About 30 parents of Shepherdstown Middle School students have banded together to tackle issues they believe to be affecting their children's education.
The coalition of parents, in addition to SMS staff members and representatives from various education associations, gathered recently for a meeting of the minds regarding concerns ranging from safety to public input in the staff hiring process.
With the recent resignation of the school's current principal, Elizabeth Best, an SMS mother, pioneered the public gathering in an effort to determine, in part, if parent input could take precedence in the appointment of a successor.
Teri Biebel, in an interview prior to the meeting, said recurring issues, including instances of bullying, disruption of class by the same student on multiple occasions, as well as safety concerns, have plagued the school for more than a year.
The home of the Cardinals, Biebel said, recently fell victim to frequent bathroom vandalism, causing staff to lock the facilities. Students were subsequently required to report to the office to access the restroom key.
"We have instituted some surveillance cameras that are helping with that," Best, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said in a subsequent interview.
The added security, a local family's recent donation, Biebel said, has eased some, but not all, of the parent-coalition's concerns.
David Lillard, of the Shepherdstown Observer, moderated the meeting held at the Shepherdstown Fire Hall, as both a media representative and SMS parent.
"One of the things that has come about through some of the concerns that parents have expressed over the last couple of months (is) it's really about information, about communication, about the role of the parents and how the parents can become more involved," Lillard said. "It seems from everything going around ... we all want better, safer schools with excellent communication that we can rely on so we know what's going on, we know when there's an incident, we know when there's a change, we want better communication, we want a better understanding of the policies and the procedures that the school and the teachers and we are living by. ... We want to know what our rights and our opportunities are.
"There's a burning question among a lot of people - how parents can influence the new hire," Lillard said.
Rhonda Reynolds, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said an interview committee, consisting of various school professionals and two parents, is comprised to review the candidates and give a recommendation to human resources - though it is not possible for parents to appoint a new hire.
Jill Jones, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers, overviewed the West Virginia Safe Schools Act, detailing the legislation for the group.
"School safety, obviously, it's of the utmost priority to all of us," Jones said. "And I think after what happened in Newtown, everyone was kind of left with this feeling of 'we want to do something, we just don't know what.' So I commend you for doing this, because this is something really starting the conversation."
The WVSSA, Jones said, provides a framework of disciplinary action for a teacher or bus operator. While some "gray area" exists, Jones said, the framework consists of mandated steps school officials must follow.
Shepherdstown parents in attendance expressed concern over the lack of information they are able to obtain when incidents involving students, other than their respective child, occur. Jones said that information is withheld because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
"Their confidentiality must be respected," Jones said. "If you call and say 'I want to know what happened to Johnny for this,' they're not going to tell you. That would be violating that child's privacy."
"You do have the right to observe your child's classroom, we just simply ask that we give 24-hour notice, that's all that we ask," said Reynolds, a teacher at Wright Denny Intermediate. "And you should never be turned down being allowed to sit in that classroom."
Per the West Virginia Department of Education, every public school must have a Local School Improvement Council (LSIC) that is required to meet every nine weeks, Jones said.
"This is an extremely powerful committee that is extremely underutilized statewide," she said.
Each council is comprised of the principal, teachers, service personnel, bus drivers, parents, business and community representatives and acts as what Jones termed a "check and balance."
"The LSIC reviews discipline data and procedures yearly and submits written recommendations to the local school board. They encourage involvement of the school community with the school operation through regular LSIC meetings and collaboration," reads information on the West Virginia Department of Education website. "They support local initiative for school improvement by being directly involved with the strategic planning and innovative ideas. A direct link with the local school board occurs through an annual meeting at which all school aspects inclusive of academics, athletics, discipline, school climate, facilities, needs, improvement and recommendations are presented and discussed."
Parents were informed by association heads in attendance that they would have to advocate at the state level, rather than the county level, for issues such as additional paid safety training for staff and teachers or mixed-grade classrooms.
Beth Yates, SMS Parent Teacher Organization president and LSIC member, said the PTO is looking into anti-bullying campaigns, and has been gaining a member at each of its monthly meetings. The PTO membership, she said, sits at about 15 parents and staff. The majority of the parents in attendance at the meeting were not members.
Best told The Journal she could not comment on specific issues addressed at the meeting, as she was not in attendance.
"We do appreciate all the parents that came to the meeting and we hope they'll come to our LSIC meeting," Best said.
Jefferson County School Board Superintendent Susan Wall did not respond to calls by press time.