Kivalina residents sound off on school closure

Classes shut down after teachers cite 'threatening and assaultive behavior'

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Some 200 parents, elders and students packed the McQueen School gym in Kivalina for a community meeting Friday, two days after the Northwest Arctic Borough School District abruptly shut down classes, citing "threatening and assaultive behavior" against teachers.

Charles Mason, the district's chief executive officer, ordered the school closed Wednesday after complaints from teachers worried about their safety. Almost half the school's 11-member teaching staff left the village last week.

At the town meeting Friday, Mason said "95 percent" of the students are wonderful but that a small minority is out of hand.

"We had a group of teachers who left yesterday because they were fearful for their safety," Mason said. "When people who work at a school are fearful for their safety, we've got a problem."

He detailed several years of disarray at the school, including a rash of suspensions and expulsions, low test scores, and complaints from school staff and past principals who felt threatened. Mason described acts of vandalism at teachers' homes and reported violence against pets owned by teachers.

"When I heard about kids up all night long, throwing rocks and ice at a teacher's house, that has got to change," Mason said. "When I find out a teacher or principal has a dead dog on their doorstep the next morning, that has got to change."

When five teachers decided to leave, Mason said, he had no choice but to close the school. Mason said he didn't know when it would reopen.

Some parents said the current staff had not made the school a place where parents feel welcome or valued. Some parents said they resented the two-year-old discipline policy, which they said was too rigid. If teachers at McQueen treated students with more respect, they would be treated likewise, Eleanor Swan said.

Rose Hawley, 17, said the strict rules made school seem like prison. But Stan Hawley, Rose's father, looked to the students in the audience to take some responsibility.

He told the six high school boys present to raise their hands if they care about their school. They all raised a hand high. Then Hawley asked them to keep their hands up if they are passing their classes. Four put their hands down.

"If you really care about your school, you will pass," Hawley said. "It's not that hard to put out a little effort!"

The whaling village is at the tip of an eight-mile barrier reef between the Chukchi Sea and the mainland, about 80 miles northwest of Kotzebue.

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