Felipe Lopez ’22, Editor in Chief, interviews Dr. Jamie Chisum in room 263. Video by Annabelle Nolan, Suzie Kim, Kaelyn King. 

Transcript by Kaelyn King:

F: So our first topic today is going to be the recent bullying incident at the high school, well I guess not recent, but, over the summer. And so, something I’ve heard from a lot of people is that they’ve criticized the use of the phrase “young people make mistakes” um in the Tuesday night email sent by yourself and the superintendent. Many believe that the word “mistake” downplays the incident and took away from its gravity. If you were to look back, would you still characterize it as a mistake or would you choose to pick another word? 

C: I understand that perspective for sure. Clearly, this is a mistake, but there are grave mistakes and there are mistakes that are oops I forgot my homework or something. I would categorize this as a much heavier mistake, and maybe it would have been worthwhile to put that kind of description in front of it. Horrible mistake, grave mistake? I don’t know, something like that. I think describing it a little more deeply might’ve been more sensitive to how people received it. I certainly didn’t want people to think that I did not take it seriously and if it came across that way then I need to do a better job.

F: And a lot of people are wondering what goes into those emails from yourself and the superintendent and how many sets of eyes they go through. 

C: That’s a good question. Several sets of eyes. I think people understand that there are some legal obligations that we have and I get that that sounds bureaucratic but it is hard to get away from, though, because there are some things that I am just not allowed to talk about. For instance, I’m well aware that last week the police report got out into the public eye. Even though I know that that’s out there, legally I still can’t comment about what’s in there, legally I can’t mention specific names of kids that are in there. I’m not allowed to do that. We have to take those kinds of considerations into account when we write those emails. Whenever you’re writing emails like that’s intended to come from multiple people, certainly with Dr. Lussier and there are contributions that he has to make, contributions that I have to make, many different people will lay eyes on it depending on what it’s about, the director of student services will have eyes on that since its a student issue, vice-principals that are particularly close to an issue will take a look at that. That’s sort of how it goes around. 

F: On the topic of emails, a lot of people have expressed disappointment that the email sent on Tuesday night was sent later in the night, almost at 11 pm, and many think that this is an indication that this incident, this is other people’s words, not our words, has been “swept under the rug”. Do you have anything to address the concerns of people who say this was too last minute?

C: Last-minute to what? Before the rally the next day? I guess that’s what people are saying. We wanted to get something out, that was the quickest we could get something out. You know we were trying to pull those people together in that time frame, I certainly don’t control anyone else’s schedule on that list of people that I talked about. I’ve got no interest in brushing things under the rub but I do have an interest in not talking about things that I am not allowed to talk about. So that’s the tension we’ve been working with. What part can I talk about? Felipe I can’t go tell anyone in town what we’ve done if you’ve got a student discipline issue, and I think that’s right to not do that to kids, I think that’s fair. That doesn’t mean we’re not taking it seriously, but I understand that’s how it’s been perceived. I’ve been trying to work on that and change that perception, but I understand that that’s how it came across to people. It’s not what we wanted to do. Would I have loved it if that thing came out at 4 p.m., if we could have gotten it done we would’ve? That’s all I understand. I didn’t press send, but I worked on it earlier than that and tried to send it. I wasn’t in any meeting where I said let’s wait until 11 p.m. to send this. I understand how when it came out at that time and the next day there’s a rally, that’s how it is seen, but I don’t know what advantage we would’ve gotten from releasing it so late, in fact it seems like it only disadvantaged us. So I don’t know what advantage anyone thought we were getting.

F: And I know you commented about how the incident happened in the summer in your weekend report on Friday, can you just explain if something happens in the summer off of school grounds what authority does the school have to get involved in that?

C: So in terms of an incident that happens in July and it happens not on school property and it’s not a school event or anything like that, I have no authority. It’s a little bit more complicated when it happens online. Take for instance, well people ask me why, what difference does it make when it happens online? The difference is where and how it’s received by the student body. If you take an online incident that happens in July but we find out about it in school, maybe I find out about it before but kids find out about it in school. Well then the receiving of the incident happens in school and we have to be able to respond to it. What does it do to disrupt the learning or not disrupt the learning? That’s one of the considerations that we have to take into account, and sometimes that’s not information that we always know until it hits. 

F: On the topic of policy, the mother of the victim has been very vocal about saying that the school bullying policy is “beautifully written but not properly followed. So, in your opinion, what is the school bullying policy and how closely was it followed. 

C: We followed it, we 100% followed it. Right, so I worked with the lawyer from day one on that and we followed it right down the line. There’s nothing that we did that didn’t follow the policy. We took the complaint, we had to follow up with the police. The information we got was from the family, we didn’t get a report. I understand that the incident, the assault happened in July, but we didn’t find out about it until the end of August. The family came in and let us know what happened. We had to contact the WPD and find out where they were with the investigation, and they shared that information with us and we have to make sure that the police investigation goes in front of us, and we did that, that’s proper procedure. Then we did an investigation of our own that involved talking to witnesses, talking to students and their  parents, and then we determined there was enough evidence to hold a hearing, and we can’t hold a hearing for students that don’t go to WHS, I can’t follow through on that, I have to be careful about how much I say here. Obviously I don’t have any authority over someone who doesn’t got to school here. We held hearings, you know, due process, the student has to come here and do hearings with the principal, and then we have to decide what to do next. And then that information goes to the family of the person who had the hearing, you know, not the media it doesn’t go out, it doesn’t even necessarily go out to the family of the victim. Right, so we did every one of those steps.

F: On the school bullying policy, do you see any revisions to that in the future. 

C: No, we follow the state guidelines, we follow the state policy, the school committee adopts the policy for bullying, and it’s one of the requirements that school districts have to do. So our school adopted the state guidelines and that’s what we have to follow.  

F: So where do you find the balance between proper punishment and rehabilitation for the offender?

C: We have to take each case on a case-by-case basis and you have to look at context and history, you have to talk to witnesses, you have to hear from whoever is appropriate to hear from in whatever the case is and consider those things. The balance is, you know, we understand that punishment alone doesn’t change behavior. There is a regulation in Massachusetts in chapter 22, that tells us that we are not to look at punishment first, we are to look at other forms of behavioral changes before we use suspension, for example. There is a lot of research out there that suspension doesn’t work, that it doesn’t change behaviors the way you would want it to. But there are other reasons to use suspension, there’s supportive reasons to use suspension. There is a hurt in the community and there needs to be some time and space between the hurt and you know the return. That is where you have to start to use judgment about how long that is, between the hurt and the return if there is going to be a return. There is nothing magic about that work, it is about taking an individual case, and going through the context I was talking about and then trying to create balance. What are the pieces that it’s going to take. A lot of times people want to talk about where was the suspension or where was the pound of flesh? There are other things that schools do like counseling sessions, like community service, like regular check-ins with assistant principles, or not being allowed in certain areas or activities like athletics. Whatever. Those are other ways that you can get at trying to change behaviors. We try to explore those in addition to suspension whenever possible. Balance is a judgement call. 

F: I know you’ve been over this a few times, but I guess just to reiterate for the people who haven’t read your emails. And I know this isn’t a private school, but what are some of the qualifications to expel a student from a public school?

C: I wrote about this in my letter on Friday, but there are four ways, and only four ways, that someone can be expelled from a public school in the state Massachusetts. In other states it may be different, but I don’t know. But in Massachusetts you can be convicted of a felony, you can be in possession of a controlled substance on school property, you can be in possession of a dangerous weapon on school property, or you can assault a staff member. That’s it. Those are the four ways that someone can be expelled from a public school in the state of Massachusetts. 

F: We’ve talked plenty about what happens after an instance of bullying, what are some steps that the high school takes to prevent bullying in the first place. And in your opinion do these prevention plans need a refresher or do you think they have been effective in combatting bullying? 

C: Look, bullying is a tough knot to crack because, and how could I possibly say we’ve done enough if it happened again? There’s not a person in this room or a person whose going to consume this story who is going to say that they haven’t heard of or felt someone doing something bullying. A lot of times, stuff doesn’t get reported to us. And there are reasons why kids make those decisions. Why you might say “I don’t wanna get that kid in trouble” or “I’m afraid it’s going to be worse for me” if I do that. And I understand that. I understand that. Those are some of the challenges that make it really hard for bullying to permanently be eradicated from the face of the Earth. My gosh, please, if someone’s got a formula for that, tell me, I’m in. All in. I don’t want any kid to ever feel intimidated or bullied here at Wellesley High School or around it. I don’t want it to happen. You know, every year staff does a mandatory training on bullying. Is it super effective? I don’t know. It’s hard to say oh yeah its the greatest thing ever because we continue to have instances of bullying. So, you know, we have to make sure that we examine these things. Moments like these cause us to step back. A moment like this makes us pause, and please, I’m reflecting. Look, I’m confident we followed our bullying policy, but did we do enough beforehand? How could we have known, I would of loved to have known more information. Did we create a safe enough space here? Like why do we divide our school into houses? Cause we want to make it smaller so that everyone here is more well known. There’s a team of people in each of those houses. House assistant, the assistant principle, the three guidance counselours, there a clinician in each of those houses. I mean I would guess that for every person at this high school the house assistant probably knows- if your parent has ever called because you had a dentist appointment or you were sick or they were worried about you or wanted to talk to your guidance counselour, they have probably spoken to your parents over the phone, or they’ve emailed them, or both. We created that system to try to know families and students better. Advisory is by far not a perfect system, I know that. There are advisories that work really really well, and there are advisories that don’t work as well. And yet, we have a system in place where for 8 minutes a day you’re with an adult whose not grading you for that time that you’re there. The concept is that every single day for eight minutes a day every kid has a set of eyes on them. We created that with this in mind. That’sinhy advisory exists, so that you have eyes on you every single day, and their only responsibility is to check in on how you’re doing. Thats what is supposed to be the case. In some cases, that creates a really safe adult to go. In other cases, that relationship doesn’t work out that well. But thats why we create that system. People are like you’re crazy, why do you have eight minutes of advisory, well thats why we have eight minutes of advisory. Not just to prevent bullying, but for all kinds of things you may need a trusted adult for. You know, we have guidance seminar that we have been doing for years. You know, the guidance seminar is “bogus, its annoying, you know its once a cycle it takes away a free or you might have to come in early one day” we get it, but why do we do it? We do it so that your guidance counselors get to know you better. I have a really good friend thats a guidance counselor. He used to be a guidance counselor here, and he went over to the dark side, you know there’s a story, but he ended up at Needham. We might not want to admit it but Needham’s a great high school, there’s good people over there and my buddy’s a really good guidance counselor. One of his impressions after his first couple of years there was “oh my gosh I knew my kids so much better at Wellesley because of guidance seminar”. Because I saw them on that semi-regular basis. It’s another way that we try to keep our eyes on you, and build relationships. Again, guidance counselor, trusted adult who doesn’t grade you. Don’t try, try and to get to know yourself as a human being and understand you. We build the beginning of our school year, I mean, how annoying were those first three days, everyone told me how annoying they were, there were stops and starts and all this time and advisory and the teachers were trying to do these get to know you things. We impressed on faculty, slow down this year in particular. Were trying to build a climate of care. I’ve been talking to the staff about building a climate of care, and the need to build a climate of care here before we can get into the other work that we do. Its for precisely this reason, its precisely to get to know kids. And, hopefully some effort here on one of these peoples parts, whether that be a coach, or an extracurricular activity, or one of these teachers who took a special interest in you or an advisor or a guidance counselour or the house assistant, it doesn’t matter it could be a custodian. We want every single person to be approachable. I ask every single person that applies to a job at Wellesley high School the same question, I ask other questions but I always ask every single person the same question. Mr. Finneron knows what I’m about to say because he’s seen me do it: Tell me what you love about high school kid?. And I ask them that question for a reason, cause I don’t want anyone working here who doesn’t love high school kids. I love high school kids. This is where I wanna be. I wanna be at this age group for a reason. I think that you guys are awesome to work with, and the last thing I want is to see anyone in pain here. So, we put a lot of work into trying to create systems to catch this kind of stuff up front. This is pur bullying prevention work. It doesn’t look like it in “this is your 10-point bullying prevention plan”, but it is. Its what we do and its the culture we try to crate and thats what I’d say, how is it working? I mean I can’t say it works perfectly because we still have these incidents, but come on. oO, we’ll continue to try to get better every day. Every day we have to come into work here and try to get better. And we’re going to continue to do that. Thats what we were doing before. With more reflection on this incident, of course, of course, we will try to get better. 

F: A lot of students have mentioned, to us and just in general, that they don’t feel like they have trusted adult to talk to about not just this incident but any incident. I know this is very much putting you on the spot, but is there anything else you could think of that could help these students have someone to go to?

C: I’d put that question back to you, I don’t mean to kick it and to not take responsibility. I often say its all well and good when adults sit around a room and try to solve problems for kids but if you don’t bring a kid voice in its not going to work. So the right answer to that question is out there not in here. Do I consider myself some kind of expert on working with high school kids, yeah among adults, but kids all know how to be a teenager better than I do because its been too long since I’ve been one. So, I would say that the answer to that comes from student voices. What is it that was not doing that you need us to do? And that’s the right question that we need to be asking, not just you, all kids here. And maybe that’s part of the reflection we have at the moment is that’s a feeling. So I don’t know what a lot means, I don’t know how scientific you’re – and I’m not trying to be critical of your work. You know we’ve done the Metrowestsurvey, which you guys know about that I wrote about that on Friday as well, but we’ve also done the challenge success work, the challenge success survey, which is another layer by the way of how we’re trying and for years I’ve been trying to work on to make this place a safer place. I hope people know that I end my emails with the tagline, “never worry alone”. There it is. I want to know the right answer to that question, and if these things that we’re doing are not being effective, then we need to hear what students think is wrong with them or what is right about something else that we could do that we are not doing. Cause I’m wide open, wide open. If there’s some idea out there that’s gonna make kids feel like they’ve got a trusted adult here, I’m open. My ears are wide open and I’m willing to work hard at trying to make that happen for kids.

F: Kind of moving in a different direction, I wanted to ask you about the recent racist incident on discord.

C: Alright, Sure. Yeah. 

F: This is kinda similar but, instead of the approach to preventing bullying, what is the high school’s approach to preventing and reprimanding instances of bias or racism in our community, and do you think that they’re effective?

C: So there are similarities and there are differences. It’s an interesting coupling for sure, at the moment for us having to couple those given that it happened so close together this fall. So I guess similar is that you know, and I wrote about this and I’ve certainly heard the feedback that writing isn’t fixing anything and I get it, I’m frustrated that we run into continued instances of racism. I don’t think that it’s limited to Wellesley high School or the town of Wellesley either, I think that this is work that as a community and as a nation we are faced with at the moment. In saying that, it’s hard to believe that any practice or policy is going to eradicate racist language, racist statements, racist acts, from the face of the Earth. The face of WHS is the scope that we have to pay attention to and so when we have the opportunity to actually have someone in front of us who has done something that has hurt the community, then yes we have to follow our procedures and if it’s appropriate, punish them. Sometimes we get anonymous things when we can’t punish an individual because we don’t have an individual to punish. Sometimes we do, and we try to punish them. Has it made a difference? What’s hard I think, is, it’s hard- we’ve punished everyone that we’ve been able to punish. Does that mean that everybody out there thinks that we did enough? I don’t know. You know, I don’t know if they thought we did enough, did we do enough to change people’s behavior? Yes. Did we do enough to change public perception that there’s racism at WHS? Well, I’m not trying to tell the public that there’s not racism at WHS, there’s racism at WHS. Do I want to eradicate it? Yes, you should too. And it’sall of us to do that. We will enact our policies and we will enact our punishment, and some of the upstream stuff that needs to happen needs to happen on all of our watches. This is my eighth year as a principle of WHS and there has not been a single year where one of our focuses has not been on equity and inclusion. There’s not been one year, and it continues to be this year. And I don’t see an end to that, and I’ve told the faculty that. Right, we don’t do the same stuff every year, not the same training, not at all. We keep changing it, we keep updating it, we try to be where the world is, where the town is, where the school is. What do the staff need to feel more comfortable having these conversations? There has been staff in the past who have told us they don’t feel comfortable having conversations about race, okay, lets practice. Let’s do some things. We’ve brought in people from the outside, we’ve highly trained people from the inside, which is what we usually more effective. So we’ve got some really dedicated teachers who have done a lot of that work. I meet weekly with YES, cyclically to be honest. And I know that the Office of DEI has a student group where they take feedback and engage in the panorama survey. We are looking at the ways we teach. I can tell you that I am sure that all of you have had interactions with standards-based feedback. Why are we going towards standards-based feedback? Because we think it’s more equitable. that’s 100% of the reason for the push. We think it’s more equitable. That’s a dramatic shift. It doesn’t seem like- well how could that impact racism? Well, because we think it’s gonna make for a more inclusive learning environment for all of our students, and when we have that, it can go further. That part of it. You know, that’s an example of hey, you know, here’s a direction that we’ve chosen to go because of equity.

Q: What is standards-based feedback?

C: Standards-based feedback is an effort to take the focus off of grades and to put the focus back on learning. So, what is important to get better as a student what are the skills and maybe knowing that I need to master to get better in this class. Right? And you’re all interested in that because you’re always trying to get better. So what we’re trying to focus you on is instead of like “I got a 91 on that test I really wish it was a 95”. What I want you to focus on instead is, you know what, you don’t have great details from the text to support your thesis, in fact, your thesis is vague. And we give you feedback on a rubric that tells you that those are the places where I want you to pay attention. And were going to continue to give you feedback on those specific things. I’m using English because I’m an English teacher, sorry. It’s done in other disciplines. So that’s the concept. Teachers think about, what are the standards that kids have to reach to be masters of information by the end of this course, and how are we giving them feedback. Its so much about feedback. It’s not fair for kids to have to come back to the next assignment not knowing, oh my god, I don’t know how to get better. All I know I got is a 91. I need to know why that’s a 91 and not a 98. I need to know why that’s a 91 and not an 80. Right, and so that’s what this is about. Trying to get people to focus on those pieces. What feedback you’re getting on your performance. Specifically. What do I need to do, not my classmates, what do I need to do to get better in this class? And that’s the kids, sort of long I know, that’s the heart of it though.

F: So, our last topic for today, is just gonna be about the U.S. News report, and in general the ranking of high schools. So WHS in the last 2 years has dropped 7 places in the US News. In 2019 it was sitting at 19 and now it’s at 26. We’ve heard a lot of concerns that the WPS district has declined in rankings across the board, elementary through high school, is this cause for concern? Do you see any validity to people who have mentioned that this is something we should be concerned about?

C: Well, people are concerned about what they are concerned about. Its not my place to tell you what to be concerned about. I can tell you that what I’m concerned about are the things we talked about earlier today. I’m concerned about trying to create a safe learning environment for all our kids and I believe that thats the best way for our kids to achieve. I believe that teaching kids how to focus on what they need to do to get better in a very specific way is going to make them better learners, and you know, and if we make kids better citizens, feel safer and be better learners,they’re going to have really good outcomes in the real world and in life. Thats what I care about, I mean, thats the most important thing. I understand rankings have things to do with, I don’t know, maybe they have to do with property values. Maybe they have something to do with, I don’t know, I don’t know what else it has to do with, the rankings, frankly. I know that some of the ways they’re tallied don’t measure what I’m talking about. We’ve put a focus on these areas, so some people are critical of that. They want us to focus on AP scores, which our AP scores are actually quite good. If you just took our AP scores we’re not ranked 27th, but if you took the number of kids who take AP classes here, thats one of the things that they measure. For example, if you have to have huge numbers of kids taking an AP test, to move up the rankings, should we just artificially start testing everybody because then we’d go up in the rankings? Wouldn’t make you a better student, wouldn’t make you a better learner, wouldn’t make you more prepared for life, but it would move up the rankings. I mean, there was a concept that came to me a couple years ago, you know, it was an interesting concept. It was having 9th and 10th grade history be AP Modern World. Every kid, which is basically just about every kid in the school takes that class. No level, everyone is taking AP, and then everybody would take the exam. But would we have been a better school because of it? I don’t know? I don’t mind if our rankings go up, please, I wouldn’t be upset if our rankings went up. But, what are they going up at the cost of? And thats what we have to consider. What are we willing to give up to do that? And so, you know, thats sort of the dilemma of it. We have to make judgements along the way. My first priority isn’t always whatever the rankings are. If there’s something that we do that helps the rankings I’m not upset by that, I’d certainly be happy to see that. That’s sort of how I look at it.

F: So you would say that some of the values that these rankings are based on aren’t always the values that you would prioritize when changing the direction of the school or I guess just leading the school.

C: Yeah, I mean its where the staff is as well. I mean I feel confident that the staff isn’t out there hoping that we change rankings. They want to teach well. They want kids to learn well. Thats the most important thing. And we’ve always sort of believed that when we do that, the rankings will take care of themselves, you know, whatever that means. There are things in there that haven’t been a priority for us. Their formula hasn’t always been a priority for us.

F: My last question for today is, because I have to ask, are you aware of the change.org petition that is asking for Dr. Lussier to resign. Which as of last night had almost 700 signatures?

C: I’m aware of it. 

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