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Parents call for ouster of Waimea Canyon Middle School principal

HANAPEPE — Representatives from the state Department of Education heard parents and teachers call for the immediate removal of Waimea Canyon Middle School Principal Melissa Speetjens at a meeting at Hanapepe Neighborhood Center on Monday evening, where Speetjens was accused of multiple forms of negligence and creating a toxic school environment for students and staff.

“I’ve worked with 12 principals in all. This current sitting principal stands out as the one who has created the most toxic work environment I’ve ever experienced in my career,” said Alex Nelson, reading aloud anonymous testimony from a teacher at the school.

“Most of this stems from manipulative decision-making, a lack of communication, a lack of collaboration, a lack of transparency, a lack of support, and a lack of follow through on critical incidents. This is not leadership. This is failed leadership,” Nelson read.

She noted the teacher declined to speak publicly due to “a fear of retaliation.”

Nelson was one of a number of people to speak out during the roughly three-hour event, where parents and teachers took turns detailing safety concerns and bullying incidents at the school.

“(Speetjens has) created a safe place for bullying, for fighting,” said parent Taryn Dizon, calling the school a “harassment safe zone.”

Several parents recounted meeting with Speetjens due to concerns that their children were being bullied at the school, and were critical of the principal’s alleged dismissive attitude and lack of care.

Gilbert Medeiros, a grandparent of a former student at the school, said his granddaughter experienced such severe bullying that she had to withdraw. She is now homeschooled.

“Now we gotta be telling her, ‘Don’t worry, high school will be different,’” he said.

Medeiros also criticized a lack of consequences for bullies, saying that innocent students are left to suffer.

Tory Singer, a sixth-grade science teacher at the school, described being reprimanded by Speetjens for calling 911 after two students collided and one hit their head on cement.

Singer said the student was writhing in pain, unable to communicate clearly, and could not identify the number of fingers he was holding up.

“I called 911 automatically because based upon the student’s lack of response, I was legitimately concerned that the student may have had a concussion or some form of head trauma,” he said.

While waiting for the response team, Singer said the principal
arrived on the scene and reprimanded him for not seeking approval before calling 911.

“She told me that I should not have called 911 without administrator approval. And she also told me that doing that would give the appearance that our school was unsafe because something happened without the administration’s awareness,” he said.

“This was very odd and out of place given the more pressing matter, which was clearly the student’s welfare. But her focus was on the response and perception of higher-ups,” Singer added, later saying the hostile work environment has made it challenging to properly do his job.

Other concerns included keeping all students grouped together in the outdoor gym and cafeteria, with parents saying the students were not safe due to the risk of an active shooter earlier this year.

U‘ilani Corr-Yorkman, a parent of a student that recently had a “horrible year” in sixth grade at the school, said previous efforts to address concerns have been passed on or ignored.

“I 100,000 percent believe that the problem is Melissa. And at the end of the day, Melissa needs to go,” said Corr-Yorkman.

Corr-Yokman recently started a Change.org petition urging the state Department of Education to remove Speetjens from her position. As of July 25, the petition had gathered more than 1,300 signatures.

State Department of Education Kaua‘i Complex Area Superintendent Daniel Hamada spoke, along with Kaua‘i Board of Education Member William Arakaki, at the end of the meeting. Hamada told parents he would make a decision “based on facts” when deciding whether to remove Speetjens.

“I hear you guys. I hear what you’re saying. But I’m gonna look at all the facts. I’m gonna look at everything and then make a decision from there,” he said, noting that he still needs to meet with the school community council, faculty, PTSA and support staff.

The Garden Island reached out to Speetjens for an interview, but she referred any inquiries to the state Board of Education.

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Emma Grunwald, reporter, can be reached 808-652-0638 or egrunwald@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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