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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 24, 2008

Find common ground

Illustration by Forest Byrd

“The theory of a free press is that the truth will emerge from free reporting and free discussion, not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account.”

— Walter Lippmann

Reports in which a consultant concludes the social studies department at Guilderland High School has a hostile work environment have been pivotal in the decision to transfer two teachers to the middle school.

The school-board majority, backing the superintendent’s decision to transfer the teachers, relied on the reports, which were released to the public last week.

The released reports were heavily redacted, leading one board member to call them “almost useless.”

This week, some social-studies teachers have said the reports were redacted in such a way as to make the department look worse. We heard these comments after being drawn into a false assumption ourselves.

In last week’s editorial, “Draw together to form a more perfect school district,” we urged opposing sides in the conflict over the transfer to sit down together and work out a solution.

We wrote of reports, conducted by consultant Michele Paludi after a gay teacher complained of harassment:

“He tells Paludi that he is being shunned by the other teachers, that he doesn’t trust anyone in the department, that he feels powerless. She writes of an atmosphere where comments are made about a woman’s breasts and a hand gesture is made that simulates masturbation.”

Names are blacked out so it is impossible to tell who said what.

Members of the social studies department told us this week that the comments on breasts and the hand gesture were made by the complainant.

“That is my testimony,” said Lisa Bedian. “The way they redacted the report makes it appear we did these things,” she said of the social studies faculty. “That was intentional.”

The first incident took place in September, she said, when the complainant and another teacher “laughed so hard they cried,” while, as the report put it, making comments “about a woman presenter’s breasts.”

The second incident, which the report described as “a comment and hand gesture…that simulated masturbation,” took place in February and was made in reference to a student; the complainant’s comment was followed by an “awkward silence for five minutes,” Bedian said.

We admire Bedian for allowing us to use her name with these statements and have respected her wish not to include the details she gave us about the incidents. She didn’t want the details — which were convincing and distressing — included because she thought they might make the student or the presenter identifiable and so victimize someone else.

“It would be hurtful and enough people have been hurt,” she said. “We have spent months trying to be professional and above that kind of behavior.”

Bedian went on to cite other portions of Paludi’s reports that she considered “very misleading.”

Bedian then described the way the social studies department has been vocal in objecting to having its supervisor’s post combined with the English department‘s and about the rejection of a committee’s recommendation on solving the disparity between the five classes taught by social-studies teachers and the four taught by English teachers. “They thought Matt was the ringleader,” she said of Nelligan. “And if they got him out, everything would be fine.”

We asked Superintendent John McGuire this week who decided what to black out and what the decision was based on. “A number of us, including the central office,” he said. “The redaction was based on one variable only — to remove any clues to the identity of the participants.”

We can understand and support the need to protect identity. But identity could still be protected if, for example, those doing the editing had attributed the comments on breasts and the gesture on masturbation to ”the complainant“; he needn’t be named but it would have been clear it didn’t apply to the rest of the faculty.

Asked about this, McGuire said, “I don’t think we could have redacted the report any better than we did.”

Some of the faculty feel victimized themselves — first by the complainant and now by the public as the controversy continues to rage. At least one feels that the complainant was also a victim, used by the administration.

Bedian, responding to the complainant’s description that he was shunned, said, “I did intentionally refrain from conversation with him because I felt it was the safest thing to do.” She said, “He held stuff over people’s heads,” referring to a list he was keeping as part of the harassment investigation. Bedian said she would speak to him professionally, as a colleague, but did not socialize with him.

Since the media has given the situation such widespread coverage, blogs have described the behavior of social-studies faculty as “evil and mean,” Bedian said. “It’s enough to bring you to tears.” In her six years with the department, she said, “My co-workers never once made a disrespectful comment about me.”

Other faculty members who echoed these sentiments did not want to be quoted, they said, for fear of reprisals like transfer to another school.

“There is fear,” said Bedian. “Next time, it could be me. We have families. We have kids. I can’t afford to not have a job.” 

We at The Enterprise feel duped by the part of the report we now know applied to the complainant, and we take responsibility for our error. But we feel even more strongly that the major thrust of our editorial was right:

Vilifying compounds problems; each side needs to listen with the intent to understand; and it’s not too late for the board, the administration and the teachers to sit down together at the same table and work out a solution. The common ground should be serving students, not vindicating one side or the other of blame.

We were heartened this week when we interviewed the new president of the teachers’ union, Maceo Dubose. He said, “I don’t think it’s ever too late to have a discussion about our concerns and differences. Time does not eliminate that....People sitting down and talking about their differences is the way to solve things.”

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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