Democrat Photo | Ted Waddell
JANNA WORDEN, CENTER in black outfit, the cheerleading coach and wife of Tri-Valley HS Principal Rob Worden, is flanked by several upperclassmen who made signs reading “Support Our Security” at the Oct. 4 board meeting.
'School for Scandal' or 'Tempest in a Purse'?
By Ted Waddell
GRAHAMSVILLE October 12, 2007 Is the Tri-Valley Central School District a “School for Scandal?”
Was the recent media blitz surrounding allegations that a district security guard asked a 14-year-old female student a delicate question regarding her menstrual period the truth or a “Tempest in a Purse?”
Michael Bunce, the security guard and ex-Monticello cop, had reportedly told Samantha Martin, 14, that she couldn’t carry a purse in school unless she had her period, and then asked her point-blank “Do you have your period?”
When reports of the incident were leaked to the press, a firestorm erupted and soon the school was faced with barrages of questions and by Friday, September 28, satellite trucks from the city’s major TV stations were set up outside the school.
What brought out the big guns from NYC?
Reports that students were wearing necklaces made of tampons, sporting maxi-pads pinned to their clothes, carrying purses fashioned from Tampax boxes, and lots and lots of confused and angry parents.
The book bag policy
The incident that sparked the short-lived media circus started on Wednesday, September 19, when several members of the high school staff conducted a “bag sweep” to ferret out who was carrying book bags or backpacks, or wearing coats during the school day, in violation of the district’s new policy.
According to published reports, and later verified through interviews, high school principal Rob Worden and a couple of security guards (Bunce and David Drown) made the rounds, and if they spied a kid in class with a banned bag (or oversize purse) pulled them out of the classroom and told them to stow it in a locker.
On February 1, 2007 Worden sent out a letter (followed up by a second letter in August) to the parents/guardians of high school students, advising them of the changes in school policy.
“Beginning next year (2007-2008) students will not be allowed to wear coats or jackets during the school day… students may not carry their book bags/backpacks around during the day. If they arrive to school with one, they must put it in their lockers and keep them there until dismissal,” Worden wrote.
“The majority of past case studies across the nation show that in incidents involving drugs, alcohol, and weapons in schools, students have concealed the items in either coats or book bags. Although not allowing coats to be adorned [sic] or book bags to be carried does not totally guarantee that students will not bring drugs, alcohol or weapons to school, it greatly reduces the risk.”
Worden cited the National School Safety & Security Council, “…that it does reduce risks by taking away one method for carrying them around school all day.”
He also cited issues related to posture and spinal health caused by lugging backpacks around school.
The “No Jacket and Coat Policy’ along with the “No Book Bag/Backpack Policy” are outlined in the current student handbook. Purses are allowed.
Pushing the envelope
Several staff members who requested anonymity said that a few students, mostly 9th grade girls, started pushing the envelope by carrying ever larger purses to see, in essence, how far they could extend the definition of “book bag” and/or “pocketbook”
Apparently, confusion ruled until the administration cracked down and initiated the “bag sweep.”
And confusion certainly was the order of the day after the sweep.
To make matters even more confusing and with a perceived lack of communication from the administration on Friday, September 28, school was “locked down” after an early morning 911 call came in “informing us there was a situation in the community that might impact the school, a very distraught person might be coming to the school,” said district superintendent Nancy George, during a regularly scheduled board of education meeting on Thursday, October 4.
“I immediately locked down the campus to protect everyone,” she added. “One of my responsibilities as superintendent is student safety, and I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Shortly after the 911 call, the school received several threatening phone calls, and the buildings remained locked down until school was dismissed.
According to informed sources within the district, the first call was related to a report that a disturbed spouse might be headed to school to shoot someone, and the later calls were related to threats against a specific student.
The people have their say
Lori Mickelson, president of the TVCS board of education, said during the public meeting on Oct. 4 attended by a crowd of over 100 students, parents and faculty, that the board was looking into “concerns about the limitations on carrying backpacks, pocketbooks and other book bags within the high school, and any inappropriate inquiries which have allegedly been made to students by one or more staff members at the high school.”
Mickelson announced that Bunce has been put on paid administrative leave.
In 2002, Bunce and ex-Monticello Police Chief Mike Brennan were bounced from the local police force after they were nabbed operating a private process-serving business on village time and using taxpayer’s resources.
Albany-based attorney Beth Bourassa of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna is investigating the incident concerning the “inappropriate” questions, and will be reporting to the board/district.
“Paid administrative leave is not disciplinary,” said Bourassa. “Mr. Bunce is presumed innocent until the board determines otherwise.”
Then the public, a few students and the high school cheerleading coach had their five minutes to speak.
Kevin Drown, a senior and three-letter athlete addressed the board.
“Over the past few weeks, events have unfolded that have turned the school and community that I love into a circus,” he said. “I know the persons accused of asking ‘The Question’ very well, and they are upstanding people who care greatly about the students at Tri-Valley.
“This issue has gotten completely out of hand and has been handled poorly,” he added. “This story is one-sided and people have chosen sides without knowing all the information or the people involved… We should leave this behind us all and try to heal this school and this community’s reputation.”
Vern Lindquist of Grahamsville is the father of 14-year-old freshman Hannah, who he said was told by the high school principal “that she was part of the problem… she had her little protest purse which was an empty box of tampons.”
His take on the flap over the reported comments and how it was handled by the administration?
“Something was happening, especially with all the media crews, and no one knew what to think,” said Lindquist
Was it blown out of proportion?
“No, this is a very serious issue,” he replied. “I don’t think it would have made the national press if the administration had taken it seriously right away… the kids were asked for attention, and for a period of two weeks we’ve received nothing at all from the school administration on this issue.”
“I’m heartened that the board saw fit to suspend Mr. Bunce right now… I’m absolutely astounded that it didn’t happen immediately, these are such serious allegations,” added Lindquist.
Gary O’Donnell lives in Grahamsville and is the father of three 10-year-olds who go to school at Tri-Valley, Joshua, Ashley and Sara Jane.
“I went to school with Mike Bunce, wrestled with him at Monticello High School and graduated with him,” said O’Donnell. “I know Mike Bunce, and he should have been suspended sooner than tomorrow… this should have been taken care of a lot quicker.”
“My opinion is that is was handled improperly, right from the security guard to the point where the girls had to decide they had to make a stand,” he added.
Then O’Donnell pointed out a chilling reality check.
“I believe in the backpack rule, but it was brought up before the backpacks coming all the way into the locker. No offense, but I’m a hunter give me a gun or a knife and I can get into a situation and get what I’ve got to get. If they want to get somebody bad enough, they’re going to get inside.”
Janna Worden is the varsity cheerleading coach and wife of the high school principal.
She has a very good reason to fear guns in school, as a couple of years ago she and her family cheated death when a deranged gunman opened up with a semi-automatic assault right at the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston.
During the board meeting, Worden sat with a small group of upperclassmen who were holding a few signs reading “Support Our Security”.
Then it was her turn to speak.
She told the board that her squad came into the gym after the initial incident so distraught she thought they were fighting.
Worden then told the board and audience what it was like to be an eyewitness to a shooting rampage and wonder about the fate of her husband, their three kids, a couple of younger brothers and her parents.
“Honestly, all I saw was black and heard gunshots… he had basically just started shooting up the mall, shooting aimlessly in different directions,” recalled Worden.
“Having gone through that, I feel it is needed,” she said of the ‘no backpacks’ policy. “It is needed, and for us to ignore it and say it’s not going to happen here in Sullivan County… just look across the country… it’s happening in rural schools, kids being shot up in an Amish school and girls executed, and a first grader shooting a kindergartner to death… this happens.
Rumor control and a reality check.
“The rumor spread there were no pocketbooks,” said Worden of the new ‘no backpacks’ rule.
“One kid, a girl, realized ‘You know what, I can get a big shoulder bag, put my books in it, and call it a purse,’” she added. “I think they were angry because they didn’t get their way.”