Metro

‘Way out of line’: Fitchburg school officials apologize to parents, graduating students for remarks made at ceremony

School officials in Fitchburg are apologizing to an eighth-grade graduating class after a teacher’s speech this week during a ceremony meant to celebrate the children’s achievements apparently criticized the students instead.

“On behalf of the administration and staff, we would like to sincerely apologize for the upsetting remarks made at the beginning of last night’s 8th Grade Promotion Ceremony,” school administrators said in a letter posted Thursday to the Fitchburg Public Schools’s Facebook page. “They were unexpected and way out of line.”

Officials said they met with students from the McKay Arts Academy on Thursday — one day after the incident — to discuss what happened during what many had hoped would be a special occasion.

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“One of the students asked us if we knew what was going to be said. We let them know, as we are letting you know, we absolutely did not. We assure you that those remarks are not reflective of what our school is about,” read the letter, which was signed by the school’s principal, two vice principals, and the student program support administrator.

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It continued, “Those remarks in no way represent the feeling and perceptions of staff and administration toward our students and families.”

Administrators from McKay Arts Academy, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade innovation school, did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

While it’s unclear exactly what the teacher said, City Councilor Samantha Squailia, who runs a private Facebook group for residents in Fitchburg, where she shared a copy of the letter, told the Globe that “the tone of the speech was overall a negative kind of vibe.”

“‘Students, you have to make sure you are doing your work and you are showing up, and there are too many students who are absent from class and still graduating,’” said Squailia, quoting the general feedback from parents who discussed Wednesday’s remarks on the Fitchburg Facebook page. “You know, ‘The real world isn’t going to be like this’ — that was sort of the sentiment.”

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Squailia said from what she gathered, some parents felt that what the teacher was saying may have been true to an extent — but the message should have been delivered privately to parents, and not during the ceremony.

“That’s what I’m gathering. I didn’t see it, I didn’t hear it, I can’t make any opinions. But this is what I’m gathering from the people who were there,” she said. “This kind of speech was overall kind of negative, instead of a positive ‘Good for you, you’re graduating.’”

One person in the Facebook group, who said she was at the ceremony, wrote that it was the “worst graduation speech” for the students.

“So negative,” the person wrote. “So bad there were hecklers during the ceremony ... barely talked about the good but mostly about the bad and the ugly.”

The Globe reached out to the teacher who allegedly made the speech — and who parents identified in comments on the Facebook page — but did not immediately hear back on Friday. Many people in the discussion thread defended the teacher as “one of the best” and “great.”

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In its letter to the school community, Fitchburg officials did not indicate if any disciplinary action would be taken.

But according to Fitchburg Superintendent Robert Jokela, officials are actively looking into what happened.

“It’s a personnel matter that’s under investigation,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that the letter sent to the community captures the position of both the school and the district on the issue.

The letter to parents called the academy a “welcoming, inclusive school that honors diversity,” and asked them to “reflect on the many positive aspects of the Promotion Ceremony last night and your student’s time here.

“Most importantly,” it said, “remember that your student has been surrounded by positive teachers that have made a valuable impact on them.”

The full letter can be read here.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.