Turmoil grips tiny Michigan school district

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Bangor — The school year can’t end fast enough for the tiny Bangor Public School District.

In October, Superintendent Dennis Paquette was discovered routinely using other people’s work in his monthly newsletter column. In December, Paquette and an assistant high school principal were demoted for lacking state certification.

In February, a teacher and Paquette’s secretary resigned after they were caught on video in a bar making fun of special needs students. During the same month, another teacher resigned after she was filmed duct-taping a student’s arms to his sides.

The bar video ignited a maelstrom that spread to anger over the district’s other missteps. During several boisterous school board meetings, some residents demanded the resignations of Paquette and the school board.

Fissures rippled through the southwest Michigan town of 1,885 residents with school supporters fighting critics, the critics turning against each other, and adults facing off with children on social media.

Even Mayor Nick Householder is thinking about moving his two children to another school district.

“I don’t want to do that,” Householder said. “I grew up here. My family grew up here. But what’s going on is unacceptable.”

He said it was troubling it took so long for Paquette and the board to realize he lacked state certification. Paquette was hired in 2014.

Bangor Board of Education members referred questions to President Dwight Click, who said it’s been a trying school year, especially with the bar video.

“It was an embarrassing thing for the community. It was embarrassing for the district,” Click said.

The district faced challenges long before this school year.

Its graduation rate and test scores rank below the state average, according to state education figures. Of the 1,221 students, 77 percent are economically disadvantaged compared with 46 percent for the state.

Dwindling enrollment had left the district teetering near a state takeover in 2014, school officials said. Paquette erased the $900,000 debt over several years by cutting staff and other costs.

Some staffers took early retirement while others agreed to a 3 percent pay cut.

But staving off bankruptcy came with a cost. Longtime teachers were replaced with a number of inexperienced ones.

“There are a lot of newcomers,” fretted Donna Burns, whose son attends Bangor High School. “It’s a younger generation with no experience.”

Plagiarism case

Paquette joined the school district in 1990 as a gym teacher. He became the high school dean of students in 2010 and, four years later, was named superintendent.

The superintendent search lasted less than a month and didn’t consider any candidates outside the district, according to news reports at the time. Most residents knew him as the high school wrestling coach, which he became in 1990 and continues to be today.

In October, a Kalamazoo television station reported Paquette had committed plagiarism a dozen times over two years in his Viking Press column. Among the sources he copied were other superintendents, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, said WWMT-TV.

Paquette, 52, declined to be interviewed by The Detroit News. Instead he released a statement that said he had taken material from online blogs and newspaper articles but defended the actions.

“The purpose of the newsletter articles was to educate the community,” he wrote. “(I’m) not required to write articles nor was (I) compensated for these articles.”

But none of that excuses plagiarism, his critics said.

A.C. Fisher, whose children had attended Bangor schools, said she was amazed someone with a master’s degree (in sports management) didn’t know about plagiarism. She said he should have learned about it in his freshman English class.

“It is mind-boggling Paquette would not consider (such) material to be copyrighted,” Fisher said. “(It) is the very definition of plagiarizing.”

After reviewing the matter, the school board decided not to discipline Paquette. Click said he doesn’t think the former superintendent committed plagiarism because he wasn’t paid for the columns and had written them to help students.

The board holds its monthly meetings at the high school library, where a sign on the wall describes how to properly cite sources.

Moving positions

In the fall, the state Department of Education learned Paquette and Mary Spade, an assistant high school principal, had failed to enroll in an education administration program.

A 2010 state law requires new school administrators to enroll in the course within six months of starting their jobs. The state fined the district $42,330, based on the two administrator’s salaries and length of time out of compliance.

The board moved Paquette to a newly created position, chief operations officer, where he oversees non-instructional work like marketing, human resources and building maintenance. His salary was cut from $103,000 to $99,000 a year.

“It’s ridiculous. No other school district has a position like that,” said Chay Bursley, a former student who created a 249-member Facebook group that opposed Paquette and the school board.

School officials told a reporter in January the district’s attorney had failed to notify them about the 2010 law, but corrected themselves a week later, saying the attorney had notified the district twice since Paquette became superintendent.

Interim Superintendent Deb Pobuda announced last month she will retire in July. Paquette told The News he expects to finish his certification course by summertime.

Asked if Paquette could return as superintendent, Click said the board hasn’t discussed how it would fill the position but needs to do so soon.

Secret video

In January, Paquette’s secretary and six teachers sat around a table at Bangor Tavern. It was the end of the work week, Friday the 13th.

As they chatted loudly and amiably, a customer several tables away secretly recorded them with a cellphone.

The school staffers played a game in which someone names three people and the others decide which of the trio they would marry, kill or have sex with. A resident later described the game as a “hit list full of sexual innuendo.”

The secretary, Patti Waite, proposed three names, two of them special needs students, as the rest of the table guffawed, according to the video. Steve Smith, who taught social studies at the high school, had suggested one of the names, a 15-year-old with autism.

Waite said the other named student, who has Asperger’s, is 18 and has a girlfriend. Alexa Neumann, a ninth grade English teacher, said the girlfriend had given the 18-year-old a gift.

“She’s going to be hooking up with (him) in the bathroom,” Waite said as she made grinding motions. “Wait until you start educating their babies. Welcome to standardized testing.”

Neumann, who had just graduated from Western Michigan University, had been teaching for four months while Smith had been hired the year before, according to school records.

Someone posted the six-minute video online and, as the school board attorney later told a reporter, “all hell broke loose.”

Smith and Waite resigned while Neumann received a written reprimand, according to school records. Smith and Waite would have been fired if they hadn’t resigned, Click said.

Neumann declined to talk to a reporter while Smith and Waite couldn’t be reached for comment.

Kim Frye, the mother of the 18-year-old, told The Detroit News she was so angry about the video that she had to listen to it several times to absorb exactly what was said.

“It never should have happened,” she said. “They (school officials) have a lot of things they need to take care of.”

Amanda Reprogal, the mother of the 15-year-old, wanted to file criminal charges but police told her no laws were broken.

“I am beyond angry,” she wrote in a statement to police, according to the police report. (My son) is a sweet kid. He is only 15. I want these people locked up!”

Despite the video, which went viral, district officials have repeatedly insisted, as recently as last week by Click, that students were never mentioned in relation to the Marry-Kill game.

‘Disappointed and furious’

The bar video was posted on YouTube on the day of the school board meeting in February. The meeting, which normally draws a handful of residents, got a packed house.

Board attorney Robert Huber, pacing back and forth like a defense lawyer addressing a jury, told the belligerent crowd how the district had handled the incident. He was met with heckling, outbursts and accusations.

When the board went into closed session, a teen approached a police officer and said he knew about another incident involving a teacher. He said the instructor had duct-taped a student earlier that day, Feb. 13.

The chemistry teacher, Brittany Park, contacted by police the next day, said she had playfully bound the 16-year-old because he frequently gesticulates wildly when talking.

She said several students, including the 16-year-old, laughed during the incident, according to the police report. Students told police the same thing.

But when the teen told his mother that night, she was livid, according to the report.

“My son was embarrassed and hurt that a teacher, someone that he is to look up to for guidance, was capable of such treatment,” Sarah Osborn wrote in a statement to police. “I was disappointed and furious.”

It’s not clear how school administrators received it but, the day after the board meeting, they had a video of the duct-taping, according to the police report.

The abbreviated video, which is on YouTube, was taken by another student and shows just a few seconds of the binding.

The administration, which had been criticized for moving too slowly after the bar video, immediately called police to report the duct-taping.

High school Principal Wendy Tremblay told police the district had taken quick action and Park was no longer working for the school, according to the police report. Park resigned in a letter to Tremblay dated Feb. 13.

“This resignation is because of personal reasons and personal health issues,” she wrote, according to a copy of the letter supplied by the district.

Park, like Neumann, a 2016 graduation of WMU, had started teaching one month before the incident, according to school records. Park also was one of the teachers in the bar video, for which she received an oral reprimand.

When anger with the district continued into March, high school student Abby Kueny criticized residents in a flier distributed at the school. She said the lingering controversy was ruining the senior year for her and other students.

“Spoken like a true 18 year old who hasn’t lived her life,” Liz Hames, the aunt of the duct-taped student, wrote on Facebook on March 18.

“I am in the real world lady,” responded Kueny. “Doing bigger things in this world than you could ever imagine.”

Other students defended the district in a video they shot at the school.

Among those interviewed was the school mascot, Victor the Viking, wearing a giant head with a giant horned helmet. He compared the faculty to a fleet of ships.

“One little bad thing happened on a ship and now everyone thinks the entire fleet is bad,” he said.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell