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Has the system failed the students?

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by Michele Catahay

Guam - For months, KUAM News has brought you stories from parents and even students who say bullying is occurring in their schools.  For the last two days, lawmakers have had a chance to hear those concerns firsthand - and what they've heard hasn't been pleasant: teens being victimized by others, sexually harassed, physically abused and threatened, all while at school. 

It's a disturbing situation that's been happening for some time.

Many of the cases were reported at F.B. Leon Guerrero Middle School in Yigo. Following two nights of oversight hearings at the Guam Legislature, the Department of Education has decided to initiate investigations into two administrators at the school to determine if they properly handled complaints of bullying.  But it was apparent during last night's oversight hearing that senators don't believe enough is being done to protect students.

"We have children who don't feel safe at all. We have children who don't want to come to school. We have children who want to transfer out of the school.  The children feel harassed and bullied not just by the peers but the administration's as well," Won Pat said. "There's something wrong in the system! Students have fallen through the cracks."

Hoping to find out how to fill those cracks and find out exactly what is wrong in the system, lawmakers spent more than six hours on Tuesday night trying to get answers from school administrators and DOE officials on why instances of bullying like sexual harassment and threats were not being addressed.  But the focus quickly switched to F.B. Leon Guerrero Middle School principal Ulric Marc, who lawmakers accused of bullying, forcing students with untucked shirts to do pushups as punishment. 

Senator Tony Ada was appalled, saying, "You take the most severe problems at your school, like sexual assault and harassment, and you treat them so petty.  But yet something so petty like an untucked shirt, you treat it so severe. You got your things all mixed up. What are we teaching our kids? Senator [Rory] Respicio and myself, we were former directors of the Department of Youth Affairs. This is ridiculous.  This is not even called for. Our jobs at the schools is to educate our children."

Lawmakers also questioned Marc's policy of investigating incidents first before contacting their parents. "When a problem exists and there's room to speculate, something is wrong. I don't care how minor and how major, and a student is involved, then a parent must be called in. If they blame the parents and it starts at home, the parents should be given the opportunity and what I heard yesterday, parents were not afforded that opportunity," stated Senator Tina Muna Barnes.

Marc responded by noting, "We do call the parents and they are involved but it's just that when things are happening, we try to sort it out. So while we're in the middle of the investigation, it's really difficult for us to call the parents until it is sorted out."

"This is so blatant - a blatant disregard," Senator Barnes added.  "I hope we have no suits coming down."

Although parents have been seeking help and the removal of the administrators at FBLG for months, today DOE Superintendent Dr. Nerissa Bretania Underwood decided to take action - removing Marc and Assistant Principal Milaflor Quitugua from the Yigo school, moving them to the agency's Central Office downtown. "Just because there's action taken now and not before doesn't mean that there wasn't support being provided to the students and the parents when those issues were addressed," Underwood told KUAM News.

Parents like Mae Quidachay, whose daughter has been bullied at the school for months, are hopeful with the change in administrators. She said, "Right now, I'm very happy. This is the best Thanksgiving for me because now we actually have action done and taken, but I'm still upset with the fact that it took this long to get it done."

Jose Rios Middle School principal Erica Cruz, who previously ran FBLG several years ago, has been tapped as the acting principal.  The superintendent will make a decision on Marc's temporary replacement this weekend.

It's interesting to note that Marc was removed before as the principal of JFK High School after it was shut down for safety reasons. Quitugua was also removed as the principal of Southern High that same year after the Santa Rita campus was shut down as well.

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