Town Center South joins Guilford plan

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/28/2007

GUILFORD — A plan to redevelop the area of town along Whitfield Street won acceptance from the Planning and Zoning Commission at a special meeting Wednesday night.

By a vote of 5-2, commissioners decided to accept the Town Center South plan, which recommends creating a “transit-oriented community” in the area between the Green and the harbor.

The land encompasses Guilford’s train station on the Shore Line East rail line. It also includes industrial sites, which proponents of the plan said are damaging the local wetlands and increasing truck traffic along Whitfield Street.

At Wednesday’s meeting, some commissioners said they were worried that people would view the plan’s recommendations as a path the commission must follow in the future.

“When I read this it sounds like a specific proposal (the committee is) proposing and my concern is if we adopt this nobody is going to remember what was said here tonight,” said Commissioner David Grigsby, who ultimately voted against accepting the plan.

But members of the Town Project South committee said that the “proposed developments” in the plan, which include suggestions for remaking certain industrial sites and moving the Public Works Department, are only examples.

“Just because you’re following a road map doesn’t mean you can’t stop and turn or even turn around and go back in the other direction, but you want to have a road map – you don’t want to just start driving,” Town Planner George Kral said. Kral added that any developer applying to build a project in the area would have to go through all the same approval steps as before.

The plan encourages residential and mixed-use development in the area designed to draw people who want to use the train to commute. Commissioner David North, who voted against the plan, disagreed with that focus.

“We’re just going to create more bedrooms and we’ll leave Guilford to go to work,” North said. “That’s the old model; it’s the easy model.”

The Town Center South report will now be part of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development. The next step for the report will be acceptance by the Board of Selectmen.

The report could also be affected by the ongoing development of a new Coastal Area Management Plan. If that plan shows that the area south of the Green is at a serious risk of flooding in the event of a hurricane, the Town Center South report might have to be abandoned, Kral said at Wednesday’s meeting.

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Guilford PZC, residents have say on project

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/27/2007

GUILFORD — Planners and residents debated a “road map” for reconfiguring the area of town between the Green and the harbor at a special Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday.

Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the Town Center South Project report, which aims to preserve the area’s “village character” and natural wetlands through rezoning and other means. No vote had been taken at presstime.

The proposal has been in the works since 2004, when the Planning and Zoning Commission appointed a committee to study the area covering about one square mile. The land currently includes some industrial areas, and residents had raised concerns about the industries’ environmental impacts and the truck traffic on Whitfield Street.

Members of the Town Center South Committee recommended that the town adopt “transit-oriented” zoning in the Whitfield Street corridor, which would encourage residential and mixed-use growth around the commuter hub of the train station.

But some commissioners questioned how tightly the town would be bound to stick to the text of the report, which includes suggestions about rezoning some industrial areas and moving the Public Works Department.

“When I read this it didn’t come across as a food for thought, it came across as recommendations,” Commissioner David Grigsby said. “My concern is if we adopt this … people are going to read the plan in five years and say, ‘The town recommends putting a septic system on this site.’”

But Chairwoman Shirley Girioni called the plan “another tool in our toolkit.”

“We need some guidance as to what happens to the area, rather than having it be so haphazard,” Girioni said.

The Town Center South Project’s committee included 20 members who met for two years.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several residents spoke to support the proposal, and one person said he was against the plan.

“There is enormous sentiment throughout the whole town against all this truck traffic and against all this industrial pollution,” Ellen Ebert said. “This is not a neighborhood problem — this is really how the whole town feels this area should go.”

Spring flood haunts school in autumn

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/26/2007

GUILFORD – April’s heavy flooding left its mark on Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School in the form of potentially dangerous black mold in a basement classroom.

A month after discovering the problem, school officials are working to clean up the mold and get students and teachers back into their regular classrooms, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said.

An initial air quality test has determined that the mold is not airborne, Forcella said. He added that there have been no more illnesses than usual in the first few weeks of the school year.

“We did check the air in the basement to see if any of the spores were in the air (and) if there was any cause for concern regarding the mold and the air quality,” he said. “One of the tests they use is to compare it to the outside air, and actually there’s less mold inside the basement than there was outside.”

Mold can cause allergic reactions and exacerbate respiratory illnesses like asthma.

Forcella said that workers found the mold behind wallboard in the basement while doing repairs.

A severe April rainstorm left about 4 inches of water in the basement.

For now, administrators have moved all students and staff out of the basement, which houses six classes and a few offices. But since most of the school’s other classrooms are full, the teachers and students have to move around throughout the school day.

“Unfortunately there’s not space available, so the teachers had to put supplies and materials on carts and then move from classroom to classroom wherever there was an open space,” Forcella said.

He added that he hopes the analysis and cleanup will be completed within the next few weeks.

Once the district receives the results of the mold testing, it will know where it needs to remove wallboard and disinfect classrooms.

Forcella said that, in his two years as superintendent in Guilford, the basement at Adams Middle School has flooded twice. No other schools in the district have flooding issues.

Officials are hoping to work with the town engineer to try to prevent the problem in the future.

For now, they will monitor the situation and immediately look for mold if the basement floods.

“It will happen again if it floods again – especially in the spring and then over the summer with the humidity, it’s a breeding ground for mold,” Forcella said. “As long as we can prevent the flooding, we can prevent the mold.”

Dead ‘mountain lion’ disappears on I-95

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/25/2007

GUILFORD — The case of the mysterious mountain lion shifted to Guilford Monday, as motorists on Interstate 95 reported sightings of a dead cougar on the side of the road.

But by the time the state Department of Transportation arrived at the scene, someone had absconded with the carcass, said Rachael Sunny, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“We have no way to prove what it was,” Sunny said. “There are no naturally occurring mountain lions in the state of Connecticut, and it could just be a simple case of mistaken identity.”

In the last few weeks, several people have reported sightings of what they thought were mountain lions in Shelton. But Sunny said DEP officials have determined that animal was a misidentified pit bull dog.

“We’re not really sure of why there seems to be increased reports of sightings,” Sunny said.

Mountain lions, which are also known as cougars, pumas and panthers, are believed to have been almost exterminated east of the Mississippi, except for an endangered population in Florida, according to the Eastern Cougar Foundation. Although people continue to report sightings, the animals are extremely shy, making it difficult for biologists to confirm their existence in the East.

Sunny said the DEP had several calls Monday morning from people saying there was a dead mountain lion about one mile north of Exit 59 in the southbound lane of I-95. She added that her department asked the DOT office in Madison to recover the carcass, but it had disappeared.

“It is illegal for anyone to stop and just take a carcass from the side of the road,” Sunny said.

She added that the DEP usually does not investigate every call it gets regarding a sighting of a mountain lion. In the Shelton case, the department sent an environmental conservation police officer to look into the situation because there had been several reports from the same neighborhood.

“Generally, as far as reports that we get of sightings, we don’t send anybody out there unless it’s highly credible,” she said.

Graphic novels have more kids reading, but questions arise

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/24/2007

The controversy over a Guilford High School teacher’s resignation last week had many parents and others in the community wondering: What exactly is a graphic novel?

English teacher Nate Fisher resigned Tuesday after a freshman girl’s parents complained about a graphic novel, Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball #22,” that Fisher gave the student as a makeup summer reading assignment.

Graphic novels are stories told in comic-book form, combining text and images in volumes that are often longer than traditional comic books. While including mature themes in a visual context can raise concerns about the propriety of the books for younger students, librarians and other experts say they engage students and get them interested in reading.

“It’s definitely the hottest thing going in high school libraries,” said Stephanie Shteirman, the library media specialist for New Haven’s High School in the Community. “It’s because as librarians, we’re looking for any type of access point into our collection. We want kids to read; that’s the bottom line.”

While teenagers and young adults tend to be familiar with graphic novels, several of those interviewed said it seems many older people often have not heard of the genre.

“I think it depends on how aware the parents are,” said Nancy Haag, a reference librarian at the North Haven Memorial Library.

Graphic novels include both fiction and nonfiction works on topics that move well beyond superheroes. One of the best-known graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” chronicles his father’s survival of the Holocaust, with animals as the characters. “Maus” won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

William Rubin, executive director of The Community Foundation for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, said he looked to the graphic novel format as a way to help people learn more about Israel. He worked with comic book writers to create “Homeland: The Illustrated History of the State of Israel.”

“We thought that was something that was easily accessible and the power of the graphic novel, using sequential art, says a lot in a relatively tight framework,” Rubin said. “There’s many 500-page histories of Israel that are on the bookshelves and that’s just what they are — on the bookshelves.”

Rubin said that the book is intended for seventh-graders and older.

“I think that for this generation — the Facebook generation, the MTV generation — that they’re much more visual,” he said. “It has to be delivered in sort of bite-sized increments (and) it has to be interesting visually, and we thought that this was sort of a great medium to express many, many ideas.”

At the same time, the visual nature of graphic novels can lead to concerns about who should be reading them. The parents of the Guilford High School student objected to references in “Eightball #22” to sex and murder, as well as some images of a naked woman.

Guilford Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said he found the material “inappropriate” for a ninth-grade student.

The Guilford Police Department has said it is investigating a complaint against Fisher. William F. Dow III, an attorney for Fisher, said his client has not been charged with any criminal violations.

“This is a young man who was regarded as an exceptional teacher with great potential and hopefully that potential will have the chance to be realized in the future,” Dow said.

Dow added that “Eightball #22” is “not pornographic in any sense.” The girl’s father has disagreed, calling the work “borderline pornography.”

Late last year, two graphic novels — “Blankets” by Craig Thompson and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel — were removed from the shelves of the public library in Marshall, Mo., after a parent said she thought they should not be available to children. The books were returned to the collection when the library adopted a new materials selection policy, according to a local newspaper.

People sometimes define graphic novels as having more mature content than other comic books, but Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in New York City, said the genre does not necessarily include adult material.

“The content of a graphic novel is limited only by the author’s imagination, and so there’s content that skews towards readers of all ages,” Brownstein said. “Just like somebody wouldn’t necessarily write off film because they happened to see a sophomoric comedy the first time they saw a movie, somebody shouldn’t write off graphic novels either because they’re coming in with a preconception.”

Libraries often place graphic novels in teen or young adult sections. They also choose carefully when adding new works to their collections.

“For non-readers, it’s an excellent way to get them into reading — it’s less intimidating, it’s more inviting and the language is no less sophisticated,” said Shteirman of High School in the Community. “I could see that there are inappropriate graphic novels — there’s no question there are graphic novels that I wouldn’t give to a 13-year-old — but you can’t condemn the genre. It definitely has a place in a library.”

Handling of teacher, comic issue riles parents

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

09/20/2007

GUILFORD — The parents of a freshman student whose teacher resigned after he gave her a sexually explicit illustrated book said Wednesday their daughter has been the target of harassment from fellow students, and they want the school district to do more to clarify the issue with other parents.

The girl’s father, who asked that his family remain anonymous because it has already been the target of criticism, described the graphic novel that English teacher Nate Fisher gave the student as “borderline pornography.”

The book, one of a series of comic book novels by Daniel Clowes, is called “Eightball #22.” It includes references to rape, various sex acts and murder, as well as images of a naked woman, and a peeping tom watching a woman in the shower.

“It’s not even like a gray area,” the father said. “It’s clearly over the line.”

He said Fisher gave the student the book almost three weeks ago to make up for a summer reading assignment. The book is not part of the school’s regular curriculum.

Her parents brought their concerns about the book to the high school and school district’s administration, and Fisher resigned Tuesday, a week after being placed on administrative leave.

Fisher, who had been a teacher at the high school for one year, could not be reached for comment.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said the book was “inappropriate” for freshman students. The girl recently turned 14.

Forcella said that the school district’s investigation is closed now that Fisher has resigned. But the girl’s father rejected that explanation, calling the school’s acceptance of Fisher’s resignation a “cop out.”

“Now they don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “They can close the investigation, they’re done with the matter and now they’re out of a sticky situation.”

The student’s parents said they met with Forcella and other school officials on Monday and were told the district would send an e-mail to parents explaining that the girl was not at fault, which they had not received as of Wednesday afternoon. Forcella said the district is planning to e-mail a statement and post it on the school system’s main Web site.

“I’m extremely upset with the administration for not following through with their word of contacting the parents,” the father said. “It looks like we got some teacher fired (over) a Harry Potter novel or Catcher in the Rye.”

The girl’s mother said her daughter has been “crying every night” and asking not to go to school because students who liked the teacher are blaming her. The mother said that some students set up a group on Facebook, the social networking Web site, calling for Fisher to be reinstated and criticizing the student. The family called the police when, they said, a video was posted on the site with a picture of their daughter and a song with the lyrics “Don’t hesitate to exterminate.” The Facebook page has since been removed.

“He’s the cool, favorite teacher of all the kids,” the father said.

His wife said she became especially concerned when her daughter told her Fisher asked her “how the book made her feel,” although the mother added that she has no idea “what his intention was.”

“She was victimized by him to begin with and over and over again for 2½ weeks now,” she said. “We just feel like if people understand what he had given her, then they would understand that it’s not our daughter’s fault.”

“Eightball #22” features a number of intersecting stories told in comic book form. Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in New York City, said that Clowes is a well known graphic novelist. Clowes is also the author of the graphic novel “Ghost World,” which was adapted into a feature film in 2001.

“The book was basically a profile of a town and its various oddball personalities and it was drawn in a wide variety of illustrative styles to create a psychological portrait of the goings on in this town,” Brownstein said. “It certainly is not pornographic.”

He added: “Frankly, I find the fact that somebody has left their job over this particular work deeply troubling.”

Brownstein said he thinks the nature of graphic novels — which combine images and text — and the relative youth of the genre can lead to confusion.

“Somebody could do a superficial glance of the material and not put the contextual pieces together, thereby perhaps seeing a panel with violence, perhaps seeing a panel with nudity and taking the image out of context as something that it’s not,” he said. “The more people are educated about the category, the less those sorts of misunderstandings occur.”

Brownstein said his organization can provide assistance and representation for people involved in legal situations about comic books and graphic novels. The Guilford Police Department has said that it is investigating a complaint against Fisher.

Forcella said that, if Fisher applies for jobs in the future, the fact that he left Guilford High School at this point in the school year will be apparent on his application, and the circumstances of his resignation would come up if a school district called for references.

The girl’s parents differed on whether they think he should be able to teach again.

“The last thing I want to do is ruin somebody’s career who made a mistake, but he’s responsible for our daughter,” the mother said.

Her husband disagreed.

“I personally don’t ever want him teaching again,” he said. “There is nothing that he could say that would account for this. … That poor judgment is something you can’t take back.”

No. Branford cleared of grade tampering

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/20/2007

NORTH BRANFORD — A report from the state Attorney General’s Office concludes that no widespread grade tampering or manipulation took place at North Branford High School — although there were a handful of questionable circumstances in the last few years in which failing students were allowed to graduate.

The report, released Wednesday, stems from allegations that some teachers and former high school Principal David Perry made several months ago. In July, Perry told WTNH-Channel 8 that Superintendent of Schools Robert Wolfe had directed him to change students’ grades in order to allow them to graduate.

But Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s report found there was no evidence of “pervasive ongoing improper grade manipulation or grade tampering at North Branford High School.” The investigation did say that “improper administratively directed grade changes involving at least two students occurred in 2001 and 2004,” but the contradictory statements from Perry and Wolfe made it impossible to determine who had decided to change the students’ grades.

In highlighting the incidents in 2001 and 2004, the report coincides with another one produced by the Berchem, Moses & Devlin law firm at the request of the Board of Education. That report said of the same two situations that they “appear to be most serious in terms of a student receiving a grade which the student may in fact not have earned, and being permitted to graduate as a result of that grade.”

Wolfe said he thinks this report should resolve the concerns.

“The attorney general clearly says there’s no systematic grade tampering,” Wolfe said. “Out of over 1,000 kids who graduated, we highlighted two cases and we’ve come down to my word against the principal’s word, so where else can it go?”

Stephen Wright, an attorney for Perry, could not be reached for comment.

Blumenthal said he will continue to work with the state Department of Education and state Legislature to implement some of the report’s recommendations, which include establishing clear guidelines regarding grade changes for high schools throughout the state.

“The investigation is complete, but the recommendations involve action at the state as well as local level,” Blumenthal said. “There should be some basic standards and procedures in common and they should be consistent and fair.”

The report’s recommendations also say that administrators, teachers, students, parents and other community members should work together to establish clear grading policies; and school administrators should “avoid usurping teachers’ judgments” or changing grades against teachers’ wishes.

The North Branford school district has already taken steps to ensure that improper situations do not occur again, Wolfe said. The district has formalized the system for grading so that teachers and administrators have to sign off on any changes and a new computer system will maintain a trail of changes.

In addition to the situations in 2001 and 2004, the report found three other examples of “possible improper grade changes.” Those instances were less serious because investigators found evidence that students did work to improve their grades.

The report also found that “there was insufficient evidence to conclude that there was a general or explicit policy that all students would graduate with their graduating class,” which had been suggested as a reason for administrators to pressure teachers to change grades.

Wolfe said he would still like the state Attorney General’s Office to release the names of the people interviewed for the report. Blumenthal said his office will “consider his request.”

“One of my concerns about this report is that this report does not identify where factual information came from or who they interviewed,” Wolfe said.