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Your Schools: Striving to always answer that 'all the children are well'

A few years ago, I read something written by the Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O'Neill that I thought a lot about lately while dealing with accusations of sexual assault by a former employee:

"Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising then to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors. 'Kasserian ingera?' one would always say to another. It means, 'And how are the children?' It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well being.

"Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, 'All the children are well,' meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless are in place, that Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. 'All the children are well,' means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence, even among a poor people, do not preclude caring for the young."

Sadly, after issues in the school district this fall, my answer to the question, "And how are the children" must be, "Not so well."

This week I write with a very heavy heart. When I started this job, I promised to report in this column about the good, the bad, and the ugly in the district. Perhaps you read the article in last week's Journal or heard a recent news report about allegations of sexual abuse by a former River Falls School District employee. I guess that's about as ugly as it gets.

The accused employee was a female special education teacher's aide in our district for seven months starting in August 2007. She worked in the Harbor Program, which is a self-contained program for about a half dozen middle and high school students with social, emotional or behavioral issues.

Harbor is under the supervision of the Director of Special Education, and until this year was located in the River Falls Academy building.

The woman's employment in the district was terminated in March 2008, due to concerns of the staff about her not understanding the role of a teacher's aide, as well as her inability to maintain proper boundaries with students. The district had no knowledge at that time of any sexual assault between the employee and one of her students.

The district only learned last month about her admitting to having sexual relations with a 12 year-old boy while she was employed in the district. While the charge against her is that the abuse occurred in the accused's home, there is an unsubstantiated report that sexual contact may also have occurred at school.

All of this information shocks, saddens and disgusts me, as I'm sure it does you. Parents send their precious children to school, believing that they will be safe and secure while under the supervision of district staff. To have compromised that trusting relationship is an affront to all of us as employees who work feverishly in the district to provide a safe and secure place for students to learn.

Our district's evolving strategic plan is clear in the mission on what we want for all students. "A safe, nurturing...environment."

The plan's beliefs speak to what we value as a district: "Every person has a right to a safe environment...healthy relationships are necessary for strong communities."

Our strategic objectives point to what we try to achieve for every student: "All students (will) live a physically, socially and emotionally balanced healthy life."

And yet for all the platitudes, there are bad things that happen with, to, and by children, both in and out of school, that tell me we have not yet fully arrived at that safe and nurturing environment, nor at the healthy relationships to which we espouse: Things like a sexual assault of a child by an adult; things like graffiti and racist remarks spray-painted on outside school walls; things like threats written on bathroom walls targeting specific groups of students or even the entire student body; things like an armed robbery of a local business by teenagers from our community.

Dr. O'Neill's words quoted at the beginning of this column continue:

"I wonder how it might affect our consciousness of our own children's welfare if in our culture we took to greeting each other with this same daily question: 'And how are the children?' I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared for in this country. I wonder if every adult among us, parent and non-parent alike, felt an equal weight for the daily care and protection of all the children in our town, in our state, in our country...I wonder if we could truly say without any hesitation, 'The children are well, yes, all the children are well.'

As we pick up the pieces in the district of the sexual assault and resolve to never let that happen to another child ever again, I truly hope that my answer in the future to the Masai question "And how are the children" will someday again be: "The children are well."