NEW BEDFORD — Multiple investigations into Alma Del Mar Charter School are underway after a video posted online last month showed a middle schooler repeatedly slapping a 10-year-old student on a school bus.
The video, which also shows a group of older, larger students circling the fourth grader in his seat, was shot by a student who posted it on Snapchat and was widely viewed around the city.
The bullied student’s mother, Leida Rodrigues, said the video was just the latest of several bullying incidents against her son, which she had repeatedly told the school about, starting last October. Rodrigues said she felt as if her outreach was ignored or minimized, so she filed complaints in June with city police and state authorities, alleging that the school allowed physical violence against her fourth-grade son to escalate.
Since Rodrigues shared her experience on social media and with news media, other parents and one former teacher have come forward to share similar stories.
“Last year my daughter was being bullied to the point where she was hurting herself. I went to the school and was told it wasn’t an ‘emergency,’” said one parent who requested anonymity to protect her child. “I have sat in meeting after meeting, hearing parents complain about bullying from kids and teachers and nothing happens,” the parent added.
“I have been fighting with [administrators at Alma] about bullying for years,” said another parent, who also asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation against their child.
In an interview with The Light, Taylor DeLoach, executive director of Alma Del Mar, responded to the bullying video. “I am truly devastated by what happened,” she said. “Our commitment when severe things happen is to strengthen the partnership between the family, scholar, and school to directly address the aftermath of what happened and restore a sense of safety.”
DeLoach said the school is taking these concerns seriously, and also shared results of a recent survey that found 92% of families agreed their student is safe at Alma. The same survey found that 87% of families were satisfied with the response they get after contacting Alma with a question or concern.
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However, Rodrigues — the parent of the student shown being slapped in the video — said crucial elements of the school’s own intervention plan were never followed during months of reported bullying, which is why she decided to file reports with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and the New Bedford Police Department
Rodrigues began reaching out to the school last October, when her son was targeted in another incident. According to the school’s report, the bully was the same student who targeted her son again on the bus in June.
“I’m starting to really worry about [my son’s] safety at the school,” Rodrigues said in an October text message to a teacher and the school’s dean of culture, Bridget Lemieux, who has since been promoted to principal of Alma Del Mar’s Frederick Douglass campus. (Lemieux was not made available for an interview.)
Once the school was made aware of the October incident, the school’s incident report says that Lemieux created a detailed safety plan and communicated with Rodrigues after an investigation concluded. But according to Rodrigues that “never happened.”
Rodrigues’ texts at that time described physical violence, harassment on social media, and threats against her son if he reported these incidents. She was unsatisfied with the school’s response, saying, “School leaders never gave me any answers or security that [my son] would be safe.”
Throughout the year, the bullying continued. Rodrigues reached out to the school about specific incidents this May and June — including two bullying incidents on the bus. But in addition to feeling like the school failed to protect her son or communicate with her proactively, Rodrigues identified factual inaccuracies in the reports, such as incorrect dates, misidentified students, and logs of phone calls and voice messages that she says she never received.
The reports also acknowledge gaps in the school’s response. After Rodrigues reported another incident in May, she waited a week and heard nothing from the school. The report concurs: “Ms. Lemieux confirmed that Leida [Rodrigues] had not received communication after the conclusion of the investigation.”
After more incidents occurred in June — including when the June 2 video circulated online — Rodrigues asked administrators why there weren’t staff to monitor the situation, which was by then known to teachers and staff. The response, from DeLoach, was that “the school has made several attempts to hire bus monitors but struggles to staff this position,” according to the incident report.
Teacher and staff retention have grown worse at Alma Del Mar recently, which could be a factor in how the school mishandled its interventions and communications. According to one former teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, behavior problems since the pandemic have been a large contributor to staff burnout and resignations, though the school already struggled to keep its faculty before the pandemic.
Problems ranging from uniform infractions to in-class behavior incidents rose as students and teachers both readjusted to in-person learning — students weren’t used to school rules after learning at home, and teachers struggled to manage students.
According to the most recent data available from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, teacher retention rates at Alma have plummeted to 50.7%, which is less than New Bedford Public Schools (86%) or the state average (89%).
DeLoach, the executive director at Alma, said there could be a connection between high rates of teacher turnover and behavioral issues — and that they can feed each other. Having more novice teachers, she said, can lead to behavioral management issues; dealing with behavior can lead to more teachers leaving.
DeLoach said that Alma has taken several steps to support new teachers and reduce behavioral problems. These include changing transition times so that fewer students are in the halls, changing assignments so that novice teachers have more support, and offering professional development.
“If families are saying that we’re not meeting the mark, we take that seriously,” DeLoach said.
Rodrigues said her complaints to local police, DCF, and the department of education reflect her frustration after months of ineffective interventions. After feeling brushed off and dismissed, "I didn't know what to do," she said. "I just want to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Both Rodrigues and Alma Del Mar have also filed complaints against the bus company, Whaling City Transit, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, Rodrigues said these investigations and whatever they might yield are “too little, too late.” She said she intends to look for a new school for her son in the fall.
Email Colin Hogan at email@example.com