Editor's note: Statements made by Dawn Sarro have been corrected to indicate that her son and others threw crab-apples, not cranberries, and that the students were detained at the West Hartford Police Department, not arrested.
When a in the leadership of Principal Kathleen Tracy was sent to the administration and West Hartford Board of Education Monday, there were a total of 39 separate comments also included.
Most of the comments were made anonymously and were only visible to the administrators of the petition and those to whom the letter and petition were addressed. However, some families were willing to share their own stories of specific incidents that led to a decision to sign the petition.
Former Duffy parents Amy and Turk DeGraff said that they had put their issues with the principal behind them and don’t have an “axe to grind.” But when they were asked to sign the petition, they decided that they didn’t want other parents to go through what they did.
The most troubling part, Turk DeGraff said, was that no one would listen to them.
In their comment on the petition, Amy and Turk DeGraff described a situation that affected their daughter Nolan, who is now a rising senior at Conard, when she was in 4th and 5th grade at Duffy. At the time, Nolan had been out sick a lot and the DeGraffs believed that Tracy did not think she was really sick.
Amy DeGraff wrote the following in her comment: “She physically dragged her by the arm out of the nurse’s office up to her classroom and pushed her in the classroom humiliating her … she diagnosed my daughter, saying ‘she wasn't sick, she could not go home and she was not allowed to call me.' That afternoon I went to school and confronted Ms. Tracy. I told her that she had no right to touch my daughter. She said, 'I can do what I want I'm the principal.' … I left school, returned home, and I called the police.”
Turk DeGraff told Patch that the police interviewed them at their home at the time and advised them to contact a lawyer. Turk DeGraff said that no one listened to their concerns until, as a last resort, they finally contacted a lawyer who contacted the town lawyer.
“We tried multiple times to call [former Superintendent of West Hartford Schools] Dr. Sklarz on our own, but he would not return our calls. That's when we called our lawyer who opened the door for us to get some attention,” Amy DeGraff wrote.
They eventually met with an assistant superintendent and Tracy, and came up with an arrangement where Nolan would seek out physical education teacher Nick Moffo or her former kindergarten/first grade teacher Rick Labadia if she felt threatened, which Amy DeGraff said she did on occasion.
“We had an agreement that Nolan would be left alone, but it didn’t work out that way,” Turk DeGraff said. Amy DeGraff, who said that she kept a full file of notes from the incident on the advice of her lawyer, said that Tracy even called her home and told Turk that she had “separation anxiety.”
Because Nolan was almost done with elementary school, they ultimately decided just to “ride through it, and rely on the two teachers as Nolan’s safe zone,” said Turk DeGraff.
“We don’t have a vested interest anymore, but we want to help and support current parents. The kids at Duffy are good kids for the most part, and the parents want to be involved. That’s what makes a good school, and if she’s eliminating the ability for parents to participate in the process, that’s not a good thing,” Turk DeGraff said.
Former Duffy parent Dawn Sarro also recalled several incidents that greatly upset her. All three of Sarro’s children attended Duffy, and her twin sons, now 20, were students when Tracy was hired in 2000.
At the time, Sarro lived on Short Road, abutting the Duffy playground. She said that one day a workman inadvertently let her 12-week-old bearded collie puppy out of the house. “My son Anthony saw the dog on the playground through the window. I was at work. [Tracy] wanted to call the animal control warden to pick up the dog.”
Sarro said that ultimately a teacher or teacher’s aide brought the puppy home. Her son was traumatized, and she was never called about the incident by the school. “If the police had been called I definitely would have made a big stink,” Sarro said.
She also recalled an incident where her sons and a bunch of other 3rd or 4th grade boys pelted a nearby house with crab-apples. “She had them detained at the police station. The parents had to go there and pick them up,” Sarro recalled.
Of course the kids weren’t angels, and they were wrong and should have been punished, Sarro said, but she and other parents thought that arresting them was extreme. “You can say you run a tight ship, but once you were a marked kid there was nothing you could do. Raising boys, they’re more active, more hyper. It’s really hard for them to channel energy,” she said.
Once her sons were at Sedgwick they would sometimes walk through the Duffy playground on their way home, rather than walking around the school on the sidewalk. Sarro said that on numerous occasions Tracy “snatched” them and threatened to call the police if they were caught on school grounds while it was in session.
“Reading what all these other parents said about staying under the radar, that was exactly right. I had to tell my kids to shut up and put up,” Sarro said.
“I don’t have any axe to grind, but I feel sorry for other people in that position. At least now I can talk because I don’t have to worry,” said Sarro. "I can't believe this has gone on so long."
Tia Battiston, whose youngest child just graduated from Duffy, said both of her children also had negative experiences with Tracy.
When her daughter, now a rising 8th grader at Bristow, walks into Duffy she says, “I hate this place.” She liked her teachers, said Battiston, but fears Tracy.
Battiston recalled that when her daughter was in 2nd grade she arrived home having forgotten an important homework assignment at school. Battiston immediately drove her there so she could get it.
“We went right back to into the school, and Kathleen immediately came out of the office. She said, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t go back into the teacher’s classroom.’ We left feeling two inches tall. She belittles you; she berates you over very small things,” said Battiston, who thought that her daughter would be praised for being diligent about her homework.
Battiston said her son recently told her, “She makes kindergartners cry.”
“The minute you walk into this building you feel like you’re entering her regime. You start looking over your shoulder to see if you’re doing something wrong. She’s very much a control freak and wants to be sure everyone knows,” said Battiston.
“Any time I’ve dealt with her it’s been something like that. I’ve tried to avoid her. She was one of the reasons why I never wanted to get involved. Ultimately her say is what happens,” Battiston said.
Helen Rubino-Turco, a former Duffy parent and Duffy PTO president, acknowledges that there may be some concerns and said it certainly sounds as if there are issues to be addressed.
However, Rubino-Turco said, “I have confidence that the administration can work this out.”
“Nobody’s perfect, and I think you do have to look at the big picture. The school has received lots of accolades. Let the record speak for itself, for her leadership," Rubino-Turco said.
"The thing I appreciate most about her is that she brought a parenting technique to Duffy [Love and Logic] and brought it to the whole community, free of charge. It was a service that she gave to us. Were there issues? Of course — no school is perfect. I was PTO president and could approach her about issues. Did we always agree? No. Was I always respected? Yes.”
Rubino-Turco, whose youngest children are twin boys about to enter Conard this fall, said she did not have problems dealing with Tracy. “She was always a straight shooter with me. There are plenty of people who are just like me,” she said.
Some sources have mentioned a letter-writing campaign that was waged by Duffy parents against Tracy 10 years ago, but none of those involved who could be reached would speak on the record.
Rick Ledwith, Executive Director of Employee Services for the Town of West Hartford, was not in his current position at that time. He said that as far as he knows, none of those parents have contacted the adminstration in connection with the vote of "no confidence," or at least they have not identified themselves.
Ledwith has been speaking with parents on behalf of Superintendent Dr. Karen List, who is currently traveling out of the country.
Battiston thinks many still fear retribution for speaking out, and said she thinks that the moms who are being outspoken and who still have kids at Duffy are being enormously brave.
“I’m really proud of all the moms who have taken so much effort to make sure she’s dealt with in an appropriate way. Everybody has to be accountable, especially a public employee. I’m proud of the ones who are doing the work for all of us,” said Battiston.