The Buffalo School District is taking disciplinary action against a veteran elementary teacher from BUILD Academy who sent a note home with all her students last week complaining that several of her prekindergarteners were coming to school wearing dirty clothes and smelling bad.
In a handwritten letter titled “URGENT NOTICE!!!”, pre-K teacher Sharon D. Perry Dunnigan asked all parents to address the cleanliness issue, saying, “It is a health and safety concern. It also makes it difficult for me to be close to them or even want to touch them. Enough said.”
School Board members and parents said they are upset and troubled that a teacher would choose to deal with a matter involving a few students in such a broad and shaming manner. The letter was not only sent out to all parents, but also required that it be returned to her with the signatures of parents and their 3- and 4-year-old children.
Board members discussed the matter in a closed session during Wednesday’s committee meetings and were unanimous in their agreement that the teacher handled the matter poorly and said she should face more than a minor verbal reprimand.
“I was stunned to see a note that was to all parents when it was not all children in the class that are involved in the situation,” said board member Mary Ruth Kapsiak, who once supervised elementary teachers at BUILD.
“Everybody on the board was appalled by that, everybody,” said board member James Sampson. “We’re very concerned about what this communicates to little kids and to families.”
The district had discussed placing a counseling letter in the teacher’s personnel file, indicating that an administrator spoke with the teacher about the inappropriateness of her actions, but some board members and parents said they encouraged the district to take further action, such as requiring the teacher to receive further training and issue parents an apology.
“Sending that letter home to all parents is offensive and almost shows a contempt for the children,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “As opposed to judging them, condemning them, make an effort to address the underlying problem. That would be most helpful to the parent, most helpful to the student, and most helpful to the district.”
Parent offers to diffuse the situation by soliciting donations for uniforms worn at BUILD, offering to wash dirty clothes and suggesting hygiene lesson plans were rebuffed by the teacher, said Denise Glenn, the school’s parent facilitator, who met with the teacher last Friday, the day after the letter was sent home.
“She said, ‘What do you want me to do, apologize? I’m not going to apologize because I got my point across,’ ” Glenn recalled.
Dunnigan has taught elementary students in the Buffalo system for nearly 30 years, The Buffalo News determined. She did not return a message seeking comment Thursday afternoon and did not teach at school Thursday or Friday.
While hygiene and child welfare issues like this are regularly confronted and addressed by teachers in the district, they often involve assistance from a school nurse or social worker and/or a personal call home to the parents of the affected children.
“Our schools have the support of social workers, school counselors, nurses and external support services ready to help families and lend aid to teachers,” said Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of student support. “Buffalo teachers regularly and faithfully make use of these resources to assist children and families in our district.”
Superintendent Pamela Brown also stated that the district should show respect for all children and families.
In this case, however, parents said they are not only upset and angry at Dunnigan’s unsanctioned approach to the matter but questioned whether the teacher’s letter is indicative of a larger culture of insensitivity and dismissiveness toward parents within some of the district’s more troubled schools.
At BUILD Academy, 20 percent of parents have submitted applications to have their children transferred out of the school, the most requests of any elementary school in the district.
Dunnigan’s actions only exacerbate the matter and will lead to more transfer requests, parents said.
When The News broke this story on its School Zone blog Wednesday, some posted comments defending the teacher and blaming parents who are sending their children to school unclean. Many others said the way the teacher handled the matter was wrong.
“When you read this, how do you feel?” said Bryon McIntyre, vice president of the parents council, who alerted the district to Dunnigan’s letter. “You can’t tell me that if a teacher had written that to a parent in Williamsville, that teacher wouldn’t have been rode out of the district on a rail.”
He added that one child came home with the letter last Thursday and asked her grandmother if she smelled bad.
“A couple of parents wanted to lay hands on her,” McIntyre said. “We’ve been working hard to keep this thing contained and let them know this is not how things are done.”
Aside from a letter in her personnel file and possibly other disciplinary actions, board members and parents said Dunnigan will not be allowed to send home letters to parents that are not first approved by the principal.