IRON RIVER—Usually the audience at West Iron County School Board meetings consists of just one or two people.
But that wasn’t the case on April 21, the board’s first regular meeting following the “pink hair” controversy.
The meeting room was packed to overflowing, and a video camera was at work, recording public comment for later uploading to YouTube, where it has since been viewed many times.
The pink hair matter was about a member of the track team who had dyed his Mohawk hairstyle pink to show support for his mother in her fight against breast cancer. On March 27, he was told to get off the bus that was about to take the Wykon track team to an indoor meet in Eagle River, Wis.
Several members of the team left the bus to support him, and it instantly blew up into a major controversy. Although the differences between the school district and student’s family have been resolved, several speakers at the board meeting took school officials to task over the way the matter had been handled—and went on from there to voice other complaints.
Pam Leonard was first. She said her daughter is on the track team and that she was “appalled” at how the incident was handled. She said her daughter had been told not to show support for the student—that she was afraid, “and my daughter has never been afraid of anything.”
She said she felt the whole issue was improperly handled and that she felt apologies were due. “It just seems it spiraled out of control—handled totally improperly all the way through, as far as I can see.”
Sarah McCord, mother of two WIC students, said she had contacted many people about what she would be saying. “I’m here to speak the facts,” she started.
McCord stated that school employees had contacted her current employer and an employer she had just left, “as I was causing trouble at the school.”
“In the context of bullying,” McCord went on, “I demand the actions of the superintendent, Chris Thomson, and the board president, Roy Polich, be investigated.” She said “this attempt to bully me at my place of my employment” is for one reason: because she wants staff members held accountable for their actions before and after the pink hair incident.
McCord said the pink hair “was merely the first domino in a series of events that have brought to light many areas of concern within our school district.”
She went on to say that members of the track team had been warned not to support the student with pink hair; that when she asked for girls track coach Kristi Berutti’s personnel file, she received an incomplete file; that there was no information about a 2010 incident about alleged mistreatment of a female student-athlete. She also raised questions about athletic director-principal Mike Berutti and teacher-coach Kristi Berutti, his wife, and whether there is a conflict of interests; and she alleged “inappropriate interactions” between Kristi Berutti and staff members, students and parents.
“We teach zero tolerance for bullying in our schools,” McCord said. “It seems only fair that a zero tolerance policy should include staff as well.”
Also speaking was Ivy Lapp, a West Iron grad, who drove down to Iron River from Marquette to speak about an incident she had been involved in while at WIC. Fighting back tears at times, Lapp said her track coach was Kristi Berutti, there was an incident, and she was called into Mike Berutti’s office between exams.
“It’s intimidating,” she said, “and it creates a harsh learning environment. To go through my junior and senior year at school, worried about what would happen.”
Polich, the board president, noted that members of the public can give their opinions about the district and staff members during a public meeting.
However, board members are restricted in what they can say about staff members because of rights that are spelled out in their contracts. Staff members, he said, have the right to a closed session to discuss incidents or any possible action.
As for the alleged “bullying” by school officials at McCord’s job, one school employee mentioned by McCord was in the audience. He said Thomson did not ask him to go to the former employer.
About her current employer, Polich said the employer had approached him and asked whether he (Polich) would be uncomfortable going to the employer’s business because McCord was working there. Polich said he told the employer he would not be uncomfortable going there.
Polich questioned some of McCord’s other allegations: such as whether track team members really were told they would be removed from the team for supporting the pink-haired student. McCord said she had talked to students’ parents but not the students themselves. “I am used to courtrooms,” Polich said, “and hearsay is hearsay.”
Polich also said that members have been appointed to a committee that will review West Iron’s athletic code policies on such matters as hairstyles. The committee had not met as of the date of the board meeting, Polich said, but would meet shortly. When finished, it will report back to the School Board. Former coach Mike Dallavalle is the chairman.
One point Polich stressed is that if anyone wants to file a complaint and wants the district to take disciplinary action against a staff member, the complaint must be made in writing. Complaints are not put in the staff member’s personnel file, but records about any disciplinary actions are.
“If I see a complaint,” Polich said, “I will make sure you get a response.” He also said that if someone doesn’t want to hand a written complaint to a building principal or other staff member, they can be handed to himself or any other School Board member, and they will be investigated.
Also speaking was Steve Pence, an attorney from Marquette, who said he has been retained by Kristi Berutti. He complained that his client had been “slandered and mistreated” online by McCord. He asked that the complaints about Berutti should be investigated, asking the board to “talk to the girls who were on the team and who heard whatever was said.”