BURLINGTON – Two former guidance counselors confronted the Burlington School Board at a meeting Tuesday, saying a harmful work environment prompted them to resign.
Yvette Amblo-Bose told the board that guidance counselors “endured unprofessional, dishonest and disrespectful behavior” all year from newly hired Guidance Director Mario Macias.
Four members of the guidance department — three counselors and a registrar — have all quit their jobs at Burlington High School.
Amblo-Bose, who had been a school counselor in the district for 21 years, resigned at the end of the school year. Amblo-Bose said she has worked with four principals and five guidance directors during her time at BHS.
“I have always felt respected, valued and valuable, as a professional, and person, in the Burlington School District until last year,” she said. “I can best describe my experience at BHS last year as one where I was ignored, silenced, shamed and bullied, to the point where it created significant barriers to serving my students, families and colleagues to the level I am capable of – which they deserve.”
Amblo-Bose said other counselors had to cover for Macias’ lack of communication and professionalism, and inability to complete day-to-day work.
Multiple calls and emails to Macias seeking comment were not returned.
Superintendent Yaw Obeng said in a written statement that the board, district and high school administration stand strongly behind Macias and his ability to fully lead the department.
“I have been very impressed by his restraint and professionalism as the recent dialogue surrounding the department has not taken the focus away from the reorganizing of student support systems and summer planning. Our BHS guidance team is keenly looking forward to the start of the new student year,” Obeng said. “Our conversations have remained concentrated on the various needs of our students. Parents can be assured that the guidance department is prepared to continue to deliver a high level of service to students to help them succeed at BHS and after they graduate.”
Macias was hired last summer after the retirement of longtime Guidance Director Patty Wesley.
Larissa Urban, who resigned in June after 14 years at the high school, said Macias did not make an effort to be more professional or improve treatment of colleagues after counselors raised concerns with him and Principal Tracy Racicot.
“Although none of us started the 2016-17 school year thinking it would be our last year at BHS, these are the truths behind the resignation of three experienced school counselors, and one highly competent registrar from the BHS counseling department,” she said.
Urban now works as the guidance director at Enosburg Falls High School. She said she would have preferred to remain at Burlington High School had it not been “the most difficult professional year” of her life.
Amblo-Bose said Macias told counselors at the start of the year that their roles had changed. She said counselors were notified in a fall meeting that they would no longer be the point people when students were dealing with social or emotional issues.
Amblo-Bose said in her statement that she asked for more information from Macias about the change. She claims counselors were not asked for input.
“The response I received was a finger pointed across a desk in my face, followed by a loud angry voice telling me that I was the problem. I asked too many questions, and I was unwilling to change,” Amblo-Bose said.
The American Association of School Counselors website defines counselors as educators who are “uniquely qualified to address the developmental needs of all students through a comprehensive school counseling program addressing the academic, career and personal/social development of all students.”
Counselors should spend time addressing social, emotional and mental health issues students may be dealing with, the organization says in documents provided by Lachelle Metcalf, a spokesperson.
Former registrar Colleen McSweeney arrived after the public comment period at Tuesday’s board meeting, with a statement of her own to read. She was not able to do so. McSweeney, who now works at Champlain Valley Union High School, left with more than a month to go in the school year.
Attempts to reach McSweeney, Urban and Amblo-Bose for additional comment were unsuccessful.
Counselor Adrien Preston resigned this spring after working at the high school for six years. She was unable to attend the meeting due to a conflict, but said in an interview on Thursday that she fully experienced and echoes everything her colleagues told the board.
“I think I left because I had serious concerns about how people were being treated at BHS, and there was a lack of leadership in the department,” Preston said.
“It’s sad. It was a really tough decision because I love that community,” she said.
Preston said drastic change has to happen in the department with Macias or new leadership.
“There are problems there, and things really need to be looked at,” Preston said. “Voices need to be heard.”
Caroline Crawford, a parent of two BHS students, said in an interview she was “horrified” to hear the news of the departing counselors. Crawford said one of her children will be a senior this fall and will need assistance from his guidance counselor as he navigates the college application process.
She discovered that her son’s counselor was no longer returning when she tried to email the staff member in June and an auto-reply came back, notifying parents of her departure. No letter or formal notice was ever sent from the school.
In a statement provided by communications specialist Erik Wells, the district said that students and parents would have the opportunity to meet new teachers and counselors at the start of the school year.
“The BHS guidance department is fully staffed for the 2017-2018 school year. We do not as part of practice notify parents and staff of individual staff turnover,” the statement reads.
“Not every kid has the resilience to deal with that kind of loss,” Crawford said. “For some of these kids, this is the only long-term relationship with a trusted adult that they will have.”
She said she has questions about whether the school environment is healthy for students, considering the allegations from staff.
“I think we’re all owed an explanation as to what is going on,” Crawford said.
Parent teacher organization leader Clare Wool told the board the impact would fall on the students with four new staff members needing to be hired before the school year starts in three weeks.
The school district still had one guidance counselor job opening posted online as of Thursday afternoon. The first day of school, for ninth-graders, is Aug. 30.
“When three licensed professionals resign, and one qualified school registrar resigns at the busiest time of the school year to become CVU’s registrar, our community would like to ask our guidance director, our BHS principal, our HR director, and our district superintendent: do you know why,” Wool said.
Wool read an email from BHS Principal Tracy Racicot in May stating that administration was working with the district’s diversity and equity department to “re-establish guiding principles that will help us move forward in the guidance department.”
Wesley retired in 2016 after working at the school for 26 years, including nine as director of the guidance department. She is also a parent of a BHS graduate.
Wesley told the board a narrative has surfaced in the community that counselors “could not cope” with her retirement and “sabotaged” the success of a new department head.
“Frankly I find this idea deeply offensive to me as a leader, and to them as competent and caring professionals,” she said.
Wesley also mentioned that the shakeup in counselors could be detrimental: students from the high school community are still recovering from the death of Christian Kibabu, who drowned while swimming with friends at Oakledge Park in July.
I suggest that a climate of collaboration, respect and good communication is key,” Wesley said. “People need to feel safe to do good work.”
In a phone interview on Thursday, Wesley said that removing social and emotional help from the role of counselors did not fit the model of professional school counseling.
The director is a half time administrator contract and a halftime counselor.
The high school, which has approximately 1,000 students, has only one social worker, according to Wesley.
“To think that one person was going to respond to all of the social and emotional issues was not realistic,” she said.
Alison Segar, a longtime district parent, said Wednesday that she heard of the resignations through Facebook on July 31. Urban has been the guidance counselor for her children for more than a decade.
“I’ve watched Larissa over the past 12 years and I feel that she was very dedicated to our high school,” Segar said. “For her to leave it must have been really bad.”
She called it “crucial” for the guidance office to be fully staffed and ready to support students by the time the school year starts, especially for those impacted by the death of Kibabu, who was a friend of her son.
“I feel really worried for our school district,” Segar said.
Board Chairman Mark Porter made clear that the meeting would not address the resignations or any personnel issues, although the board plans to allot time to discuss the guidance department in September.
“We can’t talk about that in open forum. It’s never going to happen. We can’t discuss it,” Porter said.
Burlington Education Association Vice President Andrew Styles said the union had been aware of the resignations prior to the meeting, and would like to see some clarification of the role of the guidance director. The teachers’ union represents the high school counselors.
“It’s going to be very rough for the students and for the faculty,” Styles said in a phone interview on Thursday.
No formal grievances have been filed, according to Styles, although counselors had unsuccessfully taken steps to attempt to address concerns earlier in the year.
“Our concern now is that they did not feel safe enough to address their concerns while they were employed,” he said.