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Turmoil at SBRSD: Teacher’s Facebook post seen as reflection of larger problems

Some parents appeared to be confused about whether faculty member Jim Berlstein's post concerned actual safety at the school or his frustration with his own employment situation -- or perhaps the employment situation of everyone on the faculty and staff.

Sheffield —A social media post over the holiday weekend by a faculty member at Mount Everett Regional School has prompted an uproar in the school community. But it appears the post, which concerned safety and a “hostile work environment,” was misinterpreted by some parents who feared their children might not be safe on the Mt. Everett and Undermountain campus.

Science and technology teacher Jim Berlstein.

The post by science and technology teacher Jim Berlstein was troubling enough that a staff member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District alerted the Sheffield Police Department to it. The post was subsequently deleted. 

In the post, Berlstein, who is in his 19th year in the district, said he was issuing “a warning” to the school community: 

“For 18 years, I have worked in a wonderful and productive educational environment. ALL of that is changing this year. We are now enduring a … hostile work environment.” 

The phrase “hostile work environment” is a term defined in U.S. labor law. It “can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive,” according to the federal Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center. 

See Mount Everett faculty member Jim Berlstein’s Facebook post that started the controversy:

Berlstein ended his post ominously, adding that, “I choose not to be more specific at that time. It is not safe. Even this is not safe. Please help us.”

In an email to The Edge Tuesday, Berlstein apologized for the uproar he had caused with his post, saying that he did not mean to imply there was any danger to students, faculty or staff but that he was trying to alert the community to educational and pedagogical issues that he considered it critical to be addressed:

“I would like to apologize for my imprecise use of language, which caused some people to believe that there was a threat to the school. That was never my intent. I only wanted parents and students, both past and present, to know about the sudden deterioration of the working conditions at Mt. Everett High School, and the ever-increasing anxiety among the staff that it is causing. We do our best to love and teach all of your children, but we can’t do it as well when we feel like prisoners.”

Sheffield Police Chief Eric Munson.

The Sheffield Police Department posted a news release on Monday about “an ambiguous and concerning post made by a staff member of SBRSD” on Sunday. Chief Eric Munson said he was first contacted by Sheffield Police Officer Tricia Zucco, who serves as the district’s half-time school resource officer.

Zucco also alerted Regulbuto and “a thorough investigation was conducted.” Munson added that officers in his department were on hand this morning to greet students and parents and address any concerns they might have. 

“The mood this morning at the campus was fine and it seemed like every other morning drop off. The subject Mr. Berlstein was interviewed at the police station yesterday afternoon and there are no criminal charges being sought,” Munson told the Edge on Tuesday. 

“School officials were notified about the outcome of the interview and they will handle things moving forward,” Munson added. “I want to stress that at no time was any students’ or staff members’ safety in jeopardy.” 

SBRSD Superintendent Beth Regulbuto.

Superintendent Beth Regulbuto did send out an email to the school community Monday night in which she said Berlstein “demonstrated very poor judgment, and the District is taking appropriate steps to address this issue seriously.” Click here to read it.

Regulbuto repeated many of the things Munson said and added that, “I am confident that our schools remain a very safe place, and that we will continue to take any potentially problematic situations brought to our attention seriously, and we will respond in a timely manner using our best professional judgment.” 

Shortly before this article was published, Regulbuto responded to a query from the Edge asking her to address Berlstein’s concerns about what he called a “hostile work environment.  

“I cannot comment on personnel matters,” she said.

Asked to confirm or deny that Dean of Student Kurt DeGrenier has been suspended, Regulbuto responded:

The District is in receipt of a complaint brought by a former Southern Berkshire Regional School District employee against one of our staff members. The District promptly investigated the complaint, in accordance with its policies and legal obligations. Please understand that due to privacy and confidentiality rights of the individuals involved, I cannot comment further on the specifics of this complaint or the investigation findings.

What I can share with you, however, is that we take any allegations of this type or nature seriously, as it is our commitment to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students and staff.  I want to assure all that at no point was the safety of any member of the school district community at risk.

* * * * * *

See below the Sheffield Police Department’s news release on Facebook:

 

The reports of Berlstein’s post quickly spread on social media. The Edge reached out to half a dozen parents who commented on the Sheffield Police Department’s Facebook page, but with only one exception, they either did not respond or declined to comment on the record.

Some parents appeared to be confused about whether Berlstein’s post concerned actual safety at the school or his frustration with his own employment situation — or perhaps the employment situation of everyone on the faculty and staff.

“Parents including me want to know why a teacher in the high school posted that no one is safe … and put it out in regards to the Southern Berkshire School District,” one commenter, a parent, said on the police department Facebook page. “Lots of parents want answers.” 

Others complained about high turnover in the district and commended Berlstein for his bravery in speaking out. Another parent added that, “Ppl [sic] we’ve trusted and built a trusted relationships with have been removed and/or feel they are in a hostile work environment where voicing concerns on policy could get them fired.”

One parent, Jessie Laine of New Marlborough, sent an email on Sunday to Mount Everett Principal Glen Devoti asking about why the popular DeGrenier is no longer at the school. Laine posted the email on her Facebook page. Click here to read it. Laine said as of Tuesday evening she had not received a response.

In an Edge interview, Laine said she thinks Berlstein’s post was “a last resort” and “absolutely a reflection of something larger going on in the district.”

“By no means was I concerned with my kids safety,” Laine said. “Obviously, they have an internal problem.” 

Over the weekend, a group of school district community members hastily set up a Facebook page entitled “Save SBRSD.” The page’s administrators call it “a forum for parents and members of the Mt. Everett community.”

Berlstein began teaching at Mount Everett in 2000. He teaches technology, 3D design, engineering, and physics. Berlstein holds a B.S. in biology from Yale University and an M.A. in aquaculture from the University of Washington in Seattle. Click here to read his biography, which was still on the district website as of Tuesday evening.

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