’m there all the time. I think kids’ needs are being met.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.