Letter sparks debate, concern at Saugus school board meeting

Saugus Union School District board members listen during public comment at a Feb. 15 meeting. Perry Smith/ The Signal

A decision to read a parent’s letter from the dais sparked a heated debate Tuesday night at the Saugus Union School District office between community members seeking more transparency from officials and those upset over privacy concerns based on the contents of the letter. 

The public controversy began after SUSD board member Anna Griese used her time during board members’ reports Jan. 31 to read a letter out loud from a North Park Elementary School parent. 

The letter discussed a two-hour incident the previous week involving a student in a “special day class” program who became belligerent with staff, ran from class and vandalized a hallway before eventually being calmed down by teachers, aides and administrators at North Park. The student was picked up at the end of the day, according to the letter. 

Parent Heather Dillin shares her concerns during the public-comment portion of a Saugus Union School District board meeting Tuesday. Perry Smith/ The Signal

The Signal’s original news story on the incident did not identify the student as part of a special needs program. Subsequently, residents who objected to the story and Griese’s reading of the letter published that piece of information in social media posts, and it was a central point of the objections they voiced on the public record Tuesday night about the Jan. 31 reading of the letter.

At Tuesday’s SUSD board meeting, the first since the letter was read aloud, board President Katherine Cooper chastised her colleague for sharing unverified information and not following protocol in a statement she shared prior to public comment. 

“The letter read at the last board meeting was inappropriate and disrespectful of a student in our district, their family and our staff at North Park Elementary,” Cooper said Tuesday evening in her statement. “The information in the letter should have gone to the superintendent to investigate and contact the appropriate parties.” 

When contacted Wednesday, Griese, who did not name anyone in the letter, said the discussion of privacy represented a deflection from her main concern and the reason why she read the letter. 

“The bigger topic and what people should be talking about is: Do we have the right resources for all of our students? Do we have the right tools for our teachers and staff? Are we adequately equipped to handle various safety (concerns)?” she said in a phone interview. 

Cooper, who shared the statement she read Tuesday with The Signal and declined a request for an interview, wrote in an email Wednesday that in her role as board president, she speaks on behalf of the board. 

Griese said there was no board discussion prior to board members’ comments Tuesday regarding her reading of the letter at the previous meeting. 

One of the dozen community members who spoke during public comment to express concern about Griese’s reading of the letter, Shannon Gerson, said the unnamed student and the student’s classmates were put at risk by identifying the programs and the campus where the incident occurred. 

“While I do understand that Anna Griese believes she is advocating for district transparency and parental rights, in the process, she violated the civil rights of this child as protected by the United States Constitution,” Gerson said during public comment Tuesday. 

Not everyone who addressed the board was irked by Griese’s disclosure, with a handful of speakers calling on the district’s leadership to be more transparent, as well as encouraging more discussion of the protocols that dictated the handling of such incidents. 

“Tonight, I want to tell you that I stand here as a family member who has one of these special needs children,” said Karen Haleen, during the public comment period of the meeting. “The reason why I’m here today is I wanted to stand up and show support for our principal at North Park — to the teachers, to the staff — there is such a strong force of parents that stand behind them.” 

Haleen mentioned speaking to the North Park parent who submitted the letter to Griese, describing the on-campus incident as an “eye-opener.”  

“(Griese) has my full support,” she added. “And what she did, it was not to attack one child, it was to stand up for all the kids in her three schools that she represents.” 

Superintendent Colleen Hawkins, who released a copy of the letter Wednesday in response to a Public Records Act request from The Signal, referred a request for comment to her previous statements on the matter:  

“It is our policy to protect the privacy of students and their families,” read her previous email. “Comment on protocols would also communicate information that is specifically related to an individual student or students.”  

The Saugus Union School District has now provided a copy of the letter Griese read in the Jan. 31 board meeting. Although the child’s name apparently did not appear in the original letter, other pieces of information have been redacted, including the name of the school, the child’s gender and the name of the special day program. To view a copy of the redacted letter, go to bit.ly/3I58JvT. 

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