A private child-custody dispute at the Amagansett School last month escalated into a public confrontation, as was learned at a meeting of the school board Tuesday night, with police involvement on the school’s front lawn during its 2:50 p.m. dismissal time. The incident has rocked the community and raised questions about safety and communication protocols at the school.
Afterward, at 7:34 p.m., the school sent an email to parents describing the incident as “a disruption” by “two individuals,” one of whom had been “remanded to police custody.” The email added that there would be “an increased police presence in and around the Amagansett School” for the next few days, “as an added layer of protection for students and staff members.”
The Friday, May 19, incident, in which the man had physical contact with the school superintendent, followed a disturbance two days earlier, apparently involving the same man. He was described by witnesses as carrying a briefcase and a “staff” about four feet high, and was said to have been using a cellphone to take video of students being dismissed from school that day. He was seen entering the school vestibule and then being escorted out quickly by police officers.
The specific charges stemming from the May 19 incident have not yet been released by police. According to a list of arrests released to the press three days later, the official report was “not ready.” However, the man’s name is known to The Star, having appeared in a routine police report dated May 9. The Star reported on May 18 that “an Amagansett School employee knocked on the door of a Main Street apartment at around 6:30 p.m. to verify the residence of a student who’d been enrolled using that address. When no one answered, the employee phoned an adult resident, who became irate and contacted police to document the incident.”
Some 30 parents and teachers showed up at the Amagansett School Board meeting on Tuesday to press the board and administration for answers. At the time of the incident, they said, teachers had been left in the dark wondering what was happening as administrators directed them to usher the children to the back of the school. Parents should have been informed of the details sooner than 7:34 p.m., they said, after panic spread through those who were waiting outside for their children to be dismissed and either witnessed the altercation or saw the multiple police cars parked in front. Many parents kept their children home from school during the days that followed.
Kristen Peterson, the school board president, told the crowd on Tuesday that privacy laws restricted the district from disseminating certain information. Regarding the lack of timely communication, she said officials were waiting for Seth Turner, the superintendent, to finish giving a statement at the police station before sending out any messages.“I know this is really confusing. There are laws in place that prevent the divulgence” of certain information, she said. “It was out of our jurisdiction. . . . You got the communication the minute we could give it.”
“Nothing that we ever came across was deemed a threat” to students or staff, Ms. Peterson later continued, “otherwise, you would have been notified.”
Ashley Blackburn, a prekindergarten teacher who chairs the Amagansett Teachers Association, asserted that “children should not have been let out during that dismissal time” on May 19. She urged the administration to give teachers more information, and to include them in the decision-making process, “especially because we’re the ones with the students. We’re the front line. We’re there, we want to make sure that all children feel safe. When we don’t feel safe, it’s going to go directly to our children. We wear that face, that poker face, and try to make our kids feel safe . . . but there wasn’t any follow-up to check on teachers, socially and emotionally. Teachers are here today because we don’t feel safe. We don’t feel like anybody really cared about us.”
Some parents compared the district’s handling of the situation to a situation last October involving a Springs School student firing a BB gun on a sports bus. Debra Winter, the Springs superintendent, sent out notifications quickly, saying that an incident had happened and more information would be forthcoming.
The Amagansett School’s attorney, Sophia Terrassi, jumped into Tuesday’s discussion twice, to re-establish “decorum.”
“Ultimately, at the end of the day the district has to make calls, and assess risk, and figure out if there is a safety concern to students,” she said. “There were no safety concerns happening to students in the school. This was a parental custody dispute involving a child who no longer attends the school.”
Kevin Warren, a member of the school board, acknowledged the parents’ and teachers’ concerns. “Could we have sent out a one-sentence email?” he asked. “I agree with you. . . . Everyone can always be better, right? Tell us how we can be better. We’re going to discuss it in executive session.”
On June 1, a group of parents and teachers had gathered at the nearby Amber Waves Farm to discuss the matter. Mr. Turner happened to show up. “He stood over us and asked, ‘Can I help you with anything?’ “ Robin Jahoda, a parent who was at that informal meeting, told the school board. “Several of us said, ‘No, thank you, we’re okay, we’re just talking,’ and he wouldn’t leave. He stood over us for an uncomfortable number of minutes . . . and it was intimidating. We all witnessed him taking pictures of us.”
Both parents and board members at Tuesday’s meeting praised the dedication and passion of the teachers and employees who had worked to keep the children safe despite the uncertainty. Some, however, said there were many teachers who were unhappy with certain other aspects of school but were afraid to step forward and speak.
Ms. Peterson said board meetings are always open to all in the community, including teachers, to bring up issues of concern, but noted that there’s rarely anyone there, apart from board members.
“Communication does work both ways, so if you do have issues, we are here,” she said. “You can come to a board meeting . . . and if you don’t feel it’s a safe space, then write us a letter.”
Mike Rodgers, a gym teacher who is in his 25th year at the school, said that teachers don’t feel “welcome to speak without retaliation.”
“This incident . . . was the breaking point,” he said. “This is not the only thing . . . I would love to take what took place and finally bring in real communication, make this school function like it really should. We’re too small to put up walls.”
After the public comment session ended, the school board went immediately into executive session. Mr. Turner could not be reached for comment by press time yesterday.