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Duffy Parents Speak Out About Experiences With Principal

Some who signed the petition delivered to the administration and West Hartford Board of Education Monday agree to voice their specific concerns.

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.

Nanci Wylde July 19, 2012 at 12:46 AM
Please accept my apology. I very rarely read the Courant.
Nanci Wylde July 19, 2012 at 01:07 AM
I rescind my apology. That story was a shallow attempt at representing anything close to defining what media actually is. Again, just another example as to why I don't read the Courant. Nice try though!
Sam July 19, 2012 at 01:08 AM
Respectfully disagree nanci.
Sam July 19, 2012 at 01:11 AM
The Courant is working in a larger follow up story. It's been difficult to get teachers to talk.
Nanci Wylde July 19, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Jonathan, until you have the initials MD,LCSW,PHD after your name, you are not qualified to diagnose what is psychotic behaviour. Those are pretty intense statements. Even for an attorney. I am a supporter of Kathleen Tracy. Why do you have such a problem with that?
Nanci Wylde July 19, 2012 at 01:25 AM
Who said she was using her father's death as an excuse for her behaviour?! Creative language you have there Jonathan. Oh right I forgot, you're an attorney!
Nanci Wylde July 19, 2012 at 01:26 AM
Thanks for the heads up Sam. Respectfully.
Duffy Mom July 19, 2012 at 01:30 AM
Thank you, West Hartford Resident, for taking us back to the issue at hand. I hope that the powers that be will be able to sift through the original petition, which was presented to me (and declined) on numerous occasions. That document was lacking in specific instances of abuse, lack of professionalism on Kathleen's part, or examples of unjust retribution. Without facts, it read more like a list of grievances by parents who didn't get their way with Miss Tracy. Does that make her a bad principal? I think not. To a certain extent, you've got to be able to trust the school, and the leaders within it to make the decisions. And I feel like K.T.'s record at Duffy, which is the #2 elementary school out of 11 in West Hartford, (#1, Bugby, is half the size, by the way) entitles her to do so. More so, it's her job. It's not the job of the parents to have her fired, which seems to be the main goal here, nor is it the job of a small group of parents to assume that they speak for all of us. Why, after months of this petition going around, were they able to gather signatures from only 70 households, many of which aren't even going to Duffy anymore (hmm)? There are over 300 households with children currently attending Duffy. Please don't tell me that many people are afraid of this mysterious "retribution". I know I'm not. To be perfectly honest, I think the women toting the pettion are scarier!
Nanci Wylde July 19, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Thank you Duffy mom- Good night
Former Duffy parent July 19, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Amen. But of course, according to one who has posted, you're like me, "not in reality". It's a witchunt. Period.
Ronni Newton July 19, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Sorry, Dawn. I have made this correction in the article.
Ronni Newton July 19, 2012 at 02:01 AM
We appreciate the involvement of our readers in this story, and the many polite, well-thought-out, and informative comments made in response to this story. However, please refrain from personal attacks or your comments will be removed.
Baxi July 19, 2012 at 04:22 AM
I'm a current duffy parent and have talked with a minimum of 15-20 other current duffy parents about this issue. Most of us feel the same way-- we're not advocates for Kathleen, nor do we want her out. Most of us have not had bad experiences, but ackowledge that she has a challenging style. I do think, however, that dealing with difficult leaders is something our kids will face in real life, and today's overbearing parents want to make everything fair and optimal. Not sure that prepares our kids for the impossible people that they're going encounter in the real world. While I will not say this is applicable to each of you who has raised issues regarding Kathleen, I can tell you that the majority of the parents I have talked with understand that this effort is being driven primarily by parents who have kids who are frequent trouble-makers. I'm sure there will be an unslaught of responses to the contrary from those folks, but that's exactly what I would expect from these particular parents who don't hold their kids accountable for their behavior.
JES July 19, 2012 at 04:43 AM
In my view, Duffy is filled with mama bears...loving, nurturing and fiercely protective. This week you've heard a certain sleuth of bears roar ~ and it hurt my ears and heart. (Overall, ditto to the comments expressed by West Hartford Resident.) As a Duffy mom for 17 or so years, i am stunned by the actions of my friends and neighbors. I am especially troubled that they pursued the media as the path to force a "retirement" on the leader of our beloved school. In doing so, they have grossly overstated whom they represent and put forth personal attacks filled with vitriolic criticism (and not solely directed toward the principal). It feels petty and personal and I've been told we look ridiculous. In all honesty, I haven't heard of (or experienced) one instance that would warrant her dismissal or this pubic flogging. I support our principal. Sure, she can be unyielding and puts high value on discipline which is difficult for some parents who aim to "protect". Still, it's time to look in the mirror and reflect on our own actions, time to show a little compassion...and time, perhaps, for a little bear spray!
Troy K. July 19, 2012 at 02:21 PM
Been a Duffy parent for almost 12 years now. I’ve had ample opportunity to observe Kathleen Tracy first-hand in many situations. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories from fellow parents. I’ve had the occasion to hear from a variety of Duffy teachers about her. My overall impression of her is positive, I like her on a personal level, and I’m glad that my kids have gone to Duffy. But here’s the thing. Too often, Kathleen can be oppressive, controlling, and capable of exercising power in an arbitrary manner. The examples noted by parents are neither invented nor exaggerated. Kathleen squashes flies with a sledgehammer. Not always. Not on a daily basis. But there have been too many instances where her capacity for excessive discipline and arbitrary decision-making has been on display. This have been known to the Superintendents and the School Board for many years. What’s clear is that they have done nothing substantive about this, and as a result, the matter has come to a head with this unfortunate public airing of grievances and highly-charged exchanges between West Hartford parents.
Troy K. July 19, 2012 at 02:21 PM
I feel bad for Kathleen because she’s been so poorly managed. Years ago, her excessive tendencies could have been curbed with warnings, probation – whatever measures a responsible manager takes to guide employees towards better performance. But the Superintendents and the Board of Education have copped out. My grievance is not against Kathleen, but against Board of Education members like Bruce Putterman, who exemplified the long-term job shirking that he and his colleagues have been adopting in this matter when he said in the original Patch article that the Board “only has responsibility for managing one person – that’s the Superintendent…” There we have it - the classic, “it’s not my job” response to a vexing problem. Well, it’s high time for the publicly-elected Board and their Superintendent to buck up and resolve this matter, and they need to do so quickly before this seething cauldron of raw emotions and strident opinions in the Duffy district boils over.
Former Duffy parent July 19, 2012 at 02:39 PM
No on-slaught but kudos to you for calling it truly as it is. I was attempting to be polite yesterday when suggesting "there is more to many of the examples/stories provided". You hit the nail on the head.
God Help Us All July 19, 2012 at 04:42 PM
Someone earlier used the word "ridiculous" -- as in "Duffy parents are now perceived as looking ridiculous". I agree. I have been following this absurd saga playing out for weeks/months, and the main players just look pathetic. Is KT my favorite principal? No. Do I respect her? Yes. Does she respect me and my children. Why yes! One child went through Duffy without any issues; my younger was involved in a minor incident as a 1st grader. She and a group of other children were being very wild after school, and damaged a piece of school property. They were brought into KT's office, and yes, they did get in trouble. My wife and I were in complete agreement that she should be in trouble. Well, the parents of the other children were outraged; I had emails, phone calls, for two weeks complaining about the "unfairness and meanness" of KT. I completely disagreed. Our children were behaving poorly. They deserved to get in trouble. Reflecting on that incident, and reading the absurd examples cited in the Patch article, really make it seem as if the parents are the ones with issues. And the manner in which this has all unfolded is sickening. I cannot believe this was the most productive approach.
Concerned Incoming Duffy Parent July 20, 2012 at 03:44 AM
As a parent of an incoming kindergartener I am shocked but grateful to hear the uproar regading KT. At a minimum my wife and I will be ultra sensitive to any perceived misconduct by KT and our first kindergarten experience transformed into a watching and perhaps passive witch-hunt. On some levels I am glad to be aware of the possible misconduct by KT but on other levels I am disturbed by the gross inaction of the town and the board of education. It seems to me that though many of these complaints against KT may be examples of overly sensitive parents the sheer volume of complaints is evidence enough that there is clear ground to seriously investigate KT's tenure. Given elementary school principals of upper middle class elementary schools are essentially commodities we are being severely misserved by the continued blind eye toward The Duffy Leadership Team.
West Hartford Resident July 20, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Just a thought-I'm not sure the "volume" of complaints you perceive is really there. It's just that the petitioners are making a louder sound than the defenders. That's what I'm getting from the last few commenters. Besides, there isn't much fact being presented, just opinion. Things should just settle until the Superintendent comes back. The ball is in her court where it belongs. I bet your Kindergartner LOVES Duffy.
Megan Bard (Editor) July 20, 2012 at 08:47 PM
Hi folks, I want to reiterate what Ronni posted earlier, you are welcome to participate in this discussion, but any post that includes a personal attack or information pertaining to an individual's child that is irrelevant to this discussion will be deleted. Best, Megan
Former Student July 23, 2012 at 01:39 AM
I am a former student of Duffy and I am now going into high school. Personally, my six years at Duffy were extremely memorable. I loved Duffy, every teacher I had I couldn't say a bad thing about and the same goes for my two younger siblings. All of my interactions with Ms. Tracy were fine, she never did anything to hurt me only to help me. I was once bullied (not badly of course just fourth grade drama) but she helped me through it, she sat us down and made us talk. Even though Ms. Tracy was strict we understood that was her job and we were her students. There were always rumors but I feel everyone left Duffy happy and prepared for middle school. I'm sorry to see that this situation came this far because I would guess that the majority of the students at Duffy are happy and it is the parents that are upset.
Chris Liebig July 23, 2012 at 04:22 AM
I went to Duffy School from 1970 to 1977. I now find myself raising concerns about my kids’ school that are very similar to the ones raised here. Because those issues never seemed to get discussed publicly, I started blogging about them (for example, http://ablogaboutschool.blogspot.com/2012/06/nobody-cares-how-behavior-and.html). Although local administrators are responsible for what they do, I think some of these concerns reflect nationwide trends. In part because of the pressure under No Child Left Behind (and Race to the Top) to define education entirely in terms of raising standardized test scores, public schools have become less humane, more authoritarian places. The problem is made worse by the fact that local schools boards have less and less power over what goes on in the schools, and often choose to use little of the power that they have. There is so much deference to administrators, especially on “building-level issues,” that principals’ practices and policies are almost completely insulated from any type of accountability. (I mean *democratic* accountability, not the top-down “accountability” that so many "reformers" are after.) In my experience, most parents are very reluctant to publicly criticize the people who run their kids’ schools. If this many parents are willing to sign a statement of no confidence in an elementary school principal, that is a strong sign that something is very wrong. Good for these parents for speaking up.
Pam July 23, 2012 at 01:38 PM
While I am very glad that you had a positive experience, most children find happiness in things that are not necessarily in their best interest and may not always be able to discern the difference. They may love a teacher for his or her personality, but that does not mean the teacher is effective at imparting the information they need to learn, or that the teacher can maintain control in the class. That's where parents need to be able to approach the administration and open a constructive dialogue where they can voice opinions and concerns without being insulted, shot down or shut out and made to feel idiotic. One parent who I have known for many years tried approaching KT about her concern over her child being negatively impacted by a major familal upheaval - looking for advice and to give her a heads up that things may be more challenging for this child KT interpreted this as a request for a specific teacher the next year and proceeded to shoot the parent down verbally with a raised voice in the hall in front of the office at dismissal time with other parents, students and faculty able to overhear this less than respectful exchange. The parent was dismissed with the comment "I know what your child needs while here better than you do". That's inappropriate.
Marcia Valdez July 26, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Wow, this is quite disturbing. Kathleen Tracy has a dictatorial managing style. She wants the school to run like a military institution. My huband is a former US Marine Captain, and the first day of kindergarten, he noticed the morning 'flag formation line up" for the kids. This is what they do in the Marines. The little kids looked like troops marching into the school with the back packs on! No smiles, excitement- just fear. This school for all the awards and accolades, doesn't seem like a happy place for children. She rules by intimidation- of the teachers, the staff, the parents, and of course the students. Is this what the elementary school experience should be for children? I don't like the atmosphere there at all.
Current Parent July 26, 2012 at 03:17 PM
Former student-- Good for you for sharing your feelings about Mrs. Tracy and Duffy. You have as much right to share your experiences as any parent that is posting comments on this page. I'm sad to see your opinion minimized by someone because you were a child and couldn't discern between what made you happy and what was in your best interest.
Pam July 26, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Current Parent - I was in no way trying to minimize Former Student's opinion at all and I am sorry if it appeared that way. I was only trying to "flesh things out" so to speak. I intended it to be taken in the same way one would include the risk of cavities due to Halloween trick-or-treating and eating the candy. I am glad Former Student had a good experience - I desperately want my children to have a good experience. But, I see a risk to a good outcome (much as cavities are a risk of eating candy, an activity that children enjoy but may not be the best thing for them to do....or the risk of drowning while swimming, or the risk of an adverse reaction after taking a vaccine). It was not meant to diminish at all. Of note, one of hte replies oon the other Patch article regarding this situation, a different former student did not have such a wonderful experience, and for that I am sad...and concerned. Additionally, when I moved to Wesst Hartford 9 years ago, there were 14 children from 6 families in my neighborhood attending Duffy - all have since moved on to middle school and high school. Three had good experiences much as that posted here (I think that's wonderful). The other 11 were had experiences which were not so wonderful (ranging from "left me feeling flat" to "I dreaded every time I had to cross the threshold" and both students and parents breathed a sigh of relief when they no longer had to deal with Duffy. The teachers were seldom the issue.....
Duffy parent July 30, 2012 at 12:45 PM
I personally have an issue with the way Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen List handled this situation. Apparently this has been an on-going situation that could have been handled through the review process-rather than putting the good parents,-in this system- to task to do the job she is paid to do. Unfortunately, this has drawn many lines in the sand which could affect everyone this upcoming year. And looking for a replacement in August is unacceptable. I have been scolded by Miss T before, and I understand people's plights about this controlling individual. I hope our children do not suffer from this soap opera on display.
KR August 05, 2012 at 01:19 AM
um, commenting on this won't help this situation at all and all these people commenting are the same people so you all clearly have nothing better to do. I'm not defending the principal, by the way, all you parents should know how to spell principal, and im not defending the people who want to get rid of the principal, but get a life and worry about the true issues of the world. we are all just rich spoiled stuck up people in west hartford and i know a lot of people who can't stand west hartford people.
M R January 15, 2014 at 02:25 PM
So glad KT was bounced. She earned it. Every kid who made ONE mistake could count on being hammered by her every opportunity until they went to Sedgwick. Every kid who was different, same thing. Every kid who was bullied could count on an extra "kick" (figuratively) from her. She was a very nasty piece of work. Hope she is never put in a position of authority again. ever.

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