Fresno Unified rat poison incident shows need for stepped-up student counseling, union says

The Fresno BeeFebruary 24, 2012 

Fresno Unified School District officials must spend more money on counseling for students, such as the three fifth-graders who allegedly plotted to put rat poison in a teacher's coffee cup, the teachers union president said Friday.

"There is nothing to help the students," said Greg Gadams, Fresno Teachers Association president. "You don't receive support services in this district."

The three students -- two boys and a girl, Gadams said -- were suspended and are no longer at Balderas Elementary School, where the attempted poisoning happened. However, they now need counseling services, which the district falls short in funding, he said.

"We kick these kids out, but we never give them any help," Gadams said at a downtown news conference.

The students, ages 10 and 11, are accused of putting the poison in their teacher's coffee cup in mid-December. The plot was foiled when one of the students had second thoughts and knocked the cup away from the teacher, Gadams said.

Immediate disciplinary action was taken against the students when school and district staff became aware of the incident earlier this month, said Susan Bedi, Fresno Unified spokeswoman.

The alleged plot came to light Feb. 8 when a parent of one of the three students was talking with Balderas principal Tiffany Hill, Bedi said. District officials immediately called Fresno police, she said.

Gadams said the parent told Hill that the parent's child deserved praise for "saving the life of [the] teacher."

As for district counseling services, a response team is sent to a school whenever a crisis happens, Bedi said. The team includes psychologists, a safety team and a public information officer.

Balderas staff was not informed about the attempted poisoning because school officials were not aware of the plot until two months afterward when no one was in danger, Bedi said.

"The need for a staff meeting on safety was not warranted on this issue," she said.

However, there was a Balderas staff meeting Friday to answer questions about the incident after media reports about the plot were published and to assure staff members that the students were disciplined, she said.

Bedi would not say where or if the three students are attending school because of confidentiality laws. She did say that students involved in "something of this nature" would go through a process that could lead to expulsion.

Once a Fresno police investigation is completed, the department will consult with the Fresno County District Attorney's Office to determine whether charges will be filed against the students, Chief Jerry Dyer said in a statement.

Gadams said one of the three Balderas students also gave the teacher a cupcake laced with poison, but the teacher did not eat it. Bedi said she was not aware of a cupcake being part of the plot.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the source of a quote. Fresno Teachers Association president Greg Gadams, not Fresno Unified spokeswoman Susan Bedi, said a parent told Balderas Elementary School Principal Tiffany Hill that a child deserved praise for "saving the life of [the] teacher."

The reporter can be reached at ejimenez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6386.

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