Calls matter ‘a very sensitive issue’ for district
√ Casseri hopeful town hall session will further discussions in community
By Terry Duffy
The Lewiston Police Department announced Tuesday a second juvenile was charged in connection to threats made March 14 toward the Lewiston-Porter Middle School. The unnamed 13-year-old juvenile was charged with making a terroristic threat (a Class D felony), menacing in the third degree, aggravated harassment in the second degree, and conspiracy in the fifth degree.
“This matter will be turned over to Family Court due to the age of the defendants, and no further information will be released,” the LPD said.
This marks the second such arrest of a Lew-Port Middle School student in past weeks over a bullying incident involving racial overtones. It also follows a March 18 announcement by the Lewiston-Porter School District of a town hall meeting to be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in the Lewiston-Porter High School auditorium. That session is open to the public. Parents of Lewiston-Porter students at all grade levels are encouraged attend.
In anticipation of this, the Tribune/Sentinel had a sit down meeting with Casseri to discuss his and the district’s reactions to the incident, and what steps are being taken to address the matter. He opened by calling it “a very sensitive issue” and stressed that, since news of the incident surfaced, the district administration has become intensely focused in its response and how matters should be handled.
As to the district’s response, Casseri said, “We’re meeting tomorrow, my administrative team, at the secondary level, high school, middle school. Just to make sure we get on the same page in terms of a disciplinary approach. We have always reacted to these issues when they’ve come to us. Whether they’re issues of bullying or racial slurs, or harassment of any kind. Those things are not just put aside. When they are brought to the attention of the building administration, I can 100% assure you that they’re addressed.
“But there’s no really set guidelines on how we address it. Really depends on the nature of the incident, the students involved, whether they’ve had past disciplinary issues. That’s how we always treated it. So, there might be a menu of disciplinary consequences.
“We feel, based on what has come out of this incident, that we do need to be more consistent in our approach to these incidents. So, we’re working on that, to get on the same page, and obviously that will be something we’ll be talking about at the town hall – how we’re going to be consistent in our ability to address that.”
He went on to address the issue of racial equality at Lewiston-Porter and in the community as a whole.
“There is this feeling that somehow we don’t address these issues, or that students are just allowed to go back out into the general population. … The thing of it is, you know, it’s a public school, and as I stated, depending on the nature of the incident and the student involved, whether they’ve had past incidents, we don’t necessarily throw a student out of school, on the first occasion or the first incident,” he said.
“We can’t throw a student out. We can remove a child from the school, but as long as they live in the school system, we have to educate them – whether they’re suspended or not suspended. That is the case, and certainly as these incidents have arose, whether there’s a racial slurs, or calling kids out because of gender issues or disability issues, they’re always addressed when they’re brought to our attention. I can absolutely assure you of that.
“But we do recognize that we need to be more consistent. And we need to be more communicative. Regularly communicative, with our student body, about how hurtful this can be. And that when these words are used, and these behaviors are at another person, they’re very, very hurtful. And they cause great harm to other people.”
As to how he hopes to address this issue at the town hall meeting, Casseri said, “I can only focus on what I have control over. And that’s the school. And the students. We have 2,000 students here that represent a cross section of our community. So, to the extent that any conversation that we develop around this issue will help in any way to extend into the community, well, that would be wonderful if that’s the case.
“The unfortunate thing is that incidents of bullying, and harassment, even harassment with racial overtones, it happens all over our country. It’s so unfortunate that here we are in 2022 and we’re still grappling with this issue.”
“What I have control over is Lewiston-Porter,” he continued. “And the difference that I can hopefully make with my administrative team, my teachers, working with our students is to make things better here at Lewiston-Porter. And that’s our goal.”
Noting the presence of Lewiston Police on the campus, Casseri said, “I think we’re one of the safest schools in the country. Every morning, we have two police officers here, all day long; they’re patrolling our campus. We don’t have a SRO, per se; they’re hired by us as security officers.”
“They’re outstanding,” Casseri said as to the police response on this incident. “The Lewiston Police did a marvelous job investigating this issue. They were on it immediately. They quickly determined that a false (student) account had been made, and were able to quickly shift the focus from the student who, unfortunately, had the account made in their name, to the actual individuals involved, based on IP addresses, and cell phone towers, things like that.
“I was very, very impressed with the work of the Lewiston Police.”
He said the town hall session will focus on the issue of student behavior in schools and ways to better address it.
“We have a speaker coming; we’ll kick it off with that speaker who has some expertise in this area, allow her to kind of set the stage (for discussion). Where this problem lies within schools,” Casseri said. “And then we’ll have each of the administrative team talk a little bit about what they’re seeing in their schools, and how it’s addressed, what we’re doing.
“And finally, we’re going to have an open mic, to just listen to the community. (The forum) will be open to the entire community.
“I understand there could be some difficult, very emotional (comments, reactions).
“Here, we have four kids that are now suspended, two are being criminally charged, the others are being adjudicated under education law. And there’s going to be significant consequences for this behavior.”
Casseri said he has had discussions with the parents of the students.
“To a certain degree, they’re involved in the process, yes. I can tell that all of the parents have been very supportive of their children,” he said.
As to what he hopes achieve in the community from the town hall session, Casseri said, “I know, for myself, having been at Lewiston-Porter since 2005, I very much love this place. And I’ve put my heart, my soul, my life into this. And so it’s very (personal) … given my past career working in urban environments and working with diverse faculties and staffs and student bodies.
“This is very troubling to me, because I find it so abhorrent, that in this day and age, students would be calling out other students because of the color of their skin. And yet at the same time, I’m the superintendent of this school system, and I have to take responsibility that it’s happening. And I have to try my best to work with my staff and students and families to move beyond it, to help heal it.”
Casseri said he has reached out to the mother of the student victim and takes empathy with her on this situation. He expressed hope the dialogue continues.
“We have tried to reach out to her; hopefully she will be a part of the conversation,” he said. “I do hope that we will be able to have continued dialogue with her. I recognize the fact that this was a difficult situation, particularly when her son was initially blamed, implicated, because his name was used in this fake account. So, I can understand her being very, very upset.
“And I can also understand her being upset if that derogatory, racially motived language was used towards her son. I apologize to her and her family, profusely, and hope that through this process we can find a path for them as well.”
Casseri closed by stating he has had complaints by other members of the Lew-Port community on this issue and stressed his desire to work better and get this addressed.
“It appears to be that way; I would have felt that it was an isolated incident. (But), as a result of that mom putting out the article, there were others who responded to her article, her post on Facebook,” he said. “And also I received probably six or seven emails that other families of students of color have experienced on this sort of behavior.
“It’s too bad, and that’s why obviously we’re continuing the conversation (here). Not just as reaction to this incident but because it’s the right thing to do.
“I just hope that we can learn and grow from this very difficult situation.”