Amid turmoil, Fatima reaches out to families

by Walter Pierce

On the cusp of a new school year, with the fallout from The IND's special report, "What's the Matter at Fatima," still settling, the administration at Our Lady of Fatima is reaching out to the school "family" to offer reassurances about the academic and spiritual health of the institution.

On the cusp of a new school year, with the fallout from The IND's special report, "What's the Matter at Fatima," still settling, the administration at Our Lady of Fatima is reaching out to the school "family" to offer reassurances about the academic and spiritual health of the institution.

In an email to parents, Father Michael Russo provides, among other things, a point-by-point rebuttal to many of the claims made against the school's administration by anonymous parents. Russo mentions parenthetically that the article "left important points of our response out." Indeed, due to space limitations in the print issue of IND Monthly, the entirety of Russo's response could not be published. However, the entire statement issued by Russo is reproduced in the online version of the story as indicated in the print version.

Following is the email obtained by The IND (how could we not have obtained it, under the circumstances?):

Dear Fatima School Family,

Many weeks ago both the Church and School offices were informed of rumors that a group of school parents and some former teachers were gathering to "expose" the school in a local newspaper.  Over the course of time, various names have surfaced of those who may be orchestrating the action and/or contributing to it. Their point of contention: the way a disciplinary action was handled over an incident that occurred two years ago. Additionally, there was dissatisfaction with the School Administration. The article, in The Independent,  is appearing today in hard copy circulation. In fairness to The Independent, questions were submitted by Mr. Walter Pierce, managing editor, to allow the School to give its side of the story. Our response, signed by both the School Administration and Advisory Council, is provided for you below. (The article, as it was written, left important points of our response out.)

As a spiritual father, it is disheartening to witness the hurt and grievances of others. Each of the parents involved feel that they are justifiably right. I, as a pastor, must respect the rights of parents to express their convictions. But, I do not have to agree with certain positions. There is always a way to express our disappointments and frustrations. I regret that there were those who felt the need to go to a newspaper. Ultimately, this hurts all of the children involved.

There are various approaches I could now take "in defense" of the School, particularly if this kind of "disruption" continues. My hope is that I will not have to use a diocesan and legal right to resort to serious measures to stop the commotion. I do not want to do this, primarily because such a decision results in students having to suffer. But the "protest" over this matter is going to have to stop or I will be left with no other choice; satisfied parents would expect it. The School's response is clearly outlined in the attached reading.

Let us pray for unity and peace, and a successful school year for our kids - because it's about THEM.  The safety environment of our students is of the highest priority. Teachers have been repeatedly asked to be vigilant about improper behavior amongst the students involved in the particular incident in question. They have, for the past two years, not seen any abnormal behavior that was threatening or cause for serious concern. We now have to continue our work -- to form and to educate.

In my eight years at Fatima, I've come to know many of our school families. I've gone into homes for weekly dinners and I take time out of a very hectic schedule to visit classrooms each Monday. I hear too much positive, too much good, to let (quoting The Independent to me), "nearly two dozen parents and former teachers" take that good away from us. The tone and posture of the quotes of those who contributed to The Independent (and there were so many untruths) spoke volumes to me.

In an attempt to be careful and cautious, to respect the privacy of individuals in a newspaper article, I now use this safer medium to confirm what, sadly, the newspaper article ended up announcing, that the parents of the student in question felt that it was best for their child to no longer be at Fatima, and the student was recently removed.  Regrettably, should it have come to this point?

You will find below the following:

a. our complete response to The Independent, [Editor's Note: click here to read the complete response at the end of "What's the Matter at Fatima?"

b. a response from Mrs. Duos, with a "facts sheet",

c. a response from Mr. Herb Boasso, former Fatima principal,

d. and a response from the Fatima faculty, initiated by them.  (They were informed of the article yesterday, and gave Mrs. Duos a standing ovation of support. It is good to remember that when an overwhelming majority of teachers are content, so, too, will be your children.)

Complete response to The Independent

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

School Administration:
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

Advisory Council:    
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

From Mrs. Duos, Principal

Dear Fatima Family,

Normally the start of a school year is filled with much excitement and anticipation for the new year and for the new relationships that will be formed.  This is what I most look forward to each year. Unfortunately, this address must be focused on a different topic.

Our Lady of Fatima School is a wonderful place to serve as a principal.  The atmosphere is one of inspiration, growth, enthusiasm, prayer, and respect.  Over the 33 years that I have been in education, I have served in several Catholic schools, and Our Lady of Fatima School fits my definition and description of a Catholic school, one whose first priorities are to serve children and instruct them in the Catholic faith, to provide them with a safe environment, and to equip them with a top-notch social, athletic, spiritual, and educational experience.

A  principal's job is to serve, listen and evaluate all aspects of the community it serves in all disciplines.  I strive daily, beginning with prayer, to do these things to the best of my ability.

At Our Lady of Fatima School, I am not only blessed with beautiful students, outstanding teachers, and a stellar leadership team, but also with a compassionate, understanding Pastor.  In this environment, success happens daily.

The parents who choose this Catholic educational environment for their children work hard to support the school and it's mission.  At Our Lady of Fatima School, we are centered in Christ, committed to learning, and called to build character in a Catholic environment. It saddens me when this mission is interrupted by outside factors.  When this happens many suffer.

As a leader of this wonderful school, I ask that we all move forward to do what we are called to do by Jesus Christ, that is to equip our students with the spiritual formation and excellent education needed for a lifelong relationship with their Savior.

In Christ,

Joni Duos

Please find below information that compares the statements made in the article written by The Independent to the accurate facts.

Facts Sheet

The Independent's article stated the following as indicated by the letter "A". The school's documented facts are designated by the letter "F".

1. A: "Fifteen people seated in chairs are gathered in an oval on a second-floor atrium of a business office on Ambassador Caffery...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."

F. Our Lady of Fatima school has approximately 650 families enrolled and 55 teachers on staff. Present at the interview were approximately 7 families and 1 former teacher.

2. A. "The administration absolutely does not have the best interests of students' safety at all in mind, whatsoever."

F. The administration has enacted numerous safety measures to keep our children safe. We always have the best interest of the students in mind. Safety measures are visible to parents and visitors.

3. A. "The parents and faculty as well feel threatened about being able to speak out about anything they feel jeopardizes the safety of their child."

F. While there are some who may have this feeling, we always have our doors open to parents to hear and address their concerns. We try to remain open and resolutions are often achieved. However, sometimes we are not able to come to an agreement about how to resolve an issue. We make the decisions we have to make without harboring resentment toward parents.

4. A. " In her two years as principal, which is the astounding thing, there are 24 teachers that have left, says one mom."

F. In 2 years, 12 teachers have left: 1 retired; 3 left for medical reasons; 1 left to stay home with family (homemaker); 2 returned to the public school system for more benefits; 1 left due to the transfer of her husband to another state; 1 left to go to work with her husband; 1 was asked to leave, 1 resigned; 1 was not offered a contract for the following year.

5. A: "This is our' school - this is not their school."

F. This is the school of 928 students owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette.

6. A. "The consensus: Duos must be removed as principal at Our Lady of Fatima and the administration needs to enforce its anti-bullying policy."

F. There is an anti-bullying policy in place, which was instituted by Mrs. Duos three years ago. It is still in effect today.  Guidance counselors, disciplinarians and Mrs. Duos attend national conferences on bullying in order to stay up-to-date on current research.  Mrs. Duos instituted an "anti-bullying week" and an anti-bullying pep rally to educate students and to promote anti-bullying measures. An anonymous reporting form is available online for parents and students to report bullying. Disciplinarians follow up on every reported incident of bullying. National speakers have been hired to speak to the students, parents, and staff. The Lunch and Learn series presented by OLF parents often focuses on bullying issues.

7. A. "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 are paranoid about eavesdropping via the intercom system."

F. After being given information on the contents of the article, teachers were shocked by this statement. Teachers are aware when the intercom is on because a signal is heard in the classroom to alert the teacher that the intercom is on for communication. An atmosphere of fear and spying is not felt by the teachers.

8. A. "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 parents/guardians no longer exist and/or is irreparably damaged...'"

F. The Parent Cooperation Statement is a statement that is put out by the Diocese of Lafayette to all of its schools. Every Catholic school in the Diocese is mandated to enforce this policy and to make available a copy of same to their parents in the school handbook.

9. A: The administration "...assumed a boys will be boys attitude."

F: The behavior in question was not dismissed. As comments among the students were disrupting the school day, the behavior was addressed and consequences were given, both according to Catholic moral principles, and to ensure the safety environment of the school. The gospel calls us, particularly when dealing with the fragile age of fifth graders, to correct and teach, not to crush or destroy - all the more appropriate when a student expresses contrition.

9. A. "It recounted a salacious story of sexual battery committed by one Fatima boy against another during a sleepover...".

F. To this date, no student at Our Lady of Fatima has been legally convicted of sexual battery.

10. A. "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.".

F. The administration was not given information that the "victim" was being teased.

11. A. "The alleged perpetrator...was suspended for three days, and the other boys involved were also given shorter suspensions for not reporting the battery."

F. Detailed information about these juveniles cannot be discussed, other than to say that this information is untrue. .

12. A. "But the administration refused to expel the alleged perpetrator, whom all of the parents in the Sunday meeting say repeated bullies other children on campus."

F. Since the time of the incident in question until present, no reports of bullying by this student have been reported to the administration by either students or teachers, with the exception of one occasion. On this occasion, a student came to administration and gave information that the reported incident did not occur.

13. A. "'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."

F. Parent requests were made to administration to separate the children the following years. We listened and this request was granted.

14. A. "The parents say a new policy at the school requires boys to do physical education in their school uniforms rather than changing into P. E. uniforms in the locker because the bullying is so pervasive."

F. Because of concerns by both Administration and the P.E. department, a decision was made to have both boys and girls wear their school uniforms for P.E. instead of dressing out for these reasons: because the P.E. teachers were losing instructional time, because this is a sensitive time in the lives of junior high students and many were uncomfortable with dressing out in front of their peers, because the P.E. coaches were not comfortable with staying in the locker room with students to ensure that they were dressing in a timely manner, and because they wanted to ensure that no teasing took place in the locker room after games of competition.

15. A. "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."

F. Jane Riviere made the decision not to continue at Fatima. She was offered a contract in accordance with the new Diocesan morality addendum. She chose not to sign the contract. She said in a statement to the media: "Fatima school did not ask me to leave. It was because I could not sign my contract and be honest to its content. The leadership was very respectful, compassionate and understanding during this process." The contract addendum for teachers was a Diocesan mandate. As Fatima is under the auspices of the Diocese of Lafayette, it is required to follow such a mandate.

16. A. "An advertising executive who at one point had four children enrolled at Fatima, Russo withdrew her children from the school that spring."

F. Russo (Jaci) had only one student at Fatima when she resigned. Her other children were, and had been, enrolled in other schools.

17. A. "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...although all signed their morality contracts - is a common sore spot."

F. Teachers sign a contract saying that they are in compliance with the guidelines of the Diocese regarding the Church's teaching on marriage.  The administration has been very vigilant in this regard and has absolutely no knowledge of contracts that are invalid.

18. A. "A member of the last ninth grade class at the school in the early 80's 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."

F. Lesley Vines was hired by former principal Mr. Herb Boasso. During her tenure, and under the direction of his administration, Mrs. Vines was mentored and guided due to administrative concerns. The schools' decisions regarding Mrs. Vines were documented and remain on file..

19. A. "There are 53 teachers on staff at Fatima, depending on how you count them." .

F. There are 55 teachers on staff at OLF and 38 ancillary faculty.

20. A. "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."

F. As stated above: In 2 years, 12 teachers have left: 1 retired; 3 left for medical reasons; 1 left to stay home with family (homemaker); 2 returned to the public school system for more benefits; 1 left due to the transfer of her husband to another state; 1 left to go to work with her husband; 1 was asked to leave, 1 resigned; 1 was not offered a contract for the following year.

21. A. "A parent who was on the advisory council there at time says Duos was forced to resign as principal following a rocky tenure marked by high staff turnover and embittered parents."

F. Mrs. Duos was not forced to resign from Sacred Heart; she resigned of her own accord in the middle of the school year.  She was still under contract when she resigned.  There was no high turnover rate during her tenure. In fact, according to a former teacher who served under the administration of Mrs. Duos, the majority of the teachers rallied behind her and met with the Pastor of Sacred Heart in support of her prior to her resignation.

22. A. "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..."

F. The school has never received any petition from anyone with regard to this incident, or anything else for that matter.

In light of the above, it is good to remember our statement to The Independent:

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.

From Mr. Herb Boasso, Former Principal

Father Russo,

After reading the published story in the Independent, I feel compelled to defend an administration and staff with whom I have worked closely and have grown to love.  My hope is that my perspective will be shared with this staff and the parents of our students who have been such an integral part of my life.  In retirement, I have made an effort to keep my presence at the school to appropriate levels, but I still have many friends on the faculty and in the administration, and I think I have a clearer perspective than most of the state of the school two years after my departure.  I left the school having every confidence that Joni Duos had the background and capability to carry on the great tradition of Catholic education that I so loved at Fatima.  Nothing that I have seen or heard since that time has changed that opinion one bit.  The changes to the curriculum and faculty that she has undertaken, were either recommendations I had made, ideas that she had, that I fully endorsed, or changes since, that having heard the circumstances involved concerning policy and personnel, I would have done myself, or that I support.  I believe Joni has taken a good product and made it better.  I am convinced that she has the nearly unanimous support of the administration and the faculty.  Unanimous support from the entirety of the parental base is an allusive and not necessarily achievable (or desirable) achievement.

Let me address two things that I understand are issues in the news report.  First bullying.  As my Assistant Principal for Discipline, Joni developed and implemented a sound strategy for dealing with bullying at Fatima.  Bullying is always a concern at any school, and I believe that while we had a good program to deal with it, it could always get better, and did under her leadership.  As long as free will exists, bullying will be an issue with both children and adults.  The program Joni developed working with our faculty and utilizing the latest research on the subject, was sound and as good as any I have seen.  Secondly, personnel changes.  Personnel changes are a part of every school environment.  Letting people go is always controversial, and there is usually a group of people rallying behind the teacher in question.  Faculty turnover has been within the parameters of what I would view as normal for a school with over 100 employees.

Again, let me stress in closing, that I fully supported Joni as my successor, and I fully support her today.  Being principal is not an easy job, or a popularity contest.  I know you have done a great job of standing behind her, just as you did with me.  I am convinced Joni will weather this storm and if there is anything I can do to help, I stand ready to support her and you.

- Herb Boasso

From Fatima School Staff and Faculty

Dear Father Russo and Fatima School Family,

The teachers and staff are in support of our principal, Mrs. Joni Duos. We are united as a faculty all wanting the best for our school and our students. Mrs. Duos is always open to hearing reasonable criticism and makes decisions only after carefully researching issues, gathering information and considering all aspects of a situation.

Her leadership and vision has moved our school forward tremendously. From safety of our children and faculty, to technological advances throughout the campus, her forward thinking continues to take our school to a new level, academically and spiritually.

After hearing the content and quotes from The Independent article, we were dismayed and personally offended by the long list of inaccuracies. We are committed professionals and are happy at OLF. We feel blessed to be part of this Fatima Family with Mrs. Duos as our leader. We sign this letter with pride in Our Lady of Fatima School and the peace of Christ in our hearts.

An overwhelming majority of the faculty (some could not be reached because of summer vacation) signed their names to this statement of support.