School vandalism issue dominates U-CF School Board meeting
● By J. Chambless
The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board.
By John Chambless
There was plenty of work to be done at
the May 21 meeting of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board at
Pocopson Elementary School, but most of the evening was overshadowed
by reports of vandalism at Unionville High School, and the
administration's suspension of one student in particular.
During public comment at the beginning of the meeting, a parent addressed the board, saying, “There has been vandalism going on, and the administration's decision was to lock the bathrooms today. That speaks of a bigger discipline problem. There was an attempt to open a door, and the latch was slightly damaged. The student was suspended for vandalism. I bring this up because before we rush to judgment, we need to get all the facts. I feel this was grossly overdone.”
Another parent also addressed the issue, saying, “We had a very disappointing day today at school. We watched as a phenomenal student had to miss his playoff game. This is a dream he's had for four years. Last week, the bathrooms were closed at the high school – more bathrooms than is actually legal, by the way. There were two left open for all the students in the school. They had to sign in and sign out. There were many complaints at the school. One student attempted to enter the bathroom and had trouble with the door handle.
“What are we saying to students about the respect we have for them?” she added. “It's shameful. We have a problem with respect from the administration for the students and their voices. I'm sure administrators were very upset about the vandalism, but this student was not your vandal. Let's show some respect for our kids, and let's start at the top. The students are owned an apology, and this student's family is owed an apology.”
District superintendent John Sanville responded, saying, “At the high school, we have had a rash of vandalism in the bathrooms. We have closed bathrooms that have been rendered unusable because of these incidents. We are well within code, by the way, but the bathrooms have been locked. These are all serious events, disheartening events, events that pain me personally.
“I think that when we look at our disciplinary code, it's certainly our right to change the policy, but vandalism is there, and vandalism is a suspendable offense,” Sanville continuedl “I will tell you that all avenues are explored. Suspension is not done willy-nilly, it's not done with malice. We have good kids, but even good kids make mistakes, and there should be consequences and the opportunity to learn from them.”
School Board member Gregg Lindner commented, “There have been at least four occasions that I have asked for a new suspension policy that would allow us to have appeals before a suspension is carried out, except in a case of violence. This is now the fifth time. I believe we should suspend the suspensions until we have a new policy in place. That may be the only way to get this board to move quickly and change our policy.”
The issue was raised again at the end of the formal meeting, during a second period of public comment.
A student, Wes Saunders, detailed how the incident was handled in school. “Without warning, we got an email during second period, saying that we'd be confined to two bathrooms,” he said. “It seems like that was the right action to take, however, the execution was questionable. The original email was sent directly to all 1,400 students and administration. That means anyone can respond. The entire day, my email and teachers' emails were flooded with hundreds of messages. We had students sending the entire Declaration of Independence. The entire day of education was wasted.
“This raises an issue about student attitude,” Saunders continued. “Throughout my last three years here, the administration is being mocked by the students. We had students reach out to 6-ABC News, saying 'Come get our school in trouble. They're confining us to two bathrooms.' We had students reach out to the State Department about health standards. I've never seen students root against their own school, and against their own administration. The student attitude is frightening, in my opinion. A lot of students don't want to be present at this school in the state that it's in. They mock it, they disrespect teachers, administrators and their peers. The communication isn't there to inform students, and perception is being severely harmed.”
A second student told the board, “It's really disappointing that only four of you had heard about the events that happened today. The school's first reaction to what happened today was to give him a suspension without any conversation, and he was not given any opportunity to learn from what he did. Who's to say he wouldn't learn from a warning, or an after-school detention? Also, no one addressed that I and my fellow students were locked out of the office today when we tried to discuss this matter. That shows a total lack of respect from our administration.”
A parent also addressed the board, saying, “With all due respect, Mr. Sanville, you have to understand that there are gray areas. You say there's no targeting of students, and there is fair and due process. In the case we're representing here tonight, we feel there was no due process. This student is a leader in this school and in this commuinity. People look up to him as a shining example. He hasn't even had a chance to say he did not go up and intentionally vandalize something. You are turning the student body against the school administration. He's a good kid. The student body is looking at this as one of the most ridiculous things they've ever seen. We need to take a look at this suspension policy.”
During comments by School Board members, Robert Sage said, “One thing I didn't understand until I looked into it is that the courts have acually limited rights of students in K-12 schools. Students do not enjoy the same full First Amendment privileges as we do, interacting with our government as adults. The courts have done that because the state has an interest in maintaining an orderly environment in the schools so all kids can learn, and there aren't protests in the hallways all day long. It behooves all of us, as we talk about due process, to recognize that what we know from civics class and the Constitution is not exactly what our kids have in schools. But I do think that looking at the discipline policy is something the board should do quickly.”
Board vice president Victor Dupuis added, “I think a lot of the problem is miscommunication. We're mixing events and circumstances and implications that are not necessarily directly connected. For instance, I would suggest that when Dr. Sanville is talking about vandalism, he's talking about somebody who has ripped sinks off the bathroom wall, ripped out toilets, ripped pipes out of a bathroom. That is vandalism. This is a matter of getting together with the students and the community and having a conversation about this. The board will do our job of working on the legislative side of things and fixing the code of student conduct.”
Lindner added, “I think we have an obligation as board members to put in safeguards that allow for an appeal prior to somebody being given a suspension. That can be easily done. We know enough to know what fits. It's now been eight months since the last activity at the football game in September, and we have an obligation to make sure we don't begin the next school year before we have this corrected.”
Earlier in the meeting, the board voted unanimously to aprove Jessica Knier as the new assistant principal at Patton Middle School, at a salary of $115,000. Knier thanked the board and administration, saying, “What stood out to me in this process was that Patton is not only great academically, but it focuses on the whole child. It's very clear that the staff goes above and beyond to make sure that the middle school years are positive for the children. I'm happy to be able to jump in.”
The board also thanked departing student representative Gavin Brezski, who has given reports on activities at the high school, and taken an active role in providing his opinion and input on issues throughout the year.
The board unanimously approved adopting the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System that allows reporting of students who may be a danger to themselves or others, and connects the students with emergency counseling or other services. The board also voted to allow the demolition of the abandoned barn on Doe Run Road, at a cost of $4,500. The Barnyard Boys company will repurpose the salvaged wood.
And in personnel, the board approved the upcoming retirements of high school teacher Heidi Benson, Chadds Ford Elementary librarian Karen Carson, high school teacher and band director Scott Litzenberg, Patton Middle School paraprofessional Clare Geleta, and transportation driver Jessica Turgoose.
Next month, the board will vote on the final budget for the upcoming school year. The documents are posted for public inspection on the school district's website (www.ucfsd.org).
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.