By James Niedzinski
---- — City school officials have abruptly and “indefinitely” shut down an after-school care program at West Parish Elementary School following an apparent incident between students that has sparked an investigation involving Gloucester police, the Essex County District Attorney’s Office and the state’s Department of Families and Children, several sources confirmed Monday.
The shutdown of the after-school program, which serves about 60 families and 82 children in the West Parish district, which serves students in kindergarten through Grade 5, also follows a note being sent home Friday to families in the after-school program and a Friday night meeting at the school that included parents, Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier, Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello.
No officials Monday would elaborate on the alleged incident that sparked the investigation, but some West Parish parents have told the Times that it involved alleged “inappropriate” behavior on the part of older students involved in the program.
Safier said that, from the schools’ perspective, the investigation is focused on whether there has been proper supervision within the program, which includes three supervisors, one substitute supervisor and serves an average of 35 students per day.
Campanello added that, while he cannot comment on what remains an ongoing investigation, the Police Department is assisting school officials in examining the program’s supervision, adding that the GPD joined in the investigation in conjunction with by the Essex County District Attorney’s Office.
“Right now, our investigation is procedural,” Campanello said Monday, adding that there is no confirmation any crime has been committed. “If we were to find it rises to the level of criminal (behavior), then we will go down that path,” he said.
Safier noted that no supervisors from the program have been placed on administrative leave or suspended; Campanello added that the investigation and other aspects of the case involve only the after-school program, and do not in any way involve the rest of the school or other students or families. All of those tied to the after-school program have been notified, he said.
“From the school’s point of view, we are certainly looking to ensure the program has adequate supervision,” Safier said.
Nicole O’Connor, a West Parish parent who works in Beverly and who has a child in the after-school program, said she was not happy with the results of Friday’s meeting — and was upset to find that she had to find after school care on such short notice.
“A lot of people walked out of the (Friday night) meeting,” she said.
Additionally, O’Connor said some parents were instructed not to confront their children about the program’s closure.
O’Connor said parents posed questions on why the entire program was suspended, but did not get answers. She said Campanello indicated that there was an ongoing investigation involving juvenile children, and no specific information can be given. She added that her child has had nothing but positive experiences in the program, and she spoke highly of the supervisors.
Lisa Groleau, who serves as president of West Parish’s Parent Teacher Organization president, declined any comment when contacted Monday. Families who did speak with the Times Monday indicated that the apparent incident involved older students’ “inappropriate” behavior.
Safier said Monday that the program’s indefinite shutdown is the result of a need for school officials to assess whether it has been properly supervised.
He added that he hopes the Young Men’s Christian Association building on Middle Street may serve as host to an alternative after-school program following the shutdown and completion of the investigation.
Safier said he has already met with YMCA officials, who have expressed interest in the idea. The YMCA building still must be inspected to see if it will meet the requirements and hopes to have another program in place by as soon as next week, Safier said.
Campanello also indicated that the incident and the investigation is connected only to the after-school program, and does not involve any other students or parents within the school. West Parish’s is the city’s most populated school building, with some 380 students and a staff of about 70. It is also a school targeted for either major renovation or replacement under a proposal being advanced by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and school officials through the state’s School Building Authority.
Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for the Office of Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said she could not elaborate on the nature of the investigation, or what type of incident as cited when the office was contacted. She said the DA’s office was notified about the situation through Gloucester police and through the state’s Department of Children and Families.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at email@example.com.