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DOJ speaks with PTA presidents about harassment issues in Allentown schools

By Tom De Martini, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Meghan Packer, Reporter, MPacker@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 13 2014 09:09:19 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 13 2014 10:14:48 PM CST

The feds are giving the Allentown School District a checkup ten years after a series of alleged sexual attacks on students by a student

ALLENTOWN, Pa -

Two U.S. Department of Justice attorneys spoke with seven members of the public Monday night at the Allentown Public Library to discuss the ongoing efforts to curb assaults and harassment in the Allentown School District.

Aaron Zisser and Ashley Martin of the DOJ outlined what types of investigations they are performing during visits to school district buildings this week.

It is part of the terms of a consent decree between the DOJ and the Allentown School District stemming from the sexual assaults of Central Elementary School students in 2003 and 2004.

The Allentown School District settled a lawsuit in 2012 involving several former Central Elementary students who were allegedly repeatedly sexually abused by another student.

The DOJ intervened and entered into a consent decree with the school district to ensure proper procedures are followed to prevent similar assaults.

"We're about halfway through the consent decree," Zisser said. "We're interviewing staff, students and administrators about policy and procedure. We're collecting information and talking to people. It's not surprising that we got very little turnout."

Two of the people at the meeting were PTA presidents -- Carmen Velilla of Central Elementary and Susan Geise representing Allen High School.

"I'm at Central volunteering every day from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.," Velilla said. "When people talk bad about us, we defend our school."

Velilla said parents can talk to the school's principal concerning problems and that the children currently feel safe in school.

"Some of the kids don't even know what bullying is," she said. "We have to sit the parents and the kids down and talk about it."

Velilla said safety protocols are currently in place, so students feel safe while traveling inside the school building.

"When a child goes to the nurse, three kids go down and two come back up," she said. "

The doors are monitored. When someone touches them, they know to tell me. The one bad thing about it is that teachers are afraid to get close to the children and pat them on the back or the head."

Geise said that even though Allen High School students "get a lot of bad press" for incidents that happen outside of school hours, improvements have been seen with the addition of school liaisons.

"People think it's automatically the school's fault," she said. "We can bring our concerns to the administration and they have general approachability."

Zisser said DOJ wants to ensure schools are comfortable to report any type of harassment or bullying and put abuse provisions in place that protect students and parents.

"We want to have a system in place, so the information and ability is out there to report any issues," he said. "We do a lot of work at the administrative level, so it goes from the teachers all the way up the chain."

Allentown Superintendent of Schools Russell Mayo did not attend the meeting, so that those in attendance could speak freely concerning any problems they see within the district.