Parents press Enfield school board over pizza-sex assignment

·4 min read

Mar. 24—ENFIELD — Sparks flew at a Board of Education meeting this week with parents saying it has taken too long for the board to respond to their concerns even before they heard member John Unghire present his proposal for a special task force to look into why an assignment was mistakenly given to eighth-graders in January that used pizza toppings as a metaphor for sexual acts.

Several residents said during the meeting held Tuesday in Town Hall that the board has yet to address their questions, despite their repeated pleas to do so, over how an assignment for a Family Health and Human Sexuality class at the John F. Kennedy School could have been given to students.

Establishing a special task force that includes members of the community, as Unghire has proposed, would be a step toward making sure such an incident would not happen again and show that the board recognizes parents have a stake in their children's' education, they said.

Unghire said that in the aerospace manufacturing field where he has a background and mistakes can be catastrophic, something called a root cause corrective action process takes place to find out how an event happened.

There are many reasons to set up a task force that uses a method designed to find the root cause of a problem that often results from an unexpected event, he said. The "Pizza and Consent" assignment was such an example, he said.

He is proposing the board create a special task force with between three and seven members from the board, community, and schools. Their charge would be to ask the five W's — who, what, where, when, and why — and then implement corrective actions to prevent a recurrence.

"I am not looking to blame anyone, but we as a board and community need to fully understand how this happened," Unghire said about the assignment mistakenly being given to students. "We cannot afford another mistake, especially at the expense of our public school system."

Proactive not reactive

Unghire said that board has an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership and responsibility to the community. "Let's put safeguards in place so we don't have to be reactive but be proactive," he said.

Unghire did not make a motion for the board to act upon his proposal but just asked members to think about it so it could be discussed and possibly acted upon at the next meeting.

Board member Janet Cushman said she supports forming the task force as it would enable the board to work collaboratively with staff and the community to address concerns about the lesson. The task force would lead to "transparency that is valued by most and needed to restore trust," she said.

Cushman researched a general statute that addresses what public schools need to offer, saying health and safety is a required area, but it appears that family life education programs are not mandatory. "There has been a lot of talk about consent being a requirement but I'm asking if it needs to be included," she said.

Board member Amanda Pickett said she needs to better understand the purpose of what Unghire is trying to find out.

"I believe we know what happened," she said. "It is an opt-in class and (Superintendent Christopher Drezek) has shared with us that it was a mistake."

It's a staff issue, she said, which is not a function of the board to investigate. Pickett said parents have come before the board with concerns, but task forces were not established to address other issues.

She does not support establishing a task force "just to investigate a pizza assignment."

Nor do a few residents.

Marcy Taliceo of Coolidge Drive raised the subject of students who have been bullied.

"I say to Mr. Unghire and parents pushing the (task force) that we do have other issues," she said. "I've never heard of a child contemplating suicide over a pizza assignment, but they have over being bullied and cyber-bullying," she said "Our focus has to shift and we have to prioritize where we're putting our attention."

Many said they welcome the special task force. Matt Schmidt of Bigelow Commons said it has been over a month since the pizza assignment took the town by storm, drawing national attention.

"I cannot fathom a reason not to investigate it," he said. "An open investigation will provide a path to resolution; a special committee would amend procedures that would allow such an event to happen in the first place."

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