Kivalina residents sound off about school closure

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Some 200 parents, elders and students packed the McQueen School gym in Kivalina for a community meeting Friday, two days after the Northwest Arctic Borough School District abruptly shut down classes, citing ''threatening and assaultive behavior'' against teachers.

Charles Mason, the district's chief executive officer, ordered the school closed Wednesday after complaints from teachers worried about their safety.

Almost half the school's 11-member teaching staff left the village last week.

The closure is the second time in a little more than 20 years that Kivalina's school was shut down because of teacher harassment. In September 1979, a student was expelled and classes suspended temporarily after district officials said teachers had been subjected to stress and threats.

The town meeting Friday was a venue for people to vent and for village elders to offer cautious wisdom. Half of the village crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on metal bleachers. Nine school board members sat facing them.

Mason spoke for several minutes, in a tone that ranged from apologetic to scolding. He said ''95 percent'' of the students are wonderful but that a small minority is out of hand.

''We had a group of teachers who left yesterday because they were fearful for their safety,'' Mason said. ''When people who work at a school are fearful for their safety, we've got a problem.''

He detailed several years of disarray at the school, including a rash of suspensions and expulsions, low test scores, and complaints from school staff and past principals who felt threatened. Mason described acts of vandalism at teachers' homes and reported violence against pets owned by teachers.

''When I heard about kids up all night long, throwing rocks and ice at a teacher's house, that has got to change,'' Mason said. ''When I find out a teacher or principal has a dead dog on their doorstep the next morning, that has got to change.''

When five teachers decided to leave, Mason said, he had no choice but to close the school.

Some speakers said the town meeting was overdue and should have happened before officials closed the school.

Other parents, including Millie Hawley and Jenny Swan, said the current staff had not made the school a place where parents feel welcome or valued.

''That's not how it's supposed to be,'' Swan said.

The topic debated most was the school's discipline policy. Some parents said they resented the policy enforced this year, which they said was too rigid. If teachers at McQueen treated students with more respect, they would be treated likewise, Eleanor Swan said.

Mason defended the policy. It was actually drafted two years ago, and the new principal, Betty Wallace, is enforcing the rules, he said.

But Rose Hawley, 17, daughter of Stan and Millie Hawley, said the strict rules made school seem like prison.

''It's like my mother said, we just have to watch every move we make,'' she said.

The high school senior said McQueen has problems, like any other school. She said she was sad and frustrated when she heard five teachers were leaving.

''They're just looking for an easy way out,'' Rose said. ''There's troubles in the school, but they're not going to last forever.''

Stan Hawley, Rose's father, looked to the students in the audience to take some responsibility.

''I'd like all the high school boys to stand up,'' he said. ''I'm putting you on the spot.''

Six teen-age boys, seated on bleachers under a basketball hoop, stood and looked sheepish as the crowd warmly applauded them. Stan Hawley told the boys to raise their hands if they care about their school. They all raised a hand high.

Then Hawley asked the six boys to keep their hands up if they are passing their classes. Four put their hands down.

''If you really care about your school, you will pass,'' Hawley said. ''It's not that hard to put out a little effort!''

Elder Lucy Adams appealed to parents in a wavering but commanding voice.

''I've been crying inside, ever since the school was closed,'' she said. ''It's time to control your children. Don't just holler into your CBs! The parents need to wake up.''

Several people on Friday suggested that reinstating basketball or a wrestling program at the high school would give kids something to work for. They described Kivalina as a close-knit, caring community where children respect their elders and the whaling culture promotes high ideals and morals.

The village is at the tip of an eight-mile barrier reef between the Chukchi Sea and the mainland, about 80 miles northwest of Kotzebue.

When Rose Hawley asked Mason when school might reopen, he said he didn't know.

Mason said the district will figure out a way to give the Kivalina high school students the state-required High School Graduation Qualifying Exam this week.

''When I heard about the school closing, I started crying,'' Rose Hawley said. ''I need to graduate. I need to go to college.''

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