A School City of East Chicago School Board meeting ended abruptly Monday night after a mother tried to raise concerns about bullying during the meeting’s public comment period.
Alicia De Anda-Feliciano prepared a three-minute speech addressing what she described as severe bullying against her third-grade daughter at Washington Elementary School and the district’s retaliation as she seeks answers for how the situation was handled by school administrators.
"Ma'am, you cannot continue to talk about that particular matter," said Jewell Harris Jr., an attorney for the district, cutting into De Anda-Feliciano's speaking time. Harris detailed the rules for public comment earlier in the meeting, explaining that matters of pending or threatened litigation were not to be discussed in the open setting.
"Did you file in court, sir?" De Anda-Feliciano asked, raising her voice. "You did not. I didn't either. I'm here today to tell you that I'm not going to be silenced."
As School Board members quickly moved to adjourn the meeting, De Anda-Feliciano approached the board with her printed speech.
"I'm trying to come to an agreement with you," De Anda-Feliciano pleaded to the board. "You guys are not talking to me. I come here vulnerable and exposed. Talk to me. Make a meeting with me."
The Times first reported De Anda-Feliciano’s concerns last week when she sent a letter to the School Board spelling out her complaints and threatening legal action. She said since then she’s received truancy notices from the school despite enrolling her children in East Chicago Lighthouse School.
De Anda-Feliciano circulated another letter among parents before Monday's board meeting.
"Consider if this happened to your own child and you were faced with intimidation. injustice, and neglect," the letter read. "Please help us in holding the school and district accountable."
Resources for The School City of East Chicago's anti-bullying hotline appeared at the top of the district's website this week, and Harris said he is investigating the incident at Washington Elementary School. The attorney said the school is not opposed to meeting with the mother, but would like to investigate all leads before scheduling to produce a more productive meeting.
"It's a sensitive topic, there's a lot of emotion around it and we're all just trying to do our jobs the best that we can," Harris said.
The Monday evening meeting began an hour late as School Board members discussed teacher contracts in executive session. The board unanimously approved the contracts in open session, a move board President Vanessa Hernandez-Orange said will bring the district three years of financial solvency.
The agreed-upon contract will be available to the public after state approval, Superintendent Paige McNulty said.
"On behalf of the teachers, I'd like to thank the administration and the board for coming together tonight and agreeing on the contract that we ratified last week," said Reggie Tisdale, president of the East Chicago Federation of Teachers. "I hope this approval will mark a beginning of better communication between the teachers, the administration and the board, together, collaboratively."
A few other community members addressed the board in Monday night’s public comments section to thank the board for their work and to welcome incoming board members, following November’s election.
However, many in the packed meeting came with concerns – some about student safety, others about education quality following the state’s recent release of its annual School Accountability Grades. East Chicago received a D grade as a district, down from a C last year. Only one of it's schools, Block Middle School, saw improvement, raising its D to a C.
"The school system's responsibility is to first educate children and when it cannot educate children, it fails," T. Brian Hill, a pastor at New Ebenezer Baptist Church, said to the board. "It fails the community and it fails our children. Something has to change. We must hold people accountable for what they're doing."
Brenda Richmond, the mother of a sophomore who was stabbed in East Chicago Central High School last week, was also in attendance. She chose not to speak during the public comment section, but said she wanted to show support for De Anda-Feliciano after learning about her daughter’s experience.
"She should have been able to speak," Richmond said. "This is a mother here. I feel her pain. I know what she's going through."
The School City of East Chicago’s next board meeting is at 6 p.m. Dec. 19 in the School City of East Chicago administration offices.