The fiery debate erupted last week, with one Oak Ridge City Council member alleging drugs are rampant in many schools, students are at risk of being assaulted, and a culture of terror has saturated the school system.
It continued this week, with two school officials and the city’s mayor holding a press conference at the Oak Ridge High School to rebut the allegations. They were joined by a throng of several dozen administrators, officials, and teachers.
Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn sparked the debate last week in a letter to new school superintendent Bruce Borchers, who started June 18. Baughn told Borchers that countless parents, school staff, and students have shared stories with her that paint a picture of an “inner-city school system run amuck.”
“I’ve heard so many stories of assaults occurring at the middle schools and high school that I am heartbroken,” Baughn said.
But a half-dozen other local officials—including City Council members, school board members, and teachers—said they haven’t heard many complaints, if any, from parents regarding drugs and assaults in Oak Ridge Schools. They called some of Baughn’s claims inaccurate, exaggerated, or untrue.
Some also rejected the use of the phrase “culture of terror.”
“In my 15 years, I’ve never experienced one moment of terror,” said Kim Smith, who teaches fifth-grade math and social studies at Jefferson Middle School and has two sons who graduated from Oak Ridge Schools. “The climate in which I work and teach is a positive and supportive one.”
“We do not teach, and our students do not learn, in a culture of terror,” said Steve Reddick, who teaches American history to eighth-grade students at Jefferson Middle School and is co-president of the Oak Ridge Education Association. “This assertion is simply, utterly not true.”
The 4,400-student school system continues to exceed state and national expectations and that would not and could not happen if the schools and their classrooms were not orderly and controlled, Reddick said.
In a phone interview Sunday, Baughn said she first started hearing concerns last summer, when she was campaigning for a City Council seat. In the past two months, she said she has talked to at least 11 current or former school staff members or parent of students. Their concerns have been related to drugs and assaults, and children coming back to school after committing crimes and going through the court system, Baughn said.
“We have a school system in which the students are afraid of the other students,” she said.
She said she has received highly credible reports that drugs are rampant at many Oak Ridge schools.
“I think it’s pretty bad,” she said.
But Baughn said she doesn’t have statistics on the specific number of assaults and drug incidents in Oak Ridge Schools.
She hasn’t convinced other local officials that the problems are as bad as she alleges.
“I have taught in this school system for 30 years,” Reddick said. “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 (Baughn’s letter).”
During Monday’s press conference, Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan said his two sons graduated from Oak Ridge High School, and he would enroll them today without fearing for their safety.
“Her allegations that children are at risk and that the school system has run amok are simply not true,” Beehan said. “I’ve lived in communities with ‘inner city schools’…and our schools are not inner city schools.”
Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer said the school board would not be guided by an inaccurate portrayal.
“Ms. Baughn’s characterization of the Oak Ridge Schools has done nothing but hurt our community and hurt our teaching staff who work tirelessly to provide a quality education and learning environment for all our students,” said Fillauer, who spent 31 years teaching and coaching and has served on the school board for 11 years. “Our schools and students continue to achieve and progress by virtually every state and national measuring stick, and this could not happen if our school climate were anything like Ms. Baughn describes.”
Asked this past weekend whether they have heard many concerns about drugs and assaults at Oak Ridge schools, two school board members said “no.”
“I just don’t hear a lot about this,” said Dan DiGregorio, Oak Ridge Board of Education member and retired science teacher and football and track coach who has been associated with the school system since 1971. “If there is a culture of fear, I don’t think it’s been an overwhelming concern. Otherwise, I would have heard about it.”
“To be honest, I do not think the drug problem is worse today than it was when I was in school in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Angi Agle, an Oak Ridge Board of Education member whose youngest child graduated in May. But the problems are different, Agle said, citing more problems with prescription pills today than with marijuana.
Still, some local officials said they supported Baughn’s right to express her opinion and ask questions.
“I support the councilwoman’s right as a parent and citizen and taxpayer to bring up any issues at the schools, and I’m repeatedly puzzled by the degree of emotional defensiveness exhibited by the school board and others around town when anything is brought up suggesting that our schools might not be perfect,” Oak Ridge City Council member Anne Garcia Garland said. “I’m hoping that the furor will actually result in some good investigation.”
In general, school officials said they take concerns seriously and try to respond professionally when they do hear them. They expressed optimism that city officials, including Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson and Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi, could resolve any issues with Borchers and school officials.
“We are all in this boat together,” Oak Ridge City Council member Chuck Hope said. “We can either row this boat together, or we can all row against each other and wind up going in circles.”
Several officials pointed out that no school system is immune to the problems of drugs and violence.
“We do have the problems that any schools have, public or private,” Agle said.
Some local officials expressed concern with the effect that Baughn’s letter could have on the perceptions of Oak Ridge and its highly touted school system, which includes a high school ranked sixth in Tennessee by U.S. News and World Report. They suggested a more diplomatic and cooperative approach was needed.
“Allegations like that probably does more damage to the school system than anything else I’ve seen in 27 years,” said Bob Eby, Oak Ridge Board of Education vice chair, who has been elected to three separate terms since 1986 and has a wife who retired from teaching at Linden Elementary School. “There was no basis for the facts that she alleged.”
After the press conference, Baughn, who has a son who graduated from Oak Ridge Schools and a daughter still in the system, said she was both encouraged and discouraged. She said she was discouraged by the minimization of the problems and the potential silencing effect it could have, but she was glad the community was discussing the problems, which could lead to solutions.
“This is actually a very positive thing,” Baughn said.
Baughn said she has had “amazing feedback,” including on Facebook and through e-mails and phone calls. She said some of the people communicating with her are sending her information but might want to remain anonymous and not share their stories publicly.
“They are so glad that someone finally said something,” she said.
Others weren’t so pleased.
“I think Ms. Baughn has significantly exaggerated the problem,” Oak Ridge City Council member Charlie Hensley said. “In my opinion, her approach is going to give Oak Ridge an unnecessary black eye with surrounding communities. It’s saber rattling and stirring the pot to the worst I can imagine.”
Note: This story was last updated at 10:30 a.m. July 9.