School Safety

This is the recording of the Dec. 9, 2021, Virtual Town Hall.

Summary of Town Hall on school safety

Sponsored by 50 Ways Rockbridge, Rockbridge NAACP, STAND (RCHS Student-Teacher Association for Non-Discrimination), Rockbridge Justice Coalition and CARE (Community Anti-Racism Effort)

 

Note: This is a synopsis of the 1.5-hour meeting. Watch above.

 

Moderator Tinni Sen started the meeting by explaining this was the first meeting to be held about recent events reported at Rockbridge County High School. 

 

Various public and school officials were invited to attend but did not attend. More than 120 people registered to attend and more than 75 attended.

 

For the next meetings, organizers plan to recruit people with expertise in the areas of school safety and student well-being to help us seek solutions.

 

The meeting started with a report from STAND and from RCHS teachers.

 

Cierra Bolster from STAND: Our mission is to advocate for LGBTQ, people of color and other minorities; focused on harassment and prevention; banning confederate symbols in school dress code. The administration responses to the anti-Semitic and gun incidents were vague and repeated the slurs and actions. We need support from the community in our efforts.

 

Pat Bradley, RCHS teacher: The school administration says it was caught unawares by these events, but they have heard again and again from students and community members about the hostile and threatening environment in the school. They have been offered help in the past and turned it down. One of the most significant is the community drive to help recruit and hire teachers of color — there have been only two in my 19 years at the school. That students felt the need to establish STAND speaks to the hostile environment. “It is impossible to expect them to report each and every incident. It’s just so much a part of the air these kids breathe on a daily basis.” The administration focuses on punishment instead of on changing the culture.

 

Tinni invited a variety of speakers to talk about their comments on three topics: 

  1. Incidents at the school

  2. Policies in place at the school

  3. Education efforts to fight discrimination and racism.

 

Incidents: 

 

50 Ways Rockbridge earlier told its members about an unconfirmed report of a child being threatened on a school bus. The mother of that child attended the meeting and told the story of her daughter being threatened with lynching on her school bus and then being the target of a racist slur in the cafeteria. The mother reported that she spoke with two school officials, once on the phone and once in person, and has not been contacted or spoken to since. “Every child should be able to go to that school and feel safe and feel like they’re protected there. As parents we should feel like all of the faculty there would go to no end to protect our child while we cannot be there to protect them. So I’m ready for some change.”

 

Other comments addressed:

  • A previous incident when violence was threatened, and the school did not hold an assembly or react to the threat

  • The four assemblies last week when school officials repeated slurs and anti-Semitic acts

  • Questions about overall safety in the school and its bathrooms and fear of retaliation for reporting problems. Said one mother: “They don’t seem to have any sense that someone is there to protect them.”

  • Maggie Shapiro Haskett, director of the Hillel Center at W&L, spoke about her meeting with RCHS Principal Craft, who invited her to be on an advisory committee.

 

Policy:

 

Comments addressed: 

  • Questions about the school’s policy on lockdowns and discipline for bringing a firearm on campus

  • How many times other incidents have not been reported publicly? Why isn’t the information shared? Why are students who break rules sometimes not punished? Asked Katie Zoellner, “What is being done to prevent this? I would hope that the kids saying these terrible things would also be suspended. The administration buried the gun incident under the other event.”

  • Is there a policy about having a police officer on campus?

  • How does the school identify someone who is disturbed?

  • What plan does the school have for keeping guns off campus? How to enforce it?

  • Joe Watkins reported, “It is interesting that the individual from Hillel spoke about a plan because my wife, Michelle, went to the school to visit Mr. Craft, and he feels he handled the shooting appropriately even though there was no lockdown… The plan is to be reactive to every situation and to put it on the kids.”

 

Education: 

 

Comments addressed: 

  • Questions about what the school is doing to address intolerance and to discredit violence and hate. 

  • Why is there not a class on diversity and inclusion?

  • How many members of the Rockbridge County administration and school board have had anti-racist training and committed to create a safe environment?

  • Michelle Watkins reported on her visit to Principal Craft and said, “We need to be addressing this as a community and not just as a school… If they as an administration won’t work to change the circumstances then we need to change the administration in order to change this situation.”

 

Tinni remarked on the importance of the variety of comments, by students like Quinn Fontaine and Cierra, parents like Katie Zoellner and the Watkins, teachers like Bradley and Sara Cunningham, and asked for other ideas about solutions.

 

Discussed:

 

  • Lenna Ojure said that when the high schools were merged there was community discussion about how to bring students together but that suggestions were never followed. She also said that community groups have to find a way into the school to help create connections between disparate groups.

  • Luci Hanstedt, an RCHS student, suggested a walkout: “They’re not really taking our concerns seriously at all…and a walkout might help them realize that we don’t want to go to school and we don’t feel comfortable at the school. Period.”

  • Sarah Barrash Wilson reminded all attendees that the next school board meeting is Tuesday at 5:30 at the Maury River Middle School, where people can address confederate symbols and the recent events.

  • Shapiro Haskett added that Craft had invited her to do a presentation on anti-Semitism that would be mandatory for all teachers, and asked for recommendations on other possible trainers and trainings.

  • Janet Boller, clinical psychologist at W&L, replied with a description of staff workshops she and a number of colleagues have done on LGBTQ allyship and inclusion at RCHS, but Craft did not  make them mandatory for the faculty.  “Obviously there's a very long way to go … and he knows that we have offered to continue to help.’’

  • Brittany Kessinger asked about consequences: “When are we going to start holding these kids accountable? … Why aren't we teaching these teenagers who are about to be released into the wild that there are consequences for your actions?” She also said that “we have to be persistent” in asking for change.

  • Bradley asked, “Who is going to listen?” And suggested it would be Craft. “We’ve got  leadership that really isn’t, I’m sorry to say, quite ready to be leaders yet. If you have his ear and he listens to you, then work with him…he’s in a mood to accept help. I don’t know if the school board is in the mood yet to accept help or really address any of these issues.”

  • A number of people commented in the chat that they backed the idea of a student walkout and thought parents and community organizations should attend and support it.

  • Lisa Tracy suggested that 1) people continue to attend school board meetings to voice their displeasure; and 2) that people with outside contacts encourage the media to write the story so that national exposure might “put some people’s feet to the fire.”

  • Dori Hamilton, whose grandchildren now attend RCHS, said, “I thought the recent incident was a one-off … I can’t believe this is happening all through the school, that so many children are suffering. Where can we all go together to do something to show people that things have to change and that we’re all behind this? This is very disturbing.”

  • Marylin Alexander reported that the Virginia Department of Education has excellent resources to help the school with diversity and inclusion.

  • Cierra Bolster pointed out the adverse mental-health aspects of being a student at RCHS, agreeing that a walkout would “shine some light on how this is affecting so many people.”

  • Quinn Fontaine closed by thanking everyone for the opportunity to have her voice heard.

 

Reminder: The Rockbridge County School Board meets this Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in the gymnasium of the Maury River Middle School. No agenda had been released as of this recording.

Town Hall meeting about school events

DEC. 6, 2021 -- By now it’s likely you’ve heard about several alarming events at Rockbridge County High School over the past two weeks, including:
 

  • A report, as yet unconfirmed by the school, that a Black student was accosted on a school bus by a white student the week of Nov. 22, called a racial epithet, and threatened with lynching. When the student pushed back, that student was held accountable and suspended until their parent objected. The original assailant does not appear to have faced any consequences.

  • At RCHS on Wednesday, Dec. 1, two students posed with swastika emblems and did a Nazi salute while a third student took a photo for social media. Two students were suspended.

  • On Thursday, Dec. 2, a RCHS junior displayed weapons, including a 9mm handgun and ammunition, to friends during 5th period. Another student notified the administration, the weapon was confiscated, and the student who brought the gun was removed from school property.

 

The administration of RCHS released a statement about the last two incidents on the evening of Dec. 2. Please find it linked here.
 

Parents and citizens in our area are understandably upset and concerned:
 

  • Why were parents not notified immediately about the possession of a handgun by a student on school property?

  • What is the school doing to prevent this from happening again?

  • What is being done to ensure the safety of students who face overt bigotry on school property?

  • How many other incidents affecting students’ safety and well-being have been happening but are going unaddressed?

 

To begin to address these and other questions, 50 Ways Rockbridge, the Rockbridge NAACP, the RCHS Student-Teacher Association for Non-Discrimination (STAND), the Rockbridge Justice Coalition, and the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE) invite you to a Virtual Town Hall, conducted on Zoom, on Thursday, Dec. 9, at 7:00 pm. Please note that this event is in place of this Thursday's NAACP General Membership meeting.
 

The goal of the Town Hall will be to share concerns and discuss ways they might be addressed by the community and the Rockbridge public school system.