The following is in response to a recent letter from Ms. Trina Baughn, which was published in The Oak Ridger on July 3 and subsequently reported in part by other area media.
I recently completed a six-month stint as interim superintendent of the Oak Ridge Schools, covering the period Jan. 1 through June 30. I will not attempt to speak to what might or might not have occurred prior to this time, but will comment only on events where I had some direct involvement during my period of service.
In assuming my role as interim superintendent, one of the things I felt was most important was for me to get out to the schools as frequently as possible. I was in the schools, on average, twice a week, especially the secondary schools, because they are larger and it takes more time to visit all parts of the buildings. For the most part, my visits came at random times and were unannounced. I visited many classrooms and talked with both teachers and students individually. I saw students moving through the hallways and congregating in the larger assembly spaces in a causal, but controlled manner, enjoying a few minutes to converse with each other. Overall, I observed a very orderly environment based on caring and mutual respect between teachers, administrators, and students.
This is not to say that there are never problems that occur among students. Anytime you bring 700 students together as in the case of the middle schools or almost 1,400 at the high school you can expect instances of inappropriate behavior by a few students. Although most discipline situations are handled at the building level, there were times when it was necessary for me to get involved in reviewing a specific incident. For the most part, I was very comfortable that these situations were handled appropriately and consistently by school staff.
During my visits to the schools, I never once observed anything like the kind of chaos and disruption implied by Ms. Baughn’s comments. My question to Ms. Baughn would be: How much time did you spend in the three secondary schools to try and verify your perceptions and the stories you relied on in making your judgments? The three secondary principals report that Ms. Baughn has never talked to them about her allegations nor to their knowledge has she been in their schools to observe actual conditions during the regular school day. It seems to me that any citizen, and even more so a City Council person, would make every effort to gain firsthand knowledge and be absolutely sure of his or her facts before making a sweeping condemnation that a “culture of terror has saturated our school system.” Unfortunately, this was obviously not done in Ms. Baughn’s case, resulting in an unwarranted black eye for the city and the schools.
Following are responses to some of the specific allegations Ms Baughn makes in her guest column:
- Ms. Baughn states that the schools declined our police chief’s offer to conduct a risk assessment of the schools.
The fact is that the schools contacted Lt. Robin Smith from the Oak Ridge Police Department back in February of this year indicating that we would like to go ahead with the proposed risk assessment. A risk assessment tool was jointly developed by police and school personnel and used in assessing Linden Elementary School. A decision was subsequently made in June by the Oak Ridge Police Department to suspend the program pending approval of a memorandum of understanding, or MOU.
- In her letter, Ms. Baughn says that a memorandum of understanding being jointly prepared by the city and the schools was initially drafted months ago to address the lack of cooperation by school administrators and implied that the schools were responsible for the delay in its completion.
The facts are that the MOU request was initiated by the superintendent of schools at the time for the primary purpose of clarifying the respective roles and responsibilities of school resource officers, or SROs, and school personnel as they interacted in school buildings and on school grounds. Both the city and school attorneys and staffs have been involved in reviewing and making suggested modifications to the draft. To claim that the effort to prepare a new MOU was initiated because of a lack of cooperation by school administrators and that the delay in adopting the MOU is due entirely to the schools is absolutely untrue.
- Ms. Baughn references a lack of cooperation between the Oak Ridge Schools and the Police Department and makes the allegation that Oak Ridge Schools’ personnel have consciously interfered with police work in the schools.
It is true that there have been some incidents where the police and the schools have differed on appropriate procedures to follow. Much of the difference has centered around what information can legally be provided by the schools when it comes to student discipline situations. The schools are primarily governed in this area by the Tennessee Public Records Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. After Ms. Baughn questioned our interpretation of this law, I requested the school attorney to prepare a thorough analysis of the law, which he did. I provided the analysis to Ms. Baughn, and she said she would review it with city staff and then get back to me. I have not heard anything about it since. As superintendent at the time, I obviously relied heavily on our attorney, who specializes in school law.
During my brief time with the schools, I felt there was generally a good working relationship with the Oak Ridge Police Department. We met and worked with them to provide line drawings of each of our schools, engaged our graphic arts department to prepare “virtual drawings” of Oak Ridge High School, and designated wi-fi areas for police use in our school parking lots. In turn, the police department assigned officers to visit all the schools on a regular basis, began a risk assessment program for school facilities, and allowed an officer to attend a statewide school security conference with school personnel.
One of the things that Chief Jim Akagi and I agreed to do back in early April, and which I think was helpful in avoiding further misunderstandings, was to agree that whenever there was an event in the schools involving law enforcement that gave either of us concern that we would meet together as soon as possible with the appropriate members of our staffs to clarify what happened and why certain action was or was not taken.
- On another topic, Ms. Baughn states that school staff witnessing of events must be approved before talking to an SRO when reviewing cases. I have no knowledge of any such directive being in effect when dealing with school resource officers. Normally, a directive like this would come from the superintendent of schools. In fact, there were many times that I learned of an incident involving the SRO or another police officer and school personnel well after the fact.
- Finally, Ms. Baughn states, and I quote: “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…”
For the past two years, I have served as president of the Oak Ridge Retired Teachers Association, which has given me extensive contact with many retiring teachers. I have never heard one of them say that they were leaving for the reason cited by Ms. Baughn. What I have heard is that they were tired of the new state requirements, the extensive paperwork, and the overemphasis on testing, all of which interfered with what they loved to do, and that is to teach kids.
There may be a kernel of truth in some of Ms. Baughn’s comments, but as I have documented above, it is evident that she consistently makes statements that are just not accurate and fails to do the necessary research to determine if her preconceived assumptions are valid.
Former Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent (1978-1998) and Interim Superintendent (January-June 2013)
Oak Ridge Today asked Baughn, who was first elected in November, for responses on whether she had talked to the three secondary principals about her allegations, visited the schools to observe actual conditions during the regular school day, or completed the necessary research.
Baughn declined to comment on who she has talked to, and she said she will not name school staff members who have concerns but might not want to be publicly identified. She said her son graduated from the high school two years ago.
Regarding research, Baughn said she has spent the last year talking to residents, beginning with her first campaign for City Council last summer, and the police chief has confirmed some of the stories she has heard. Some of those stories were not included in her letter, and the police chief has declined to comment.