*This article contains an edit made on July 17
A petition signed by more than 70 parents of current and former students at Cedar Hill Elementary School is calling for the immediate removal of Dr. Colleen Mercurio as principal, citing six specific instances – including three instances of student-on-student sexual misconduct – which they allege demonstrate the principal’s lack of empathy, unfair punitive decisions and refusal to communicate with parents.
The effort on the part of parents was greeted by mixed reaction. Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said, “This is the first I’m hearing of this.” A Cedar Hill School teacher, who asked not to be identified, said there is another side to the story and Mayor Scott Avedisian defended Mercurio, saying he has “complete confidence” in her.
“This is a parent group, of which I am one with four children in our school system, that expects you to please listen to this grievance and then act swiftly in meeting our demand,” said Corey Smith, speaking on behalf of the petitioning group during public comments at the July 11 meeting of the Warwick School Committee. “In the three years Dr. Mercurio has been the principal at Cedar Hill, she has fostered a culture where students are routinely subjected to unsafe and hostile situations.”
The petition cited two separate instances of sexual assault occurring on the school bus (one involving a special needs student and one that occurred over a two-year period), one sexual assault witnessed by a child on the playground and one instance of cyber bullying where multiple students created a sexually-explicit social media profile of an 11-year-old female student.
The incident that allegedly victimized a special needs student involved other students coercing the child into performing acts of “inappropriate behavior” on other children after that behavior was performed on the special needs student “for their amusement.” According to Smith, once parents brought the issue to Mercurio, “she attempted to blame the special needs student while minimizing what the other students had done.”
In regards to the incident on the school bus that occurred over multiple years, Smith said that Mercurio was only made aware of the situation by the victim’s parents, but then failed to enact a safety plan to remove the perpetrating child from the bus, and further that she allegedly told the parents not to open an investigation into the incident.
The same student who allegedly perpetrated this continuing assault on the school bus was the same student who was seen – prior to the school bus incident – performing “graphic sexual acts” on the playground, according to Smith. According to the petition, the parents of the child who witnessed the incident on the playground were “so frustrated by the principal’s inaction that they simply removed their child from Cedar Hill and placed them in a private school.”
Another incident involved an argument between two students, where one student made “racially-charged” comments about the other. According to Smith, Mercurio once again did not alert either of the children’s parents about the incident and made only the student who was victimized by the racial slurs apologize.
The sixth incident involved a student who had a tick removed by a school employee. The petition alleges that Mercurio did not alert the child’s parents of the tick removal, and the child eventually wound up being diagnosed with Lyme disease. The petition alleges that, when the parents confronted Mercurio about why she hadn’t contacted them, she “began insisting that the child could have picked the tick up anywhere and that kids like to play in tall grass.”
“Many of the parents listed on this petition have gone to her in good faith to inform her about disturbing instances of student misconduct, all of which she has mishandled, minimized or outright ignored,” Smith said. “Many of these parents feel she has gone so far as to purposely intimidate victimized students and their parents in an attempt to keep each situation quiet so as to avoid any procedures that would escalate things beyond her authority.”
Lynn Dambruch, Director of Elementary Education for Warwick Public Schools, confirmed on Wednesday that she and Katherine Duncanson, Director of Human Resources, are conducting an investigation into the allegations, but declined to comment on specific provisions of the petition.
Mayor Scott Avedisian came to the support of Mercurio.
“I have full confidence in her,” Avedisian said. “I think Colleen runs a good school and does a good job.” Avedisian added, citing the incident on the school bus that took place over two years, that it would be difficult for any parent to look at a situation logically when they believe their child had been wronged.
“Dr. Mercurio is one of the innovative and creative principals in our system,” he added.
*Smith stated that there have been three complaints filed against Mercurio with the Federal Office of Civil Rights. Smith reported that these complaints remain active. Dambruch said she was not able to comment on whether or not there were complaints levied against Mercurio, or whether or not she was instructed to participate in sensitivity training as a result of her handling of the incident involving the special needs child on the school bus, which Smith alleged was the case.
“My feeling was, if there's been repeated attempts to try to get Dr. Mercurio to either change her behavior, to follow certain protocol or to remove her as principal and nothing has been done, then we need to be a little louder,” Smith said. “I have no agenda other than her behavior is wrong.”
All allegations in this story are based on testimony and personal accounts from parents. These allegations have not been substantiated by Warwick Public Schools or any judiciary body. Dr. Mercurio did not respond to multiple calls to her office or business cell phone requesting comments before press time.
(Story includes reports from John Howell)