Gibraltar Suspensions Renew Transparency Concerns

The suspension of several Gibraltar High School students in January sparked questions from the community that the Gibraltar school board was still unable to answer after two regularly scheduled board meetings. Claiming student confidentiality, residents and parents called out the administration for the lack of acknowledgement of the suspensions and a subsequent protest by students.

After the Feb. 13 meeting opened with board member Mike Peot commenting on how small the agenda was for the night, residents responded that having a small agenda is what upset them in the first place.

“I really hope that at the next meeting there are a lot of issues on the agenda so that you guys can face them and do the responsible thing because right now this board is behaving irresponsibly,” said Brett Reetz, a parent of Gibraltar students.

Reetz listed a set of requests made by the public in the preceding weeks that continue to be absent on the school board agenda. While some of the list was abstract, such as teacher morale and lack of engagement, other topics were more concrete.

At the prior school board meeting on Jan. 23, Gibraltar resident Kathleen Harris asked for a business audit that was done by the school, a bullying report, and requested the school take a survey of teachers regarding school culture and climate, a survey that is provided by the Department of Public Instruction. While the board is not able to respond directly to these public comments at the meeting, none of the action items were taken up at the following meeting three weeks later.

One of the primary concerns voiced at the Feb. 13 meeting was the process of hiring a new head football coach.

Strong support for Scott Biemeret, who was appointed after the abrupt departure of former coaches Pat Keehan and Mike LeClair in October 2016, fell on what residents felt were the consistently deaf ears of the administration.

Gibraltar senior Kelsey Weddig said she and other students feel ignored in decisions that will impact their experience at school.

“[Students’ feelings] should most definitely be taken into consideration with the hiring of our new football coach,” said Weddig.

“Perception is that decisions are being made not with the kids’ best interest in mind, but rather what the board or administration think may be easier for them to control,” said Brian Ferrie, father of Gibraltar graduates.

Biemeret declined to comment about the hiring process but said he was frustrated.

To other parents, the lack of acknowledgement of several suspensions and subsequent protest by students was the board’s biggest silence.

In January, a group of students were suspended for reasons the school administration has not confirmed. A group of students then protested the suspensions with a sit-in in the lobby of the school, according to reports from parents. The administration did not notify parents of the cause of the suspensions or the protest, leaving many of them to find out through the Door County rumor mill.

“I don’t want to hear about all these suspensions from another mother at another school,” said a mother of a Gibraltar student at the Jan. 23 meeting.

But state and federal law seals the school board’s lips. The board cannot discuss specific students or personnel in an open meeting for reasons of confidentiality.

“Any discipline of a student is confidential under both state and federal law,” said Nic Dibble, a consultant with the Department of Instruction. “It wouldn’t be legal for them to talk about any student by name in relationship to a disciplinary incident or to share what the disciplinary response was.”

Not only must names be left out, but the administration must be careful not to speak too specifically about anyone, because if an identity can be gleaned from a few details, they may be in violation of that confidentiality. This rule makes things increasingly opaque in smaller communities.

“I think in a smaller high school you have to be more careful because there’s just fewer kids and it could make it easier for people to figure out who was involved,” said Dibble.

But Dibble said that some details, such as the number of students involved and any events that took place at the school that resulted in disciplinary action, can be communicated in an open meeting, details which the Gibraltar administration has continued to be silent about.

Even board members did not understand what happened.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Britt Maltby asked if she could learn more about the suspensions and protest.

“As a board member, can we get an update on the suspension? Because I have not gotten anything on that,” said Maltby.

Gibraltar Superintendent Tina Van Meer responded that student confidentiality makes that difficult but, “what we can do is have a closed session where the administrators come in and share with you what happened and what their response was.”

Three weeks after that request from a school board member, no closed session has been scheduled.

“I’m perplexed. I’m disappointed. None of those items made it to the agenda tonight,” said Reetz.

Some residents feel as though their consistent comments and requests still won’t make a difference.

“There’s going to be talk about this, there’s going to be things written and then probably next agenda it still won’t be on there,” said a Gibraltar mother who requested not to be identified. “It never, ever gets followed up.”

Van Meer denied a request for any public records related to the suspensions and subsequent protest, citing student confidentiality.

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