Washington Middle School in Green Bay made national news in 2017 when Media Trackers broke the story of teacher Kerstin Westcott’s tearful resignation statement to the School Board. Westcott painted a picture of near total dysfunction at Washington. She said neither staff nor students were safe because of extreme behavioral problems by many students:
- “I fear for my safety every day. I am equally afraid for the safety of my colleagues and, most importantly, my students. We are in danger every day when we show up to our school.”
- “Students and staff are physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally and sexually abused, every single day in the building.”
- “We are sworn at and called vile, crude and sexual names every day.” (Westcott brought with her a page full of examples from the previous two days but couldn’t bring herself to read them aloud, which she called devastating).
- “In addition to verbal abuse, the people at Washington are getting injured more than ever…just a couple of weeks ago a teacher was taken away in an ambulance, with a bleeding head wound caused by a fight among three students.”
- “Another teacher was physically attacked by students trying to set off a deadly allergic reaction on purpose, causing her throat to close and her to struggle to breathe.” (Westscott here is alleging that students attempted to induce a fatal allergic reaction in a teacher, yet a Google search yields no media coverage of an incident that could be described as attempted murder of a teacher in school.)
- “A student was held down on a table and his legs put in vise grips, so that other students could take his shoes. “
- “A student had his pants and underwear pulled down, exposing him in a crowded hallway of students.:
- “Another student approached a group of teachers and pulled his pants down and touched himself inappropriately, while laughing at their requests to stop.”
- “Just last week two students laid on a table in the classroom and kissed each other heavily and pretended to have sex, while a substitute teacher tried to get them to stop.”
District officials promised that things would change at Washington and public input would be a central part of that change. But a year and a half after Westcott’s comments drew national attention, there is debate over how much has changed at Washington and how welcome the public is into that process.
New Washington Middle School Principal Cindy Olson raised eyebrows in November with comments she made to WBAY TV. Olson stated what the station called “one simple request:”
“Let us do our job. Let us be school. We will do this. But we will do, let us be Washington, Let us make Washington a success, and let us do our job.”
Some viewers took that as a request for non-interference from the community; a signal that citizen input wasn’t welcomed. Olson rejected that notion when quizzed by school board member Rhonda Sitnikau at the November 19th meeting.
Sitnikau: “What did you mean by that?”
Olson: “…I mean trust us. Trust that we’re doing what’s best for students. That doesn’t mean don’t question, because I like questions. It’s good to ask questions because it helps people to understand. It’s good to ask questions because it helps people understand. But trust us. Share the good work that’s happening at Washington when you’re having conversations in the community. Believe in us, in the staff and students at Washington, that they can do the work. And that we do have the supports and the ability to do this, but believe in us and trust us.”
Sitnikau: “What do you believe the community thinks when they hear ‘let us do Washington.’”
Olson: “I hope they hear that we as educators know what we need to do to have the school run smoothly. I hope they know that when they send their child to us, or any child that walks in or out of our doors, is a child of promise, great hope, and that we need to, without a doubt, hold that responsibility in the highest regard to make sure we’re providing the best opportunity for the students that we have and that we’re doing right by our students. I think there is question about what happens at Washington Middle School. The majority of the time it’s really just school.
“There are sometimes things that are still school that happen that are not how we would want school to be or how any child or parent would want school to be. But sometimes it happens. And when those things happen, trust us.”
Sitnikau: “Do you think the community feels they can be part of that, or do you think that statement is telling them that you want them to be part of that process?”
Olson: “I guess I would want someone to ask me if that statement was meant to be exclusionary.”
Sitnikau: “If they don’t have the ability or the capability to, they don’t have, you know, they’re not comfortable enough to ask you. I’ve been asked what that meant because, you know, it’s an interesting statement. It was received in an interesting way. And I’m not sure it’s as inclusive as we would like it to be.”
Olson: “I guess it wasn’t intended to be that way. The bottom line is just trust us and believe in us because we are educators and we know what we’re doing. It doesn’t say we’re not open to ideas, and we’re not open to feedback. I didn’t say that. I just said let us do Washington.”
Media Trackers asked Sitnikau via email if Olson’s responses satisfied her. Her response:
I would hope that whoever came into this position would be interested in understanding and honoring the apprehension that the community has. The Washington Middle School principal position has not been sustainable for a decade. Telling the public to “let us do our job“ is not an inclusive message that brings the community into creating trust. Ms Olson explains that her comment was meant to be in a sense, “trust us.”
Trust is something that is earned. Earning trust should involve inclusivity and honoring the communities interest.
Asked about how much she feels conditions have improved at Washington since Westcott came forward, Sitnikau told us, “When it comes to progress related to culture and climate, I would be more interested in hearing from the teachers and support staff. They are with the kids full time.”