Petition calls for removal of Cedar Hill principal

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*This article contains an edit made on July 17

A petition signed by more than 70 parents of current and former students at Cedar Hill Elementary School is calling for the immediate removal of Dr. Colleen Mercurio as principal, citing six specific instances – including three instances of student-on-student sexual misconduct – which they allege demonstrate the principal’s lack of empathy, unfair punitive decisions and refusal to communicate with parents.

The effort on the part of parents was greeted by mixed reaction. Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said, “This is the first I’m hearing of this.” A Cedar Hill School teacher, who asked not to be identified, said there is another side to the story and Mayor Scott Avedisian defended Mercurio, saying he has “complete confidence” in her.

“This is a parent group, of which I am one with four children in our school system, that expects you to please listen to this grievance and then act swiftly in meeting our demand,” said Corey Smith, speaking on behalf of the petitioning group during public comments at the July 11 meeting of the Warwick School Committee. “In the three years Dr. Mercurio has been the principal at Cedar Hill, she has fostered a culture where students are routinely subjected to unsafe and hostile situations.”

The petition cited two separate instances of sexual assault occurring on the school bus (one involving a special needs student and one that occurred over a two-year period), one sexual assault witnessed by a child on the playground and one instance of cyber bullying where multiple students created a sexually-explicit social media profile of an 11-year-old female student.

The incident that allegedly victimized a special needs student involved other students coercing the child into performing acts of “inappropriate behavior” on other children after that behavior was performed on the special needs student “for their amusement.” According to Smith, once parents brought the issue to Mercurio, “she attempted to blame the special needs student while minimizing what the other students had done.”

In regards to the incident on the school bus that occurred over multiple years, Smith said that Mercurio was only made aware of the situation by the victim’s parents, but then failed to enact a safety plan to remove the perpetrating child from the bus, and further that she allegedly told the parents not to open an investigation into the incident.

The same student who allegedly perpetrated this continuing assault on the school bus was the same student who was seen – prior to the school bus incident – performing “graphic sexual acts” on the playground, according to Smith. According to the petition, the parents of the child who witnessed the incident on the playground were “so frustrated by the principal’s inaction that they simply removed their child from Cedar Hill and placed them in a private school.”

Another incident involved an argument between two students, where one student made “racially-charged” comments about the other. According to Smith, Mercurio once again did not alert either of the children’s parents about the incident and made only the student who was victimized by the racial slurs apologize.  

The sixth incident involved a student who had a tick removed by a school employee. The petition alleges that Mercurio did not alert the child’s parents of the tick removal, and the child eventually wound up being diagnosed with Lyme disease. The petition alleges that, when the parents confronted Mercurio about why she hadn’t contacted them, she “began insisting that the child could have picked the tick up anywhere and that kids like to play in tall grass.”

“Many of the parents listed on this petition have gone to her in good faith to inform her about disturbing instances of student misconduct, all of which she has mishandled, minimized or outright ignored,” Smith said. “Many of these parents feel she has gone so far as to purposely intimidate victimized students and their parents in an attempt to keep each situation quiet so as to avoid any procedures that would escalate things beyond her authority.”

Lynn Dambruch, Director of Elementary Education for Warwick Public Schools, confirmed on Wednesday that she and Katherine Duncanson, Director of Human Resources, are conducting an investigation into the allegations, but declined to comment on specific provisions of the petition.

Mayor Scott Avedisian came to the support of Mercurio.

“I have full confidence in her,” Avedisian said. “I think Colleen runs a good school and does a good job.” Avedisian added, citing the incident on the school bus that took place over two years, that it would be difficult for any parent to look at a situation logically when they believe their child had been wronged.

“Dr. Mercurio is one of the innovative and creative principals in our system,” he added.

*Smith stated that there have been three complaints filed against Mercurio with the Federal Office of Civil Rights. Smith reported that these complaints remain active. Dambruch said she was not able to comment on whether or not there were complaints levied against Mercurio, or whether or not she was instructed to participate in sensitivity training as a result of her handling of the incident involving the special needs child on the school bus, which Smith alleged was the case.

“My feeling was, if there's been repeated attempts to try to get Dr. Mercurio to either change her behavior, to follow certain protocol or to remove her as principal and nothing has been done, then we need to be a little louder,” Smith said. “I have no agenda other than her behavior is wrong.”

All allegations in this story are based on testimony and personal accounts from parents. These allegations have not been substantiated by Warwick Public Schools or any judiciary body. Dr. Mercurio did not respond to multiple calls to her office or business cell phone requesting comments before press time.

(Story includes reports from John Howell)

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RISchadenfreude

The Warwick School Dept. Motto: "Ignore, Deflect, Minimize".

“Dr. Mercurio is one of the innovative and creative principals in our system”...a shame those talents are used to obfuscate and cover up problems which aren't important to her.

If these reports are substantiated, she needs to resign or be removed immediately.

Let's hope the School Dept.'s internal investigation isn't another whitewash.

Friday, July 14 | Report this
richardcorrente

On the one hand Dr. Mercurio is absolutely innocent until proven guilty and never should have had her name tarnished until and unless the accusations are proven. Huge injustice number one. Whoever supplied that information to the Beacon was wrong to do so until it was a certainty.

Huge injustice number two is the Ragosta Report. Remember that? Remember how teacher Mario Atoyan drew disgusting images on the arms of a thirteen year old girl AND a twelve year old girl? Remember how the School Committee decided to punish him by sending him A LETTER!!! and that was ALL!!! Remember how we all reacted to that? Remember how the School Committee lied about The Ragosta Report being "verbal" as opposed to "written"? Remember how the City Council had to go to court to get the results of the report? Remember how I complained how poorly this was handled? Remember how I accused the School Committee of "enabling"? Well, here is the result. The School Committee's whitewash of that event, set the stage for this one. They made it so minor an issue that it invited bigger problems and HERE THEY ARE. The School Committee is responsible for this. Read the Ragosta Report (on line at the Warwick Beacon. Put "Ragosta" in the search bar)). Only one person, Karen Bachus, called Atoyans' actions a "zero-tolerance" issue. The rest of them just swept it under the rug, and this (if these accusations are true) is the result. "IF" Dr. Mecurio is guilty, the blame needs to be shared between her and the School Committee (except Bachus) equally.

RISchadenfreude is right when he says the School Dept. has a motto of "Ignore, Deflect, Minimize". We taxpayers, parents, and citizens can't (and I won't!) let their investigation "be another whitewash".

I wish I had spoken louder when the Ragosta Report came out. Maybe if I had, this might have been averted. I won't let that happen again. I promise.You shouldn't either.

Until then, Dr. Mecurio is, and must be treated, innocent until proven guilty.

Happy Summer everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Friday, July 14 | Report this
CrickeeRaven

Corrections to the prior comment by the fake "mayor," for readers who value context, accuracy, and honesty:

- "Whoever supplied that information to the Beacon was wrong to do so until it was a certainty." -- This, from the failed candidate who claimed to the Beacon that the current mayor targeted him for increases in property valuations while the mayor and "his relatives" received unfair reductions, which turned out to be factually untrue. In the course of reviewing his claim, it was actually learned that he had not paid taxes on the property he claimed as his residence.

Rather than instruct readers to search for the information, here are direct links:

- Accusation against the mayor: http://warwickonline.com/stories/running-on-a-platform-to-cut-taxes,115119

- Truth about the tax assessments for the current mayor and the losing candidate: http://warwickpost.com/correntes-attacks-fail-on-the-facts/

- "Remember how the School Committee decided to punish him by sending him A LETTER!!!" -- This was an administrative decision made by former compliance officer and director of human resources Rosemary Healey and former secondary education director Dennis Mullen, not the school committee. The school committee learned of their decision through the Ragosta investigation, as the final report explains.

Here is a direct quote from Vincent Ragosta: "I think your administration, central administration, should have been much more aggressive in terms of exiting this man from the school based on this evidence."

And here is a direct quote from then-Chairwoman Jennifer Ahearn: "They [Healey and Mullen] are adults and they are people in control at the time... They all fell down and that's the end."

- "Remember how the City Council had to go to court to get the results of the report?" -- Only for the city to deny their release until two local media outlets published them under threat of legal action that was later rescinded.

Again, instead of instructing readers to search, here is a direct link to an article on the Ragosta report:

http://warwickpost.com/ragosta-report-school-administrators-ignored-dismissed-allegations-against-atoyan/

- "Remember how I complained how poorly this was handled? Remember how I accused the School Committee of "enabling"?" -- Yes, many informed and careful readers remember the fake "mayor" attempting to capitalize on negative news in the city to benefit his campaign, which later failed by a 65-35% margin.

- "I wish I had spoken louder when the Ragosta Report came out. Maybe if I had, this might have been averted." -- Some of the incidents in this article go back more than two years, before the Ragosta report's release in March, 2016. Anything said after these incidents occurred would not have stopped them from happening.

- "I won't let it happen again." -- Anyone making this promise would have to be elected or in a position to influence the school department. The fake "mayor" is neither.

He will, no doubt, continue to embarrass himself in his future comments.

Friday, July 14 | Report this
CoreyMSmith

Just want to make a clarifying comment about the OCR complaints: my understanding is that there are 3 complaints and that each of them is open and/or just now underway. The article said they had yielded no results but I think that's misleading since they've only just now begun.

Saturday, July 15 | Report this