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Q&A with Melissa Sanders
What is the Ahfachkee PAC and why are they so angry with some of the Tribal School officials? The Seminole Tribune went right to the source: Melissa Arlene Sanders, 23, is president of the PAC and the one who aired parents' gripes at the May 9 Tribal Council meeting. Seminole Tribune reporter Irene Oakes-Yazzie, herself a former school principal at Sac and Fox Settlement School (Tama, Iowa) and White Bear Education Complex (Carlyle, Saskatchewan), sat down with Melissa for a question and answer session. The opinions expressed are hers:
Q: Can you tell me something about PAC? What is PAC?
A: Our PAC Committee is "Parent Advisory Committee". We try to get more parents involved in the school, which is what we really need. We want them to be more informed on what is going on in our schools, compared to what we have been informed of. I'm glad we came out with this because there are a lot of situations that were going on that were being unattended to. Now that we've had the committee, a great deal of things have been put into place. Like the students and disciplinary actions are more constant. Funding is available for different things that weren't before. There is more communication within the school.
Q: How long has PAC been in existence?
A: Actually we have been in existence for a year. Because the previous principal, Mr. Coyle, he really didn't want to have a PAC committee because I guess he had a lot to hide. He really didn't want us to organize one. But we had a meeting and the parents decided that we needed a PAC committee to be more involved. To find out what issues are being or aren't being addressed. So, the parents that attended that meeting nominated the PAC committee.
Q: How many members are in PAC?
A: We have myself as president; Lesley Garcia as vice president; Celeste Billie Hall as secretary. We also have committee members consisting of Leroy King, Sue Tiger, Connie Leech, Raleigh Osceola, Lawana Sue Tiger, she's a teacher. We also nominated two students to be on the PAC committee. Devin Cypress is one. We still haven't got a nomination from the Middle School yet. But we feel like if we have staff, parents and students communicating, it will run a lot smoother than it has been running.
Q: As president, what is your responsibility?
A: To make sure we have every meeting on time, to get parents' concerns on issues, and pursue and try to get an answer for those parents. If it's not a concern or a question, or if it's an issue that needs to be resolved. I try to get it resolved as soon as possible to keep from disrupting the school environment.
Q: You have two children that go to school here?
A: One is in the first grade and I'll have another one in there next year for kindergarten. Then I will have two in there. That's why I feel like everything needs to be running smoothly. Not only for my kids, but for all the kids on the reservation that attend there.
Q: Can you tell me what's going on here at the school? Why did you have to go in front of the Tribal Council and School Board?
A: One main concern is the Acting Principal, Donna Dunkel. The principal was doing a lot of ... well, she was ESE (Exceptional Student Education) director, before she became acting principal. When she was ESE director, and while we had Mr. Coyle, as the principal, she did most of his work, as a principal, I guess. She was more or less his backbone. We questioned that and what her position was and why was her work being unattended.
The ESE program was lacking and we felt that was her priority. Why wasn't it being done? Then Mr. Coyle resigned. Then she was automatically moved up. We had a problem with that because she wasn't doing her first job properly as ESE Director. I went through some papers about ESE and other things. She used to go in and sit in a class but she should know these students by name and be familiar with the students and know their background or the family situation or whatever. She was not seeing all the kids.
The kids didn't know her as ESE Director. They knew her as the Principal. We thought that was kind of funny. So we looked into it some more and when she became Acting Principal, we found out that she was getting paid two checks. She was getting paid as ESE Director, which she wasn't doing. She was also being paid for Acting Principal which, who knows if she was doing it or not.
And she was coming in late. We questioned her hours. If she was going to be Acting Principal, then she needed to be there before the teachers came and after they left, in case a situation occurred. She would leave early and go to her class to further her education.
We questioned if our teachers would like to be certified in other areas. We asked if the other teachers at Ahfachkee were able to do that? They were told, "No, not unless its on their own time or during the summer." But yet it was OK for Donna Dunkel as Acting Principal to leave early to pursue her career of becoming Superintendent or Principal. And we felt why is it OK for her? If there are going to be rules, the rules need to be abided by everyone, not by just a few. We also questioned her hours.
Then when we looked into it more. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) forms that the Director is supposed to sign in front of the parent, the teacher, the counselor and ESE Director, which was her. This wasn't being fulfilled. She would go ahead and get these kids tested.
Not too long ago, we got audited for ESE. She had a staff member go to each parent and got the forms signed by the parents. Some of the parents would take the form and say, "OK, whatever this is, here just go and get out of my face." They didn't know their rights. They didn't know that they could have the right to deny the form and get a second opinion by another psychiatrist on their child.
But she didn't give them that right. If we got caught for doing this, for her doing these illegal things, then we could have lost our accreditation. The school would shut down. Like I told the Tribal Council, 80% of the kids that go to Ahfachkee, would not go to school if that school wasn't there. We need to keep it running.
She would let things go. She also took things personally. She did not act in a professional manner. If a teacher spoke up on behalf of a student or a class, or ask for materials that would help benefit the children to learn better in a certain area, this teacher would be pushed aside for speaking up.
Donna Dunkel gave a reprimand that was unnecessary. And it was for her just following the rules. But yet there was a teacher there that was not doing her job. Connie Cote was the Guidance Counselor. She was moved to the Home Ec. teacher position. She didn't do her job there either. She bought over $2,000 worth of stuff and no Home Economics was even taught. Maybe two or three times.
What she bought was escargot trays. I don't even know what these are, but Max said that there were snails in them. Then she was moved to ISS (In School Suspension) teacher. She would tell the kids the answers to their work and she was giving them stickers, letting them eat popcorn and play Monopoly. This just ruins the whole point of going to ISS. The kids would say, "Yeah, I'll go to ISS. No problem, it's more fun there than it is here." There were more incidents.
There were also incidents with the P.E. teacher, Mr. Lahait. He was cussing at the kids. He was not including in his reports that kids were fighting or kids were getting hurt.
Donna Dunkel was letting certain teachers get away with certain things. But the ones that worked hard at teaching our kids, who cared about our kids -- those teachers were treated as outcasts.
The only way she would communicate would be through memos. She would just blow up and say nasty things to the teachers. She'd go into a classroom and ask the teacher if that was the right setting for the student. She would say things like this right in front of the kids. She'd mouth off things in front of the kids to the teachers. This was inappropriate. But yet she'd do it. There is a whole list of issues that we have.
We would ask administration a question, but yet when the teachers would go and ask a certain question, they were told a totally different answer. There was no communication. She would only hear what she wanted to hear. She would tell the parents or us what we wanted to hear. She did this just so we would get off her back.
A comment was made to me which really fired me up. This made me want to pursue this more. At meetings, they would always talk down to the Big Cypress parents. They would say things like, " the parents don't do this . . . they don't do that . . .it's the parents' fault the kids are like this . . . that's why they are the way they are . . . "
Now that the parents are standing up and speaking up on behalf of their kids, finding out what's really going on in the school, we are finding out that it's administration that's putting these labels on the students and we're noticing it. We are getting involved and saying, "Hey, what's going on here? Why isn't administration doing their job, the way they're supposed to?" The teachers are doing their jobs. We're seeing these kids come out of a shell. That they aren't ESE. They're intelligent.
They are telling us we should be quiet. According to them, everything was running smoothly. Of course it was, because it was really being run the way they wanted to run it. "Why don't you leave things the way there were? It was fine." Why is that? We're finding out that they're not doing their job properly.
There was a lot of labeling. After Donna Dunkel gets the approval signed by the parent, and all the teachers, the counselor and ESE Director. Then that child can be evaluated by a psychologist. Well, after the psychologist tests the child, the ESE Director is supposed to go in and evaluate the child. Then at the end of the year, a year-end evaluation is supposed to be completed. They are to see what goals were met. This wasn't being done. A referral can sit on Donna Dunkel's desk for a year. A year later that student could finally be tested.
The same psychologist keeps coming back, too. Donna Dunkel knows this same psychologist on a personal basis. So she tells the psychologist that she needs more labels in order to get more money. She asks the psychologist to label more students.
When the psychologist comes in to see the student, many Native American students will not open up to everyone right away, so most students will think, "Well, this is a stranger, I'm not going to say too much." That psychologist will ask questions. That student will just sit there and say, "OK, whatever." The students will not talk.
Then the psychologist sees these students not opening up and he automatically labels them as being emotionally handicapped. One after another. It's the same situation. That's not the way it's supposed to be done. These kids need more time to know this psychologist. Once the students feel secure with a person, they will open up to that person. They will answer any question that you want.
After three years, a different psychologist is supposed to come in and evaluate the students and see if their evaluation has changed or if it has stayed the same. Well, that's not being done either. That same psychologist that has tested them three years ago is testing them again.
The administration was hiding all this from the parents. This was frustrating to me, too. They also wanted to get rid of all the teachers who cared about our kids. The teachers were scared of losing their jobs. The ESE Director was telling the teachers to "quit telling the parents this and that; if they don't ask, don't tell them; just keep your mouth shut." Why should that be? The parents should know their rights and be informed of everything that goes on. She was not letting this happen. The teachers started saying, these parents need to know. So they started speaking up and letting us know, what's really going on.
Then in Hollywood, Pat Jagiel, said that the teachers were just blowing things out of proportion. We told her, it's not the teachers. We're asking the teachers' questions. What is really going on? The teachers are scared to speak up because of what Pat says. The teachers are being blamed and it's not them. The teachers are here for our kids. From what I could see, the administration wanted to get rid of all the teachers because we're finally seeing what the administration is really doing. We are finally moving forward with our kids.
This year we have seen a change in our kids to where they are getting more interested in athletics, they are intelligent, they can be in Honor classes. Not all the kids, but maybe about 80 percent of these kids that were labeled was unnecessary. They were incorrectly labeled. There was not very many, they made it sound like the entire school should be in Special Ed.
Many of the kids have enough insecurities at home. And then when they came to school, they kept seeing these new teachers coming and going. That's a lot of insecurity, too.
Now we finally have these teachers that come out here from places like Weston and Fort Lauderdale. They come out here for the kids. They come here because they want to be. The students have gotten used to these teachers. They are beginning to be more secure. As much as the teachers have to go through here, they are still here. They are here for the kids. So the kids start thinking, "Hey, they're still here. Maybe they do care. Maybe I'll start showing progress." So the kids continue to go to school, not to disrupt or distrust anyone. They are there to learn. They are finally realizing that these people (teachers) really do care.
We are finally moving forward. There is not as much discipline problems as before. There is not much destruction of property as there used to be. The students are starting to show more respect for the school. If we put a whole new group of teachers here, we would be taking steps backwards. If we could just get rid of the ones that don't care and keep the ones that do care then we would continue on the right path. We need to keep these teachers here with us. This is the question that Pat could not answer.
Pat Jagiel and Donna Dunkel were also doing evaluations on the teachers. Do you know how long it took them to do an evaluation? It would take them one day. They would stay in the classroom for about 15 minutes. How can Pat Jagiel come down here, sit in a classroom for 15 minutes and know how good this teacher is.
They also wanted to order books for our kids. They threw a big fit at me, as PAC President. I had arranged a meeting with the teachers to try to come up with a book committee. We were told our books were going to be out of date by next year. I asked the teachers to get the names of publishers and try to get samples of different catalogues. The teachers know their students and they can also help the next grade by letting the teachers know their up and coming students.
We can afford this type of thing for our kids. Why not give them the best? I asked them to get all this information together and then we could have another meeting. When Pat Jagiel and Maureen (Vass) got word of this, Maureen came down and threw a big fit with the teachers.
Why not have new books by the time the new school year starts? This way the teachers would be able to become familiar with the books. They would be able to start working on their plans or however they do it. They would be prepared. No, Pat and Maureen did not want to do this. They wanted to give us a hard time. I asked them what the problem was with the teachers ordering books. The teachers know their kids. Does Pat know the kids, their learning processes, how they learn best? She couldn't answer these questions.There was no communication. I would like to know why she is in that position.
It really frustrated me. I was tired of sitting back. If nobody else was going to speak up, regardless of the situation, I was going to speak up. Our kids have lost a lot already. I feel they need to start benefitting from this.
We are meeting this afternoon with the staff. We are going to try and come up with a plan for next year. Have different activities, have motivating speakers come out, have field trips to places like science museums. Just have a fun year of learning for the students. Not to where, they are going to feel like, "Oh God, I have to go to Ahfachkee, I have to go to school today." We need to make it more interesting for these kids. We're going to try and plan that and try to figure out. The Council had told us to get up and order things and bring it to them. And we'll go from there.
Q: What did you ask of the School Board? What did they approve?
A: We asked that the ESE Director, the Acting Principal, Donna Dunkel's contract not be renewed. If she can't do one position, unless she's trying to take on two positions. What good is she doing us anyway?
We also have a teacher who is qualified for the ESE Director position. She has put in her application, but Pat Jagiel ignored it because her friend is Donna Dunkel. She didn't want her to take that position. I've seen how she works with her class and all the students in her class, their parents feel like she would be a definite asset as ESE Director. I told her to give me her application and I would take it to the School Board. Let them review it and see what they think. If she takes it to Pat, who she had already given an application to, who knows what Pat will do with her application. Donna is saying that the position is not open. What was going to be done when the Principal would've been hired to take over her Acting Position. Was she going to go right back to being ESE Director?
We had also asked that the reprimand be dropped.
Q: On who?
A: On Melissa Weinberg. The situation was that a student had IEP forms. When everybody meets they come up with a disciplinary action. This had happened because the student was not following the rules of the student code of conduct. This student regardless of this code would not behave and sit in class to learn.
A plan was made for this child so that certain things would be taken away from him, like P.E. He had to be in ISS for 5 days for one incident. The parents also have the right to decide to change the number of days in ISS. The parents (Leroy King) decided to add 5 days to his ISS. This totalled to ten days that he was supposed to be in ISS. When the fifth day passed, the student had met the school disciplinary plan.
The parents spoke to the child, and the child said, "OK, I understand what I did was wrong and I promise to try and do better." The parents spoke to the child. So they confronted the teacher and said since we put on the extra 5 days, we would like to take those 5 days off. Miss. Weinberg said, " OK, let me bring it up to the Acting Principal." She went to the Acting Principal and told her about the situation.
And she was like, "OK, yeah whatever, OK." So the teacher thought it was OK. The parent, Leroy King, went to the Acting Principal and she said the same thing. She was like Yeah, OK, OK. Then two weeks later Melissa Weinberg gets a reprimand because of that. Saying she went out of the line of command, she did not follow the student handbook as told.
They had a meeting because of the reprimand. It consisted of Donna Dunkel, Pat Jaigel and the teacher, Melissa Weinberg. They discussed it and Pat said it's not an administration issue it's a personnel issue now. Because the teacher felt the reprimand was uncalled for. That goes on her record and she's only been teaching for two years.
She didn't understand why this was done. Why did they wait two weeks to put the reprimand on her? This is the one I was telling you. She was taking it personal, not acting as a professional. That was unnecessary. Melissa Weinberg followed the rules.
Well, the Principal says she didn't speak to the parent at all. As soon as that happened, the parents knocked on the door and came in. They were invited to the meeting too. The father says, "Don't you remember I told you that, I told you about the situation and you said OK.". Then she got caught in a lie. Pat Jagiel still supported her (Donna Dunkel). Even though she lied about a parent. Then the father, Leroy King, confronted her about it.
Still she supported her. After that was over. The teacher said, "Well, I want to take this to a higher authority." Pat says, "We can meet with Benny or Danielle Dixon." She's like why? And Pat says that this isn't a parent issue. This is a personnel issue.
Q: Who is Danielle Dixon?
A: Danielle Dixon, is head of Personnel. I thought to myself, this involves a student. Why wouldn't it involve the parent? If administration put that reprimand on her. It involves administration. They took her up to Hollywood, Pat makes the teacher read this reprimand to Danielle and Danielle didn't say anything. The teacher asked Pat, why wasn't this reprimand dropped?
Pat says, "No it stands. I stand behind Donna and I know everyone in administration and higher will support Donna."
Then Melissa says I'm going to take it higher. Pat says go right ahead, no one will listen to you. From there we had another meeting and we caught her in another lie. It was James (Billie), David (Cypress), Lesley (Garcia), myself and the counselor that signed the IEP form and the teacher (Melissa Weinberg) and Larry Frank.
We had Donna come in and tell her story. She said the IEP form was just minutes from the meeting, that it wasn't a legal document. So if it wasn't a legal document there was no need for the reprimand. She said 'I told the parent OK, But I didn't mean OK, it was OK for the student to do what he did or go back to P.E. I meant, OK, fine I am going to take care of this a different way.' Like the parents are suppose to read her mind. OK, well there is how many definitions of OK? Its like, Gees what is wrong with you woman?
They said we had to go through the Grievance Process. She was going to but then we said we will take care of it at the Council Meeting. Then they dropped it that day.
As far as being rehired for the following year. They were told they wouldn't know by June 13th. Pat Jaigel said well they might not even know until the beginning of the year. That's very insecure. All these teachers want to come back. The ones that come from the heart, that are out here for our kids. They all want to come back. Why give them that insecurity of, "God do I have a job?" They've got families too. I can understand that. I'd want to know if I was gonna be rehired. Leroy King talked to a friend on the School Board with Hendry County and he said Hendry County let their teachers know by the first week of April. We are talking about eight teachers at Ahfachkee and they can't know by April.
So Council approved that and said that it should be known every year by the 1st week of April, the teacher will know if their contracts will be renewed. This gives them a sense of security. When Donna Dunkel was giving teachers their contracts for this year, she said,
"Hurry up and sign it, you can't take it home to read it. Or else you can't get your paycheck. Bye!"
We had asked that the ISS teacher Connie Cote, the P.E. teacher David Lahait, and the bus driver Neil Coady not get their contracts renewed.
Q:What are your concerns about the Assistant Education Director? Other than what you have mentioned.
A: I see her as manipulating her situation. She's a controlling person. If she can't control it, she gets very uptight about it. She manipulated her way into that position anyways. Into the position she is in now. She manipulates her way and she's conniving and I just don't like her because she tells you one thing and she'll do another.
If you try to go through her in a process, then she'll only go to Larry (Frank) and what she feels that should be said. He was at a loss, too. He sat in our meeting Tuesday night and he sat there. He had every opportunity to back them up. He did not stand up but one time. He was like in amazement. Like all this was going on and I didn't know. That makes him look bad because he depended on her to make sure he knew what was going on. But yet she was telling him only what she wanted him to hear. There are a lot of higher education students that say, "I wish she'd get out of there. I only deal with her because I have to deal with her."
Q: So what would you like to see done about this position?
A: I want to see that position opened to someone else. Someone that will do the job correctly and make sure that communication isn't lost somewhere. If communication was there, we would never have gotten into this situation.
Q: What characteristics do you see in the new Principal?
A: A sense of reality on these children. A heart to feel for these kids and know where they are coming from. Understanding the ways of our people and understanding that communication is greatly needed. We need someone that is gonna speak up. Someone that will get what our students need or the school needs. Also not be afraid to stand up to Administration.
This school can be a top notch private school that we've ever had in the state. We have the money, we have the students. Now all we need is the administration. We would like to see archery programs, basketball, baseball, t-ball, anything to keep these kids motivated. The Principal we had was too much into getting money for herself. As I saw it.
A concerned parent mentioned the other day that we had a reading program that was borrowed and the parent saw a change in the reading in the kids. If that was doing so good, why didn't we order it or keep it?
Well, they said there is no money available.Then let's buy it. David (Cypress) would say, 'Ask me. We will get the money for it. Don't worry about money, just worry about the supplies or the things we need for the school, things for the students.' We can find money anywhere, everywhere. Don't worry about that.
Q: How many students are in the school?
A: There are between 88 to 90.
The parents stood up and said we don't have funds for this and that, for our students but yet when it comes to you (Donna Dunkel) flying all over the world and getting a rental car, you can find the funds. It's true. She goes to conferences, Special Ed. conferences and she goes off and learns this or that and she doesn't come back and share the information with the Special Education teachers on staff.
She doesn't give them the same opportunities. She doesn't ask, "Well, would you like to go with me next time or would you like to go?" She doesn't ask any of the special ed teachers if they would like to go. No. They're not given that chance to go and find different ways, maybe new opportunities for them. They weren't trying any new ideas or programs with the kids.
We found out that she went to this conference to represent Ahfachkee. But yet she was representing Dade County and we paid for the trip then she needs to represent us. Not represent who she wants to. We just need someone that is going to make a difference in the school. Make it the best school it's capable of being.
Note: Patricia Jagiel declined to talk to the Seminole Tribune concerning this article. Donna Dunkel, on sick leave, was unavailable for comment.Error processing SSI file