BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The News 4 Investigates team has been trying to get Buffalo Schools Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown to respond to teachers’ allegations that Bennett High School has become unsafe.
Though our request was initially declined, News 4 found her Wednesday at Buffalo State College, where we were able to ask several questions about Bennett and its new principal, Dr. Terry Ross.
Superintendent Brown says she made an unannounced visit to Bennett High Tuesday.
“I was able to see students making transitions between classes. Staff members interacting with students, and things were running pretty smoothly,” Brown says.
Though Brown says she is not saying there are no problems at the school.
“The proof is in what I’m able to see firsthand, and that’s why I make a point of being there on a scheduled basis, but also on an unannounced basis as well,” says Brown.
Teachers Anna Klapakis and Neil Lange recently appeared on News 4, and painted a chaotic picture of what’s happening inside the building.
“It’s a building that does not feel safe,” says Lange, who has taught at Bennett for 33 years.
“The problem is the leadership,” says Klapakis, a 12-year veteran of Bennett.
Lange and Klapakis are critical of the leadership style and approach of principal Dr. Terry Ross and they’re not alone.
A survey of Bennett teachers was conducted in December by their union. More than half of the 95 teachers responded. Here are some of the comments:
“Teacher morale is at the lowest I’ve ever seen.”
“The learning environment is a joke.”
“Dr. Ross has created an environment of confrontation and intimidation.”
“Students don’t respect or take him seriously.”
When asked to agree or disagree with this statement: Bennett is a safe place for students, 48 respondents disagreed.
One wrote: “Students are roaming the hallways. I have both witnessed and heard stories of students walking into classrooms and starting fights. Students are being jumped in the bathrooms. Before and after school students are fighting.”
Lange felt compelled to appear before a Board of Education meeting on March 26.
“We need an immediate fix at Bennett High School,” Lange tells the board. “Right now for the remainder of the year.”
School Board President Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold says she’s very concerned that teachers and students would feel unsafe in the building. She says she has directed an administrator to examine Bennett’s record of disciplining students.
“Let’s see whether or not we actually have cases where children should have been suspended and weren’t. And where we have cases where the appropriate action in terms of prevention and intervention are being taken,” says Nevergold.
School board member Sharon Belton-Cottman responded to News 4’s investigation, and to the teachers’ complaints, at Wednesday night’s regularly-scheduled board meeting.
“All the adults had legitimate concerns. And there was room for improvement,” Belton-Cottman told the audience. “However, it is not the board members’ place to determine at any hearing whether a principal will remain in place.”
Dr. Ross was brought in from out-of-state as a turnaround specialist. But according to his resume he has no prior experience as a high school principal, although he did serve as an elementary and middle school principal.
What’s more, News 4 has learned that Dr. Ross did not have initial state certification as a building leader for the start of the school year. He applied for it in November and received it in December and now has two years to pass a state exam to receive permanent certification.
When asked if Ross has her “full support,” Brown responds, “Again, we are monitoring and supporting what’s going on at Bennett High School as we are at all of our schools.”
When pressed on whether that means she supports Ross, Brown responds, “I support all of our principals.”
Brown put an end to the interview after being asked whether Ross has “done the job you thought he was going to do? Has he done the job the way you want him to?”
News 4 Investigates has also asked repeatedly for an on-camera interview with Dr. Ross but that request was declined. Instead, the district issued a statement: “This is Dr. Ross’s first year as principal of Bennett, and he has stated that he didn’t expect to come into the school and push a button that would affect instant turnaround. He imagined it as a process that may take a few years.”
Because of low graduation rates and a lack of academic progress, the state directed that the district submit a turnaround plan for the school.
The state is expected to decide soon on a district proposal to phase out the current school and start up another one with specialty programs.
The district’s statement noted that Bennett’s graduation rate of 47.7 percent in 2009 dropped to 35 percent in 2012. The 2013 preliminary rate was 43.5 but the school was signaled out by the state “based on a lack of sufficient progress for the last several years.”