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Thousand Islands Central defends crisis response as probes into bullying, threat continue

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CLAYTON — Following one student’s suicide and another’s apparently threatening text message, the Thousand Islands Central School staff defended its crisis action plans.

On March 18, the district Board of Education “heard comments and concerns from our parents,” board President John P. Warneck said. “There is an ongoing investigation and students who make violent threats will face consequences.”

More than 30 parents attended that school board meeting. Mr. Warneck said the session was meant to answer questions community members previously raised. Many commented on the school’s attention to bullying, the guidance and support staff’s response to Daniel J. Briggs’s suicide and the alleged threat by a middle school student in a March 12 text message.

State police concluded the text message posed no threat. Even so, district Superintendent Frank C. House said the student who sent the message will appear before the disciplinary board, which will determine appropriate consequences.

Mr. Warneck noted an ongoing investigation into bullying.

Daniel, the 16-year-old who took his life, allegedly was a longtime bullying victim. The district’s guidance and support staff — elementary school guidance counselor David Kortz, middle school guidance counselor Sally Bartlett, high school guidance counselor Bobbi Nevala and school psychologist Caitlin Vigliotti — outlined their job duties and discussed their crisis plan. Ms. Nevala said the day after Daniel’s death, the district brought all the available staff to the high school.

“Our main priority is to support and keep our students safe,” Ms. Vigliotti said.

Mr. Kortz said the emergency action plan was in place long before the suicide. He said the plan holds that the district should not memorialize a student who commits suicide because it may encourage others to follow suit.

“Students we identified as a risk we were sure to make contact with,” Ms. Vigliotti said.

Amy J. Briggs, Daniel’s mother, criticized the crisis plan as limited and said her son deserved more respect. “I beg to differ that a moment of silence for my son would have been a safety concern,” Mrs. Briggs said.

Attorney Timothy A. Collins, who represents the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, talked to parents and community members about school investigations. He said probes into student bullying must remain confidential to protect a student’s privacy.

Stephen C. Byers, Clayton, applauded the board for its efforts to make the district a better place. But he said he was disappointed that students who break the rules enjoy greater privacy than those who report an incident.

Mr. Byers, who contacted the troopers after his daughter read the disturbing text message, said they assured him his report would remain confidential. Yet, he said, by the afternoon he was getting calls from people saying they knew it was him who had reported the threat.

Mr. Byers said overall people were supportive, but said it was unnecessary that his daughter’s name was revealed to high school staff. He said if the identity of a bully is kept confidential, then kids who “do the right thing” also should be protected.

Mrs. Briggs said the school needs to keep better track of parents’ complaints to identify troublesome relationships. She said the school’s lack of any record of her complaints about Daniel’s problems with other students makes it more difficult to investigate his death.

Mr. Kortz said a guidance counselor’s tasks are guidance, system support, individual planning and responsive services. “School counselors aren’t therapists,” he said, noting they are not always the right persons to address serious psychological issues.

Mr. Collins, the board’s attorney, said any reports to him will be reviewed and that, in order for him to follow up, he needs feedback from parents and community members. Complaints filed with him are kept confidential. He noted that despite a desire for transparency, education laws state that any information about a student must remain private.

Mr. Collins said community participation facilitates any investigation, and those who wish to issue a complaint should e-mail him at tcollins@boces.com.

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