Nearly two weeks since a video surfaced on social media showing one North Tonawanda High School student punching another student repeatedly in the face, residents had their first chance to voice their concerns publicly on Wednesday.
At the first School Board meeting since the incident, board members listened to and addressed residents' concerns at the end of the meeting.
School Board president Thad McMurray opened the public comment period by saying that the bullying situation has become "probably an exaggeration" and said that he doesn't believe North Tonawanda has a bullying problem.
"I want to make a general comment about what I believe has been probably an exaggeration of the situation in our schools both at the middle school level, and the high school level. I think the board agrees," McMurray said. "I'm maybe speaking for the board a little bit here. I'm speaking as a parent, as well of a student in high school. I talked to my son. I talked to the students that are his friends and are very active in the school. And I asked them about the general sentiment. What are their concerns? Do they have any issues in the schools? I will say that, my impression, and I think the general impression of most parents in the school district is that there is not a rampant violence or bullying problem. I think there are isolated incidents that do flare up. And I think there are procedures in place to address these problems when they do come up."
The resident comments started positively. Colleen Osborne from the Orleans/Niagara BOCES took to the podium first and said that her son Tim, a sophomore at North Tonawanda, hasn't experienced bullying like other students have.
"And I don't know if he's the exception to the rule, or what, but he doesn't experience a lot of what the topics have been in this community, Osborne said. "He enjoys what he goes and learns. He enjoys his friends. And I'm not saying it doesn't exist, because certainly it does. But I wanted you to hear something positive, because there's been a whole lot of negative."
William Crago, who started the North Tonawanda Coalition for Safe Schools and Streets, spoke next. Crago says he came to a Board Meeting last June and used the phrase "culture of violence" when describing bullying at North Tonawanda, Wednesday he clarified that it's not just NT that's dealing with these issues.
"One of the things that has come up, and I had some discussion with Cheryl (McMahon, School Board vice president) that I realized North Tonawanda is not alone in this. I certainly don't think that we have a unique problem here. I'm a teacher. I'm aware of all the things that our students are facing. And I think what we need to focus on that it is our problem here.
"And while I love the stories of positive experiences. I know there are a lot of them. I have 5 kids in the district. I have 4 who have very positive experiences. I've had one who's had a lot of negative experience. So I think that means we have to pay attention to those kids who are having those negative experiences."
McMurray said that the problem at the district involves a small number of students that had issues in the middle school, and that behavior has carried over to the high school.
One parent asked if more school resources officers could help the situation. There was also considerable discussion over cell phones and whether or not they should be banned at schools.
Many of the board members expressed concern over the negative publicity over the video of the incident posted on social media showing the beating in the North Tonawanda High School cafeteria. Some parents called for punishments for the students who record video in the schools.
North Tonawanda Superintendent Gregory Woytila said that the district is working with the police department to determine if those students who posted this video of the student getting punched should be facing more punishments.
The meeting ended with some of the board members talking about prevention and counseling, as compared to punishment.
"There are no bad kids in our district," McMahon said. "They're just children and we need to help them. And we need to help their families. We need to continue to do that. We can't segregate people or children, as bad and good.
"We just need to help. I feel very strongly about that. And that's one of the things that's bothering me the most about this whole thing. You can't do that, you can't segregate children that need help and say that other children are better than they are. That contributes to the problem and it also contributes to ostracizing the families of those children, and I don't want to see that anymore. So we all need to come together as a community."