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EXETER – SAU 16 Superintendent David Ryan announced the district is conducting an audit into the marking of students’ hands at the Exeter High School prom to designate vaccination status for COVID-19. 

Ryan spoke at the Exeter Region Cooperative School Board Tuesday night, a night after SAU 16 Joint Board members and school administrators were criticized for using a magic marker to designate students for contact tracing at the prom last month. Board member Melissa Litchfield, of Brentwood, pressed EHS Principal Michael Monahan for answers about the prom during the meeting.

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Ryan spoke on behalf of Monahan and said an investigation was being conducted into the matter and a report will be produced for the board. He said the decision to mark students was, “not a good look,” in hindsight.

“We want to first understand exactly how those decisions were arrived at and how can we correct them moving forward,” Ryan said to Litchfield. “One thing we can state is that everybody comes with the very best intentions to provide an event (for students).”

Chairwoman Helen Joyce clarified the board does not have a part in decision-making for student activities held at the end of the year. Board member Travis Thompson, of Stratham, said, “things should have and could have been done differently,” with contact tracing, but thought it was still a necessary precaution for prom organizers to take.

“If something happened at that prom … it would have certainly put in jeopardy having a graduation ceremony for students,” Thompson said. 

The board also voted to make mask wearing for students optional for the final remaining school days, as well as summer school.

‘That’s not who we are’

Joyce opened Tuesday’s meeting with a heartfelt statement after SAU 16 Joint Board members were loudly berated by a crowd of parents, community members and people who live in towns outside SAU 16 a night earlier. The criticism was over a number of issues that have made national headlines recently, she said, “that’s not who we are,” as a community.

Exeter Region Cooperative School Board Chairwoman Helen Joyce said during the board's meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021, that the public's behavior at the SAU 16 Joint Board meeting a night earlier had brought her "beyond tears."

Joyce said two of her relatives died from COVID-19 in May of last year. She said members of the administration, school board members and their families have been met with threats of violence against them.

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“Administrative assistants in our school buildings (are) having to answer phone calls from people across the country that were filled with hate (and) language I will not repeat,” Joyce said. “That is not to say the concerns last night are invalid, they most certainly are … We are not the enemy, the people on (this) stage are not the enemy; we all have a common goal, we may have disagreed on how to get to that goal, but our number one concern, and our number one priority, as it always has been, are your children and our students.”

Lesley Morgan, widow of former SAU 16 Superintendent Michael Morgan, addresses an agitator during the public comment section of the Exeter Region Cooperative School Board meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021. She said: “It is always important for people to treat each other kindly and with respect.”

Monday’s SAU 16 Joint Board meeting was interrupted by a crowd of roughly 200 people angered over decisions the district made regarding contact tracing at the Exeter High School senior prom, a long wait for a return to in-person learning at school, a Cooperative Middle School student who was singled out for wearing a pro-police Thin Blue Line flag and remarks an incoming principal made in an email about critical race theory.

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Members of the Joint Board on Monday night were subjected to audience members yelling they were Nazis, communists, Marxists, and one who said the administration and board were on par with the authoritarian state of North Korea. 

Response in defense of administration

On Tuesday night, several of the two dozen or so speakers spoke in support of the administration, as opposed to the night prior when all the speakers were all critical of the Joint Board, which is comprised of Exeter Region Coop Board members, plus the school boards governing each of the district’s elementary schools.

Bill Ball, EHS athletic director, opened the public comment section and said he loves the SAU 16 community because it’s, “one that comes together every time.”

Bill Ball, Exeter High School's athletic director, said the Exeter Region Cooperative School Board meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021, provided for a "teachable moment" after a chaotic SAU 16 Joint Board meeting the night prior.

“Tonight, I think there’s an opportunity to come together to discuss, in a respectful manner, our concerns,” Ball said. “This is a teachable moment for all of us – not some, all of us. Teach our young people how to discuss things and get better.”

Ball was followed by Emily Heath, pastor of the Exeter Congregational Church, who said, “there is no threat to our country by telling the truth,” pushing back against opponents of critical race theory, which presents a critical view of American history based on the nation’s systemic discrimination against people of color.

Emily Heath, pastor of the Exeter Congregational Church, told the Exeter Region Cooperative School Board "telling the truth" is not a threat to the United States in support of a holistic teaching of American history during the board's meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

“There are times our country has done incredible things,” Heath said. “There are times that we missed the mark. Being honest about that, saying you could have done it better, that’s what it means to get better … when we teach history to our kids, that’s what we’re telling them: We don’t always get it right, but we try to get better.”

‘You broke the trust’

Still, others in attendance who were upset with the administration and School Board felt they were not being listened to and were upset Ryan did not directly address any of the issues raised during public comment both Tuesday and during the Joint Board meeting the night prior.

Parent James Goodwin, of Brentwood, told the Exeter Region Cooperative School Board trust has eroded between the school district and parents during the board's meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

“You all need to be held accountable for the decisions you’ve made,” said James Goodwin, of Brentwood, addressing the Cooperative School Board and the administration, while calling for Ryan’s termination. “You broke the trust. The trust between the parents and the school, you broke it, and that’s never going to come back. All of you gotta go.”

Parents critical of the district’s overall pandemic response pleaded with the board to end the mask requirement prior to the vote later in the meeting.

“(Monday), we came to the (Joint Board meeting) in the cafeteria and we walked away a little confused because nobody was wearing a mask,” said Katrina Forrest, of Stratham, who said her son was sent home from the Cooperative Middle School Tuesday after he would not wear his mask. “If he came to a meeting like this, with nobody wearing a mask, what kind of message does that send?”

‘No blueprint’ for COVID response

Parents who supported the administration said there were certain instances where they disagreed with some decisions school leaders made in response to the pandemic. But they acknowledged the panic that ensued from it forced decision makers to make countless difficult and, in some instances, divisive decisions that were going to upset families one way or another.

Mary Ann Cappiello, of Stratham, who teaches educational seminars for teachers professionally, said her daughter had tested positive for COVID-19 after an antibody test, and was supported through her remote learning by her teachers.

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“This is a global pandemic, we have no blueprint for it,” Cappiello said. “I’m sorry that many parents feel that their students’ needs weren’t met. I just wanted to say thank you, because the fact that people were allowed to stay remote in January and for those of you who couldn’t go back five days a week, the fact that you had two cohorts, allowed kids like my kid to be safe and get educated.”

Lesley Morgan, the widow of former SAU 16 Superintendent Michael Morgan, asked the entire community to better learn how to “agree to disagree” in an appeal for cooler heads to prevail. At one point Morgan stopped to directly address several audience members who were yelling at her.

“It is always important for people to treat each other kindly and with respect,” Morgan said. “We are a community and I think that one thing that would be extremely helpful tonight would be to stop cheering when your team makes the point. We can disagree… it’s not the Super Bowl.” 

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