Residents criticize administrators, suggest changes after Nov. 1 emails on threats caused students to flee PMHS

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The Pelham Memorial High School/Pelham Middle School campus.

During the past week, parents and students have voiced criticisms and suggestions for change in the wake of an online post by a student that others perceived to be threatening and several unrelated incidents and rumors, all of which prompted many to flee PMHS Nov. 1 once an email on the post circulated. They spoke in interviews with the Pelham Examiner and at Wednesday’s board of education meeting.

In three emails sent on Nov. 1, the district reported in increasing detail on the incidents and rumors, particularly one involving a Snapchat post by a Pelham Memorial High School student on Oct. 30 that the district said others considered threatening. The district said there was no “imminent threat” to the school, and the Snapchat post had been confused with “unrelated incidents that occurred last week and over this past weekend,” which, in turn, led to the circulation of unfounded rumors. After the first email was sent at 12:39 p.m., many students left the school building on their own or at the urging of their parents, while some teachers let classes go, and many classrooms ended up half empty.

“I felt like we were in the dark,” said PMHS senior Greta Fear in an interview. “They said they had investigations and inquiries, but we didn’t hear the extent of anything. I was told that there were kids who wanted to do harm and the (student assembly) confirmed that. But it would be better to just let us know.” She said the district should realize that high school students are mature enough to handle the information and added that not communicating with students would lead to a loss of faith in the district.

Sarah Frei, a Pelham parent and a psychotherapist who counseled for Sandy Hook students, pointed to a lack of communication on Nov. 1.

Student “panic comes from chaos, chaos is fed by fear,” Frei said, “which can be addressed by staying calm and giving information. Teachers needed to be in the loop… and the fact is that some protocol needs to go into place. Putting plans in place alleviates anxiety.”

Frei said there is a five-step plan for teachers in handling student trauma. This includes listening to a student’s perspective entirely, gathering all the facts, explaining a solution being worked on and reassuring the student.

Paula Wood, another parent, said, “If people are worried about gun safety, if it’s a really deep concern… why wouldn’t we consider metal detectors? I went to New Rochelle High School, and we had metal detectors all three years. It didn’t slow down traffic. It was just part of our life.”

Teachers needed to be in the loop.”

— Sarah Frei

At the school board meeting on Wednesday, Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ said, “I want to stress that based on the investigation of our local police, we do have extreme confidence that there was no credible threat against the school on Monday or any other day, which is why we proceeded in the way that we did. With that said, it is clear to us that the students did not feel safe. Despite the fact that we knew they physically were, they didn’t feel it, and we have to take that just as seriously.”

After Champ’s report, Trustee Michael Owen-Michaane asked the superintendent about the gap between the police investigation and the school investigation and the differences between the two.

“The police are the experts in investigation and determining what is a threat and what is not a threat,” Champ said. “They have a higher bar for what they can act on than a school does, so I think that’s why we we turn to them as the professionals first to make an assessment of the situation.” She said the school typically picks up from where the police leave off, taking appropriate action in situations that don’t “rise to their level but do rise to ours.” She also said she believes that a “number of these situations” needed more time for them to be dealt with at the school level.

Champ said the high school is looking to implement a texting feature to inform students and families about situations after Owen-Michaane asked how the district was going to improve its communication with the community.

I can tell you that the kids right now, they don’t trust that you guys have their back.”

— Kim James

“I have a high schooler there, and I can tell you that the kids right now, they don’t trust that you guys have their back,” said Kim James, who spoke during the public comment period of the school board meeting. “They don’t feel that the messaging was appropriate or quickly disseminated enough in a clear way, and I think that you should focus on fixing that problem when you have your meeting to discuss everything that’s been happening.”

Angela Motta, another parent of high schoolers, said, “In regards to the communication with the staff, I think that was the first mistake that was made. There were obviously teachers that did not know what was going on. Some teachers had to deal with crying children. Some teachers were giving exams. Some teachers were oblivious to what was going on. You had a myriad of things that were going on at the same time.” Motta said she called the school, found it difficult to get through and was told everything was under control when she reached someone. “In this school, I feel like there are no consequences, and that’s a problem.” Motta said there needs to be “more transparency” and “more honest communication.”

Along with additional comments about Nov. 1, some also mentioned the recent acts of racism that took place at Siwanoy Elementary School and its connection with the topic of mistrust between the community and the district.

Jewel Dalley, a sophomore at PMHS, said, “As a black student in Pelham, and I’m going to a predominantly white school, I already have been targeted enough since middle school,” stating she’s been called the n-word and a slave by fellow classmates multiple times, with no action taken by school administration. Referring to Nov. 1, Dalley said, “I’m being told by adults in the school that I’m supposed to feel safe. I don’t get how I’m supposed to feel safe around somebody like that.” She said that the principal told her and her classmates that the students involved in these incidents are only under suspension. “But I know that if it was me, as a black student, I would not just be under suspension.”