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Tensions high as parents speak out at Watertown school board meeting

The Watertown school board meeting got heated Wednesday night.
Published: May. 18, 2022 at 10:29 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - It was a heated Watertown City School District board meeting Wednesday night. At one point, a majority of board members left the room.

Parents expressed their frustration, disappointment, and anger over how recent issues have been handled.

All but one Watertown City School District board member, Rande Richardson, left the room just minutes after the meeting began. Watertown parent Milly Smith still stood front and center waiting to finish what she started.

“The officer came to me and said they wanted to know if I was going to leave. I said, ‘You can go back and tell them that I’m not leaving, that I came here to make a statement, and I will be heard, and my statements will be said. If they want to wait all night long, they’re welcome to wait all night long. I’m not leaving.” said Smith.

Smith spoke out against the lack of communication about recent incidents at the school like fights.

One violent incident 7 News learned about a few weeks ago. Shawna Dodge sat down and told the story of how her daughter was knocked unconscious during a fight at the high school. She was airlifted to a Syracuse hospital.

Dodge also stood up to tell her daughters’ story, but was turned down moments after she began. The board president said it was a personal matter and “not the purpose of their public comment session.”

A still very angry and frustrated Smith sat down with 7 News after the meeting. She said that, among other things, only made her frustration grow.

“If she chooses to share her daughter’s story. You do not have the right to tell her she can’t.” said Smith.

Smith, who runs QuikMed Urgent Care right down the street from the high school, said over the last six weeks at least five kids who’d just gotten into fights at school have come to her practice for care, but because of liability issues she had to send them to the emergency room.

“It’s very disheartening for me as a provider in this community, when I have to look at these kids and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t render the care you deserve.’” said Smith.

Smith wears a lot of hats in the Watertown community. She’s a Watertown High School parent, a physicians assistant, and the mayor of Watertown’s wife. But she says when she stood up in front of the board Wednesday night she was just Milly Smith.

“I was representing who I am. Enraged at what is happening, and that people are afraid to talk.” said Smith.

Superintendent Patricia LaBarr issued a statement late Wednesday night criticizing the media and the use of social media saying quote “as a community, we should exercise caution in disputing our differences in the media or on social media. The district has multiple procedures and opportunities for making complaints or concerns known to the administration.”

You can read the full statement below:

“Recently, there have been several media reports and social media reports about events involving students and staff members at Watertown City School District that are inaccurate. The inaccuracies being shared are having a significant negative effect, disrupting daily operations of the school buildings and creating a stressful and strained environment for students and staff. As Superintendent, I urge the media and the community to be responsible in their reporting and discussion of events in the media. The people who post on social media must also use caution in posting or commenting on such information. The ability for these posts and media reports to receive widespread attention are causing division and disruption in our schools.

“For example, recent media reports about a claimed infestation of bed bugs was entirely inaccurate, yet receive widespread attention both in media reports and on social media. Be advised that the District does not have an infestation problem with bed bugs. The District has employed a professional pest control for many years to address issues that arise with bed bugs and other pests. The District buildings are sanitary, well-maintained, and are also subject to regular Health Department inspections. The District has been found to be in compliance with all Health Department regulations and there is no evidence of bed bug infestations.

“Various other reports in the media about a claimed or alleged racially hostile environment existing in the District have only told one side of the story, causing others to speak out and further cause division. The effect of these stories has been to further disrupt the schools, increasing tension among students. The current position of the District to address these issues are confidential and we are prohibited by Federal and State law from providing details and/or comments.

“There have also been media stories and commentary about personnel in the District. The public may be assured that all personnel issues are carefully examined and promptly addressed. However, the law and policy does not allow any comments to be made on these matters. We urge the media, social media users, and citizens alike to be responsible and mature in reporting stories or posting on social media. These stories and the exaggerated statements that have been made have only contributed to division, distrust, and further hard feelings among students and have distracted from the business of school, educating our students. As a community, we should exercise caution in disputing our differences in the media or on social media. The District has multiple procedures and opportunities for making complaints or concerns known to the administration. We encourage members of the public, parents, and students alike to be responsible and use the complaint avenues appropriately.

“We need to come together as a community in order to return to a calm and focused educational environment for the sake of our children.”

- Superintendent LaBarr

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