Charlottesville parents want answers.
After a series of violent student brawls that resulted in Charlottesville High School canceling classes on Friday, Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of parents poured into the school’s auditorium Monday night, many hoping to hear what administrators were doing to keep their children safe.
That’s not what they got.
Instead, parents spent 90 minutes at a “listening session” organized by Charlottesville United, an organization created to support the city’s public schools.
Although held on school grounds, it was not a CHS event, and no leaders from Charlottesville City Schools took the stage to answer questions.
But five CHS teachers did.
The crowd that filled half the large auditorium grew tense at times, with some parents — scared for the safety and future of their children — occasionally yelling over each other as they tried to learn what the school was doing to stop students from roaming the halls, skipping class, starting fights and stirring disorder.
The fighting in particular has been a cause for concern this entire calendar year, with multiple moments of violence caught on camera and circulated online. One large brawl that broke out on Thursday afternoon resulted in multiple smaller skirmishes and general chaos across school grounds. That chaos included an 18-year-old intruder who does not attend CHS gaining access to the building for the sole purpose of joining the fights; a CHS student let the 18-year-old in. Charlottesville police had to be called to help staff restore order; it took hours.
Teachers had had enough. So many refused to attend class the next day that CHS was forced to cancel classes. And on Monday and Tuesday, classes were canceled so that teachers and administrators could focus on a “hard reset,” an effort to determine how to fix a culture that many say is broken within the school.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a quick fix,” school spokeswoman Beth Cheuk told the press on Monday afternoon. Things are not going to get “100% better” overnight, she said.
“But can we take forward steps? Can we make progress? Can we help people feel like every day this is the place they want to be? Yes, that’s what we’re working towards,” Cheuk said.
Monday was an eventful day for the division. In addition to canceled classes and the hard reset, school leadership also named an interim principal to replace Rashaad Pitt, who submitted his resignation two weeks ago shortly before tensions at the school reached a boiling point.
Kenny Leatherwood has taken the job. He began working at CHS in 1981 and served six years as its principal.
“In the two weeks since Mr. Pitt announced his resignation, Mr. Leatherwood’s name has been sent to me over and over as the ‘right person for the job,’” school division Superintendent Royal Gurley wrote in a statement announcing the decision.
Leatherwood was not in attendance on Monday night, which was noted by several parents at the listening session. And while two school board members were in attendance, they did not take the stage.
There was a reason only two board members attended: If three had been there, it technically would have been a school board meeting. That is not what Charlottesville United wanted.
“We want to be clear that Charlottesville United is not advocating for any set solutions at this juncture. We are here to listen,” the group wrote in a statement announcing the event.
At first, the format, which centered the voices of teachers, appeared to confuse and even upset some of the parents in attendance.
“I’m wondering if I’m in the wrong meeting because my kid wasn’t in school on Friday,” one parent said into the microphone after the teachers introduced themselves. “I’m wondering if I’m in the right meeting because I haven’t heard why is it that teachers didn’t come to work?”
“I don’t see a policymaker up there,” he said, getting applause from the audience as he asked for specific policy changes the school was considering.
“We are here for answers!” yelled someone in the crowd.
“Why are the children not in school?” yelled another.
The moderator reminded the audience that the purpose of the meeting was to listen, specifically to teachers and concerned parents. One by one, parents came to the microphone to express their concerns and ask questions of teachers.
A few things were clear from the evening, one of which is that Charlottesville supports its teachers. Parents repeated over and over again that they admire their educators and the work they do each day. Perhaps the loudest applause of the night came after one teacher said they needed to be paid more. They also reiterated that CHS is understaffed and they need more teacher vacancies filled.
The recurring concerns of parents regarded safety and communication. Over and over, parents expressed worry their children were not safe in school and frustration that the district is not transparent enough.
One mother of a CHS student addressed the fact that parents are often getting their information from social media, which can be unreliable and lack context.
“But a lot of time that’s where we’ve gotten our information because there’s no communication from the school,” she said to the teachers. “It took you guys standing up at a meeting and taking a stand for any kind of messaging to go out to the parents whatsoever.”
Jose Douglas is the father of a CHS student and wants metal detectors installed in the school.
“The number one thing we’re looking for is safety,” he said into the microphone, addressing the fact that an intruder was let into the school on Thursday. “What if a gun came in that day as well?”
After the meeting, Douglas told The Daily Progress that was his first thought after hearing an intruder had entered the school.
“They let this kid in here and they could’ve had a gun. It could’ve been a catastrophic moment right then and there,” he said. “And nobody had answers.”
Many parents left the session frustrated that they did not hear directly from school board members or administrators. “I’m not satisfied with anything I heard,” Douglas said. “We need safety. I need to understand when the safety is coming.”
As the crowd began to filter out of the building, three mothers of CHS students remained in the back of the auditorium discussing their children and what they’d heard on stage. None of the three, who each declined to provide their first names, was satisfied with what they’d heard.
“I know the teachers needed a break. They needed a reset. But what exactly is going to be different next Monday?” asked K. Johnson, the mother of a sophomore. “That’s why I came, to see if we could hear anything different than what I’ve learned from Facebook or in the community.”
Behind her sat N. Williams. She came to learn what changes the school was planning to institute.
“All we know is kids were put out Friday, today and tomorrow, but they haven’t given us any data on what they’ve implemented or what the changes are. They haven’t given us anything,” Williams said. She had not realized the event would be a forum for teachers and parents to speak their minds.
“I didn’t know there were going to be teachers on the stage. It should have been administrators,” she said.
The trio said they did not find the forum to be especially helpful.
“The teachers can’t really answer [our questions]. It’s not their fault,” Williams said.
Johnson said she would have appreciated even a rough sketch of the administration’s plan of action.
“We plan to do this, this and this. Some style of outline to give us something to look forward to,” Johnson said.
“I just don’t see a resolution,” added F. Brown, the mother of a freshman and a junior. “They didn’t give us one anyway.”
What they did get was the perspective of teachers and an explanation of why teachers felt a need for the reset.
“We didn’t want to come back to business as usual when it wasn’t business as usual,” Pam Brown, who has taught at CHS for 24 years, told the crowd. Normally, the weekend is a time for a reset, but Brown said this called for something different.
“We’re tired. We do not want to have business as usual,” Brown said to a round of applause. “This kills me. I love being with my students. I’m here probably 12 to 14 hours a day most days.”
“Being out of school can be inconvenient, it can be upsetting, but for us it was necessary,” Brown said.
They also provided some insight on the work sessions they’d been part of that day. While they didn’t give specifics, they called the training “amazing” and “really productive.”
“Please believe us that a lot of progress was made today and I’m feeling a lot more hopeful for tomorrow,” Tina Vasquez told the crowd. “Administration has given us commitments to follow up on things that we asked for and we brought up.”
Joseph Patterson, another teacher, added that the day was “intense,” with many teachers feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted by the end of their work session.
“Oftentimes, what happens is we don’t get to have these discussions,” Patterson said. “Today we were able to put in real work, have real discussions and have a moment to be really vulnerable and transparent. So we’re very optimistic that our efforts are not going to go in vain.”
Holly Faulconer said teachers share many of the same frustrations as parents. And while she feels safe in the school, she conceded that others don’t. But she felt Monday’s conversations between teachers and administrators was progress.
“It felt like actual productive work in order for us to get to where we need to go because we all — including you, the students and staff — know we need change and we want change. And so today felt like an actual step, not just a box that we’re going to check,” Faulconer said.
Matt Deegan, a history teacher, called Monday’s internal conversations a good start that will need to be revisited.
“We’re not going to be able to start a new school from scratch based on 16 hours of conversation,” Deegan said. “We have to further define student expectations and consequences for students.”
The question of consequences has gotten much attention as parents have learned more about what is happening within the school. One anonymous staffer previously told The Daily Progress that the roving bands of students who do not attend class and start fights receive mild punishments because data from the Virginia Department of Education indicates a correlation between punished students and low graduation rates.
One CHS senior, Nasir Sumpter, came to the microphone to say that many issues were being “sugarcoated.”
“I think disciplinary action is needed severely,” Sumpter said. “I’m just going to be honest. There are kids that are roaming the halls every day that don’t go to class. There’s kids that go in the bathroom and smoke tobacco. There are kids that start random fights. And in all honesty, they need to be disciplined.”
The crowd cheered as he spoke. He was among a number of community members who asked for more disciplinary actions.
Gurley and others have previously told the press that many of the problems occurring in CHS are often started by a small subsect of students. On Friday, he said more substantial discipline could be coming.
Still, on Monday teacher Pam Brown told people to use caution when describing those students, saying she’d seen them labeled as “thugs.” Teachers have emphasized that certain students have difficult home lives, with some being food insecure and without a safe place to stay. That can cause kids to act out once in school.
“I just want everybody to understand that these kids are our kids,” Brown said, adding that CHS produces “amazing” people and adults. “But we have to be there with them no matter what they do. No matter who they are.”
While many parents left Monday night wanting more specifics, it also became clear that much of the community is still proud of the school despite its ongoing troubles. The listening session celebrated the diversity of the student body, its dedicated teaching staff and a community that wants to help.
“We love the kids that walk through these doors. We are in a bad space and we recognize that, but we are 100% committed to changing it, and we will need your support through that,” Faulconer said.
Several parents said they’d like to join the school as substitute teachers, which are sorely needed.
Wes Bellamy, a former city council member and the father of a CHS student, told The Daily Progress the community needs to offer its support to the school.
“The onus is on the schools. The security portion is on the schools. But it’s also on us,” Bellamy said while standing with Douglas. “We as community members and specifically Black men who care, we have to be present, and that’s what we’re committed to doing.”
He and Douglas are planning to be at the school next Monday to welcome students as they enter. They’re calling for other community members to join them.
“We’re going to do it. We’re not going to wait on anybody else,” Bellamy said.
“We’ll be here Monday at 8:40 a.m.” Douglas said.