South Hadley voters will consider adding assistant high school principal after spate of assaults on teachers

South Hadley High School

South Hadley High School


Staff Writer

Published: 11-02-2023 6:22 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — A week after six South Hadley High School staff members were physically assaulted by students in three separate incidents, the School Committee and Select Board agreed this week to ask residents to approve funding for a second assistant principal to help with disciplinary action.

The Select Board agreed Monday at an emergency meeting with the School Committee to ask voters at a Nov. 15 special Town Meeting to approve $61,000 from the town’s fiscal 2024 operational budget to pay for the new position.

The decision to ask for another assistant principal — which the school used to have — came after three separate physical assaults of staff by students occurred on two days last week. On the first day, a student began acting out and triggered other students in the class, one of whom attempted to climb out the window and assaulted a teacher, according to High School Principal Elizabeth Wood.

During the second day, two fights between students broke out, resulting in the assault of five teachers, three of whom left the campus to seek medical attention. The South Hadley Fire Department also transported students who required medical assistance, and the police arrived to deescalate another student quarrel in the parking lot with the assistant principal.

After all three incidents, administration and staff met with the students involved, called parents and helped treat students in triage.

“These incidents last week became a flashpoint for we can’t keep doing this anymore,” said interm Superintendent Mark McLaughlin at the emergency meeting. “It’s the ‘we can’t keep doing this’ that doesn’t get talked about because we do it.”

Wood said the school’s current administration needs more help to deal with myriad challenges that have emerged in recent years, ranging from the addition of programs to students’ mental health support.

“We’re not just dealing with academics anymore, we’re dealing with social-emotional development,” she told the Select Board. “We’re dealing with students who require additional support that we could have never imagined even five years ago.”

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Administrators are now spending so much time dealing with various investigations and disciplinary processes for disorderly conduct that they struggle to complete other aspects of their jobs, like professional development, teacher evaluation and academic support.

“For 90% of my student body, they knew what happened, but they also went about their day ... But what are we losing for those 90% when you have both administrators tied up with 10%?” Wood said.

Just from this school year, Wood has 13 bullying, one Title IX and one civil rights investigation, all of which must follow a tight and detailed timeline.

For instance, Wood cannot simply suspend the two students who injured five teachers. Rather, she has a day to investigate whether the incident was a manifestation of one student’s disability, and then come up with an appropriate consequence. Administrators have two days to remove a student from school, and then a day after to conduct a meeting about the incident, file any paperwork to outside agencies, conduct a crisis evaluation with emergency services and complete a risk assessment, all within 48 to 72 hours of the incident.

“Last November there was a significant change to Massachusetts disciplinary policies which put into place all of these proactive measures, which is great, but it also is really time-consuming to do it the right way,” Wood said.

South Hadley School District has one school resource officer to help with the security and safety of students, but Wood points out that changes in Massachusetts’ juvenile reform laws prevent the officer from intervening in a student disturbance and disciplinary measures.

Wood said only an administrator can search students for dangerous objects, break up physical fights and respond to crisis or disciplinary calls within a classroom. School resource officers serve as external security for the high school and act as a liaison between the school, the community and the Police Department.

While the Select Board agreed to advance the request for another assistant principal to voters, member Jeff Cyr expressed doubt about funding an additional position when the School Committee requested and received 14 new positions in the current budget. He noted that many of those positions are being funded with emergency relief funds that won’t continue.

“So here we are creating a 15th position, which I totally get the explanation, but it’s the sustainability of being able to have the position and the benefits associated with it,” Cyr said.

However, Town Administrator Lisa Wong said the town can afford the new assistant principal position and called it the best compromise for the high school and the town.

“The minimum request we’re asking for tonight is something that’s been very well-talked through,” she said.

She added, “We’ve done the cost-benefit analysis, We have looked at how this compares to other positions, we’ve looked at the number of students that would be impacted. We’ve looked at the whole breadth of things, and this really is the biggest impact for the least amount of money.”

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@