Two new Kivalina school teachers quit after threats

Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two new teachers have left the Kivalina school since classes started last month, citing threats of physical harm from students and disagreements over teaching philosophy.

The complaints arose less than seven months after school district officials took the unusual step of shutting down the school in the Northwest Alaska village in response to teachers who said they were verbally and physically intimidated by students.

The McQueen School was closed for three weeks last spring, five of the school's 10 teachers left, and state and local education officials pledged to fix the problems.

Little has changed in recent months, according to a resignation letter from Carrie Lamothe. She and her husband, Marco, left their new teaching positions at McQueen School on Sept. 5.

Her letter, dated Sept. 3, told the head of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District that she was mainly leaving because of unsafe working conditions.

''On a daily basis, students threaten teachers and fellow students with little or no consequence,'' Carrie Lamothe wrote to superintendent Mike Dunleavy. The Lamothes have since returned to Maine.

But Gerry Pickner, Kivalina's new principal, said he thinks cultural misunderstandings led to the Lamothes' decision to leave Kivalina. The Lamothes declined to be interviewed.

''I feel bad that they left,'' Pickner said. ''People come from different environments to this environment and don't understand it. If you don't feel comfortable, you don't feel comfortable.''

School for the roughly 130 students began Aug. 21 with 10 teachers -- six of them new -- and a new counselor.

Things are going well and improving daily, Pickner said. Students follow the rules. Parents visit the school more often. The Advisory School Board on Saturday adopted a new discipline policy.

Many in the Inupiat community of 377 agree with Pickner. Then again, some don't.

The Lamothe's departure came days after some teachers detailed similar concerns in a letter to Dunleavy. The letter, which was faxed unsigned to the Anchorage Daily News, pleaded for law enforcement in Kivalina, which has no village public safety officer.

''A world without consequence is not safe for adults or children,'' said the letter, dated Aug. 28. ''We are afraid and need immediate intervention.''

School District officials will not say how many teachers signed the letter, apparently written by new staff members. The writers said kids made threats and racist remarks several times since school began a week earlier.

Camille Parker, the new kindergarten teacher, said she's happy in Kivalina.

''We want to feel like a part of this community and I feel that's what's happening,'' the 31-year-old said.

Pickner learned of the Lamothes' departure on Sept. 8 when he returned to the village after attending his father's funeral. Carrie Lamothe's only previous complaint, he said, had been an initial disagreement with new classroom organization that grouped students by skill level.

Shirley Holloway, state education commissioner, spoke with Marco Lamothe before he resigned. She advised him to leave if he felt unsafe.

''I have the feeling that this may have been a mismatch between the couple and the school assignment,'' Holloway said.

After the Lamothes' departure, Pickner said he was confident the rest of the staff would stay put.

But last week, school counselor Karen Buckner requested a transfer and moved to the district's school in Shungnak, about 150 miles east of Kivalina.

''I don't fault her for whatever concerns she has,'' said Pickner, who has spent much of his teaching career on Indian reservations. ''I haven't heard any, other than the fact that we don't have a police officer here in town.

''I've sat down and talked to the entire staff that is remaining. Everyone here is planning on sticking around.''



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