Note: This is a copy of a letter that Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn sent to new Oak Ridge Schools superintendent Bruce Borchers. It is followed by a response from Steve Reddick, who teaches American history to eighth-grade students at Jefferson Middle School and is co-president of the Oak Ridge Education Association.
Here is the letter from Baughn to Borchers:
Shortly after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Oak Ridge city and school officials began discussing the need to shore up security within our schools. Your Board of Education (BOE) immediately demanded the city provide an officer in every school while simultaneously declining our police chief’s offer to conduct the risk assessment needed to identify facility and policy vulnerabilities. Our police department has also repeatedly offered to provide safety/emergency training to your staff. All of those offers have been declined by members of your administration.
Seven months later, we have made very little progress. At the center of it all is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was initially drafted months ago to address the lack of cooperation by school administrators and their frequent interference with requisite police work. I am told that school attorneys refuse to agree with the parameters that, at their very core, enable our officers to uphold the law and maintain the safety and security of the public.
The incidents that have led to the need for this MOU are disturbing and give me reason to fear that the original emphasis of protecting our children from external threats is less of a need than that of protecting them from internal threats.
Upon my request for additional details, our police chief, Jim Akagi, provided council with a memo dated May 9, 2013, in which he states that “ORS staff has been reluctant at best, and in some instances obstructive in their interaction with ORPD personnel.” The memo goes on to cite the following examples:
- A disagreement brought two sets of parents to the school who assaulted each other and then assaulted the current lone high school school resource officer. No assistance was provided by school officials.
- Disciplinary matters were attempted to be handled “in house” by school officials, and when it came to the attention of the Police Department and information was requested for criminal concern review, info was denied.
- Timely reporting of matters of drugs, guns, or other dangers in school, most times occurring the day after or through informal notifications by students.
- Reluctance to share information by school officials for fear of violating Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) rule now requires approval from higher level school officials or attorneys.
- Recognition of Police Department responsibilities to investigate actions outside of, but involving school system (i.e. past employee suicide by employee outside of school grounds).
- Responsibility of schools to report all abuse matters to Child Protective Services should be coordinated with the police department to insure safety of students off campus.
- Trespassing in school at inappropriate hours was not reported or pursued by school officials when known.
- School staff witnessing of events must be approved before talking to SRO when reviewing cases
- SRO was not included in disciplinary hearing authority reviews of assault on SRO nor advised of student readmission to school.
- Delays for obtaining information requiring formal “subpoena style” processes to be used.
The police chief and our city manager have shared with me some of the stories behind these examples as have countless parents, school staff, and students. The picture they paint is one of an inner city school system run amuck. I am convinced that all of our children are at risk of potential assaults, administrative negligence, and/or drugs.
I’ve heard so many stories of assaults occurring at the middle schools and high school that I am heartbroken. There is an obvious need for discretion, but let me assure you that my use of the word “assault” is not an exaggeration. And as alluded to above, these attacks were not always initiated by students nor have they been limited to any particular economic or social group. Parents have appealed to the authorities and are often left helpless because of the lack of cooperation by school officials.
A great number of parents have approached me with concerns regarding administrative negligence because they find no one within the administration willing to take responsibility.
I have received highly credible reports that drugs are rampant in many of our schools. The problem is worsening as your administrators thwart police efforts to combat drug use and sales. Not only that, but citizens have reached out to the BOE and offered to bring in programs and groups to help educate our children in the absence of DARE or any other anti-drug program. Rather than embrace these ideas and work towards implementing workable solutions, the BOE simply ignores these offers of help.
When reading all of this, one might question how things could be so bad. How could anyone tolerate this level of danger facing our children? One need only talk with some of the hundreds of departed teachers and parents to find that the answer is fear. A culture of terror has saturated our school system and it is so powerful that rather than fight, teachers leave quietly in droves at year end and parents discretely move their children into private or home schools.
Though you are new to the job, I urge to you to make safety your absolute top priority. I’ve tried to allow time for the ORS administration to work through some of these issues, but with two of our schools beginning the new school year this month, I can no longer remain silent. From one community leader to another, I implore you to restore safety, order, and honor in our schools. Please start by allowing our police officers to do their job.
Oak Ridge Today asked Reddick for comment based on the assertions included in Baughn’s letter. Here are the questions and responses:
Q) Oak Ridge Today: Council member Baughn alleges that drugs are rampant in Oak Ridge schools, and all students are at risk of potential assaults, administrative negligence, and/or drugs. Do you agree?
A) Reddick: I strongly disagree with this characterization of the Oak Ridge Schools. Our students continue to achieve and progress by virtually every state and national measurement, and this would not happen—no, it could not happen—if our school climate was anything like what is stated in this description. Like any school system in the country, we have some students for whom education is not their top priority. Is this acceptable? Of course not. Do we try daily to shape them in a more positive direction? Of course we do. To imply that all students are in constant danger of drugs, assaults, and administrative neglect is simply, utterly false.
Q) Oak Ridge Today: Do you think it’s accurate to characterize the school system as like an “inner city school system run amuck”? And has a “culture of terror” saturated the school system?
A) Reddick: First of all, I’m not even sure what she means by such sweeping generalizations. This choice of words is regrettable and misleading. A “culture of terror”? Her assertion that teachers and students operate in a “culture of terror” each day is, again, simply not true.
Q) Oak Ridge Today: Do you have any idea how the rates of illegal drug use and fights in Oak Ridge compare to those in other school systems?
A) Reddick: I have no idea, and it would be difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from such comparisons because of the many differences between school systems.
Q) Oak Ridge Today: Do you field many complaints from parents about problems related to drugs and violence in Oak Ridge schools? What are the main concerns? Have they gotten worse over time or better?
A) Reddick: I personally do not hear a lot of complaints from parents about drugs and violence in the Oak Ridge Schools. When we do hear from them about any issue, we try to respond professionally, ethically, responsibly, in ways appropriate to each situation.
I have taught in this school system for 30 years. I do not think that these problems have gotten worse over time. To the contrary, we have very focused students, excellent teachers, and a high-performing school system that continues to be a leader in the region and across the state. The vast majority of our students are learning, excelling, graduating, and moving toward a productive future. That doesn’t happen by accident, and it certainly wouldn’t be happening if things were as bad as stated in the article.