Behind the scenes a growing number of parents are saying, We want our school back!'
Behind the scenes a growing number of parents are saying, We want our school back!'
By Walter Pierce
Photos by Robin May
It's a Sunday afternoon in mid-July. Fifteen people seated in chairs are gathered in an oval on a second-floor atrium of a business office on Ambassador Caffery. Upper middle-class, most of them. One is a former teacher at Our Lady of Fatima school; the rest are parents whose children attend the venerable Catholic school in Lafayette's midtown. A chip on every shoulder.
"OK. Broad strokes. Why are we here today?" I ask the group.
There's a pause filled with furtive glances among the group members. Then a father speaks.
"We have an administration that is totally out of control," he begins. "The administration absolutely does not have the best interests of students' safety at all in mind, whatsoever. The parents and faculty as well feel threatened about being able to speak out about anything they feel jeopardizes the safety of their child. We've been told by many, many people that the faculty feel threatened for their job security. Joni is basically picking a war."
Joni is Joni Duos, Fatima's principal. And the utterance of her name breaks the ice and the tension. The grievances pour forth.
"In her two years as principal, which is the astounding thing, there are 24 teachers that have left," says one mom.
"They do not have the best interests of the kids at heart. They don't want bad publicity. [Duos is] never going to be wrong - she's always going to be right. She has to lie about it," insists the ex-teacher.
"Just in this room alone there's over $100,000 in tuition," observes another mom. "We pay their salaries. This is our school - this is not their school. This is our children's school, and they don't give a rat's blank about anything; they just totally disregard us."
"We want our school back!" exclaims another mom.
And so on. For an hour and 45 minutes they vent. The consensus: Duos must be removed as principal at Our Lady of Fatima and the administration needs to enforce its anti-bullying policy.
None wants to be identified for this story. They fear reprisals from Duos and what they say is a team of sycophantic administrators she surrounded herself with when she was promoted to principal before the 2012-13 school year. Teachers, they say, fear for their jobs, peeping under stalls in the restroom before daring to speak about the administration, afraid to talk to each other in their classrooms because they're paranoid about eavesdropping via the intercom system. It's crazy. The stuff of a cable TV drama. A bad cable TV drama.
But the OLF handbook makes it clear that these parents' fears are not unfounded: "Our Lady of Fatima School reserves the right to terminate the enrollment of any student(s) in the event that it is determined by the school Administration that: (1) a positive working relationship between the school and the parent/guardians no longer exists and/or is irreparably damaged..."
Two weeks before this meeting, I received an anonymous typed letter by snail mail. It recounted a salacious story of sexual battery committed by one Fatima boy against another during a sleepover, and a two-year battle by these parents to have the boy expelled from the school. He is a serial bully, they insist, and they got no redress from Duos or her boss, Father Michael Russo, pastor at Fatima, both of whom, the parents say, assumed a "boys will be boys" attitude.
The alleged incident occurred in October of 2012 when the boys were fifth graders, the parents say. The Monday following the incident, as the alleged victim was being teased by classmates during recess, other students brought the matter to the attention of the administration. The boys involved, we're told, were brought to the office and "interrogated" for hours before parents were notified.
The alleged perpetrator, according to multiple sources including one sympathetic to both the boy and the administration, was suspended for three days, and other boys involved were also given shorter suspensions for not reporting the battery. But the administration refused to expel the alleged perpetrator, whom all of the parents in the Sunday meeting say repeatedly bullies other children on campus.
"Let me tell you, these children - the victim and the perpetrator - have had to be in class together every day, and the parents asked that they be separated and the school said no because that would be too disruptive," complains one mom in the Sunday group.
"When you have these children, and they're in counseling and have to deal with this for the rest of their lives, it's sick," adds another.
On the Friday before that Sunday meeting word came to the parents that the alleged perpetrator's family had agreed to voluntarily withdraw him from Fatima. But they still wanted to meet, deciding the case was merely illustrative of a creeping culture at Fatima in which bullying is tolerated and an aversion to negative publicity outweighs other considerations. The parents say a new policy at the school requires boys to do physical education in their school uniforms rather than changing into PE uniforms in the locker because the bullying is so pervasive. Two parents in the group say their sons "hold it" throughout the day rather than use the restroom.
"Just in this room alone there's over $100,000 in tuition. We pay their salaries. This is our school - this is not their school."
The upheaval at Fatima during Joni Duos' two terms as principal spiked briefly in the spring of 2013 when Jane Riviere, a beloved teacher known as "Riv" who had taught at the school for nearly three decades, was forced to resign. Riviere is a lesbian, and she refused to agree to a new morality contract teachers were compelled to sign - a contract that delineated "immoral" behavior such as homosexuality, having children out of wedlock and even entering into second marriages without having the first annulled by the Roman Catholic Church.
The kerfuffle became widely publicized when Jaci Russo (no direct relation to Father Russo), then the president of the school's Advisory Council (tantamount to a school board), resigned from the council in protest. An advertising executive who at one point had four children enrolled at Fatima, Russo withdrew her children from the school that spring.
"I cannot in good conscience stand by while we prevent great teachers from doing their jobs," she told KATC at the time, adding, "Why not focus on the teaching of God's word and not the policing of those who the church deems unfit to educate? If that is how [the school] wishes to hire, then do so at the beginning and not after a career spent at the institution."
In speaking to other disgruntled parents both inside and outside the Sunday group, Riv's exit from Fatima - counterbalanced against the fact that several teachers are on second and third marriages without the benefit of annulment and one had a child out of wedlock, although all signed their morality contracts - is a common sore spot.
"The administration absolutely does not have the best interests of students' safety at all in mind, whatsoever."
Lesley Vines' soft spot for Our Lady of Fatima has gone sore. A member of the last ninth grade class at the school in the early '80s before OLF became a feeder for St. Thomas More High, Vines says she was forced to resign from Fatima in the spring of 2013 after four years as a teacher.
A former "teacher of the year" at Mt. Carmel in Abbeville, Vines, who now teaches in the Vermilion Parish public school system and is the only person with grievances who agreed to go on record for this story, says she got on Duos' bad side almost immediately.
"I had over-the-top evaluations for four years, but as soon as Joni came there she started telling me things like, You need to make some changes. You're getting too personal with the parents. You're getting too personal with the kids.' And I was like, What the hell?'" Vines recalls. "She told me I'm not Fatima material. I'm not part of the Fatima family. I've been in the Fatima family since '73; I have four sisters and we all went to Fatima. One sister teaches there now. My mother retired from teaching there. So we are Fatima people. She's not."
There are 53 teachers on staff at Fatima, depending on how you count them. (We didn't count teaching assistants, curriculum coordinators, etc. - only those on the staff directory with "teacher" next to their names.) That means if multiple independent accounts of two dozen teachers exiting during Duos' two years as principal are accurate, nearly half the teaching staff has resigned or retired during her tenure.
"It's very extraordinary. This whole situation, in my opinion, is extraordinary," says a priest familiar with the situation at Fatima. "There should be no problem getting good principals who get and keep good teachers. So that is alarming."
"It was very devastating. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown," recalls Vines, who says she considered suing the school, even hired a lawyer, but couldn't bring herself to relive the trauma.
The IND has also learned that the situation at Fatima is very similar to what happened at Sacred Heart Elementary in Ville Platte. A parent who was on the advisory council there at the time says Duos was forced to resign as principal following a rocky tenure marked by high staff turnover and embittered parents. "It was very unpleasant to say the least," he tells us.
"When you have these children, and they're in counseling and have to deal with this for the rest of their lives, it's sick."
Joni Duos wouldn't talk about the situation at Fatima when contacted by phone. She agreed to have questions emailed to her but didn't respond. Father Michael Russo, however, stands by his principal and by the way the alleged sexual battery incident was handled. He too wouldn't speak to The IND, but he did issue a statement on behalf of the school - a statement signed on to by the school administration and the current eight-member Advisory Council.
"Our families are always encouraged to let us know how we are doing and to offer suggestions and constructive criticism all in the interest of helping OLF achieve and maintain institutional excellence, both academically and spiritually. Regrettably, as with every school in this country, when there is disagreement with the school administration's philosophy and/or approach to a given issue, parents sometimes resort to other means, such as the one we are now facing," Russo writes in part. (The full transcript of Russo's statement can be read below.)
Citing diocesan policy, Russo declined to speak in detail about the school's handling of the alleged sexual battery, but defended it in broad strokes: "Our manner of discipline, particularly in the area being questioned (something that occurred two years ago and not connected to a school function), was in accord with the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It is balanced by very important factors that, as a Catholic institution, we cannot overlook - namely that which is age appropriate (5th graders), that which acknowledges contrition and sorrow, and that which is consistent with the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is both just and merciful," Russo continues. "There are disgruntled parents and former employees in every school system. Fatima does its very best to be sensitive to dissenting opinions. At times, resolutions of conflict are achieved. But at other times, we simply have to agree to disagree. This is a very important life lesson to teach our students.
"Ms. Duos was selected for her position by a group of parents and teachers - all of whom were familiar with her credentials, qualifications, and work history. I recall receiving more than 50 letters from faculty members at the time of her selection, pleading with me to place her in the position of principal."
Eighty families signed a petition in support of the boy accused in the alleged battery, urging the school not to expel him, says a parent sympathetic to the administration who notes that the boy has also been traumatized by the sequence of events, adding that the family finally withdrew him from Fatima because they worry he had become a pariah.
"It is amazing to me that it has come to this," the parent says.
But the boy's withdrawal will likely be an inadequate salve for a wound at Our Lady of Fatima that seems ready to fester. Says another parent who wasn't part of the Sunday-afternoon group - a parent who also served on the Advisory Council and who says she has seen first-hand the deterioration at the school during Duos' tenure, "It's like watching a burning building and you have no control over it - and the administrators are the arsonists."
FATHER MICHAEL RUSSO'S FULL STATEMENT TO THE IND:
Dear Mr. Pierce,
I write in response to your questionnaire to me and to your questionnaire to Mrs. Joni Duos, Our Lady of Fatima School principal. Both questionnaires relate to your upcoming article in The Independent. We thank you for the opportunity to reply to your request for information on behalf of Our Lady of Fatima School ("OLF"). As Pastor, I will respond on behalf of the school, but please note that this response is made with the approval of and signatures of the Administration of OLF, as well as the Advisory Board of the school, all of whose names you will find below actively engaged, with full support and without anonymity.
First, it must be noted that OLF employs approximately 100 persons and is the school of choice for 922 students from 650 families. The reported "nearly two dozen parents and some former teachers" who have prompted your subject article represent, in all fairness, a small number of OLF families. Our families are always encouraged to let us know how we are doing and to offer suggestions and constructive criticism all in the interest of helping OLF achieve and maintain institutional excellence, both academically and spiritually. Regrettably, as with every school in this country, when there is disagreement with the school administration's philosophy and/or approach to a given issue, parents sometimes resort to other means, such as the one we are now facing.
That being said, we believe that to discuss, in detail, disciplinary or personnel matters in a general public forum, such as a newspaper, is neither productive nor in the best interest of our school. And, it does not respect the privacy of individuals, particularly as some of the subject matter in your questionnaires to both Mrs. Duos and me pertains to the behavior of minors. The school's handling of disciplinary or personnel matters, whether with faculty members or students, has been carefully documented in personal files and are handled in accord with Diocesan policy. Additionally, our manner of discipline, particularly in the area being questioned (something that occurred two years ago and not connected to a school function), was in accord with the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It is balanced by very important factors that, as a Catholic institution, we cannot overlook - namely that which is age appropriate (5th graders), that which acknowledges contrition and sorrow, and that which is consistent with the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is both just and merciful.
While we acknowledge differences of opinion, it is appropriate to note that two years after the incident being questioned and after the handling of situations with former faculty members, Our Lady of Fatima's enrollment, under the present leadership, is at an all time high with waiting lists in many grades. We will continue to strive for academic excellence and keep as our highest priority the safety and well-being of our students.
Finally, in response to your questionnaire regarding Fatima's approach to sacramental preparation, it is all explained in detail to those who are part of our program, of which we have received numerous compliments over the years.
Just and fair criticism is always welcomed, but effective journalism should be vigilant about reporting the truth. There are disgruntled parents and former employees in every school system. Fatima does its very best to be sensitive to dissenting opinions. At times, resolutions of conflict are achieved. But at other times, we simply have to agree to disagree. This is a very important life lesson to teach our students.
Ms. Duos was selected for her position by a group of parents and teachers - all of whom were familiar with her credentials, qualifications, and work history. I recall receiving over 50 letters from faculty members at the time of her selection, pleading with me to place her in the position of principal.
I hope that, in light of this response, The Independent will be able to adhere to verified facts and avoid gossip and slander. Our posture and policies are all backed up with documented files. As our census and roster confirm, Our Lady of Fatima Church and School are growing. There is always room for any institution to improve, and Fatima will always be open to such growth, but in a fair, respectable, and just manner.
I, along with the names below, while admittedly disappointed in the subject matter of the questions submitted (particularly since the root of the story will expose the behavior of minors in a public forum), remain grateful that you have allowed OLF School to respond.
Fr. Michael Russo Pastor
Mrs. Joni Duos - Principal
Mrs. Gayle Dauterive
Mrs. Lois Sellers
Mrs. Nicole Crochet
Mrs. Cynthia Judice
Mr. Terril Judice
Mrs. Kathy Boulet
Mrs. Angela Schoeffler
Mr. Steven Kramer - Chairperson
Mrs. Susan Hebert - Vice Chairperson
Mr. Wayne "Boo" Cestia - Secretary
Mr. Blaine Barrilleaux
Mrs. Becky Kreamer
Mr. Sal Longo
Mrs. Kim Privat
Mrs. Cassie Deshotel - Parents' Club President