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Charlottesville High School parents complain another information session has produced no answers on recent violence

When the new interim principal at Charlottesville High School agreed to take the job, close friends asked if he needed his head examined.

That’s what Kenny Leatherwood told a crowd of nearly 300 parents on Thursday night at an information session in the school cafeteria.

While he may have been joking, the remark is a reminder of the serious challenges that lie ahead for a school scarred by violence and marred in controversy.

Parents continue to demand answers from a school division many said has not been transparent since violence started to escalate at the start of the calendar year.

Thursday’s information session was the school’s most recent attempt to put parents at ease as it begins the process of repairing a toxic culture — of regular student brawls, unchecked absenteeism and rampant unruliness — that culminated the week before Thanksgiving break when teachers refused to come into class until the administration had addressed the myriad issues plaguing Charlottesville High — which the local teachers’ union has not identified as an organized strike.

While the information session and the small group sessions that followed it may have been a step in the right direction, at least one parent found it unsatisfactory.

“It was a complete waste of time,” said Justin Matthews, whose daughter attends the school. “They didn’t give us any information. It’s annoying.”

The evening began with introductions of administrators, including Leatherwood, who has worked in Charlottesville City Schools for decades and called it near and dear to his heart.

“When I talked to [Superintendent Royal Gurley] about Charlottesville High School, I couldn’t help but answer the call,” he said. Leatherwood was appointed to the role after the sudden resignation of Rashaad Pitt earlier this year, and it’s not clear how long he’ll be heading the school.

“I look forward to being here for the interim, whatever that is,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the crowd.

Soon after, with 275 parents on site and another 275 watching online via Zoom, Chief Operations Officer Kim Powell presented a PowerPoint on what Charlottesville High has completed and what it is now implementing to get the school back on track.

That included data supporting an argument the division has been making about the recent tension at the school: These problems are not unique to Charlottesville.

A School Safety Trends Report encompassing three survey periods from fall 2020 to fall 2021 indicates a 250% increase in “student behavior incidents” across the country. That same survey shows staff requested help 22% more often and that “safety incidents” increased 150% per school.

Below the numbers was a quote from Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers:

“School violence has risen to levels that we haven’t seen quite frankly."

Powell said that the school has increased the number of staff — including community volunteers — who are able to monitor the halls and perimeter doors.

“This is a big school that was constructed during a time when we didn’t have the same safety considerations that we do now,” she said.

The school is going to implement “door technology” to help make sure no intruders can enter the school, like at least one did two weeks ago when an 18-year-old who does not attend CHarlottesville High School was let into the school by a student in order to fight other students.

But that technology will take time to install. In the meantime, the increased manpower should help the school perform regular door checks and perimeter sweeps. The school has also ordered more radios so that personnel can better communicate with administration.

Powell addressed a narrative that has taken root at Charlottesville High School: The school is not doing enough to discipline students who act out.

“A lot of discipline has been happening. It’s never stopped,” Powell said.

That message was reiterated by Katina Otey, the chief academic officer who also serves at disciplinary review officer. Otey asked the crowd how many people have read the student code of conduct, known as the Student Rights and Responsibilities. Half of the crowd raised their hands.

Otey said the code has “leveled consequences," with varied recommended punishments for anything: vaping, skipping class, starting fights. Smaller infractions require the school to contact a student’s parents. More serious violations have more serious repercussions, such as suspension.

“We love our kids. But when you make a bad choice, there are consequences for actions,” Otey said. “We’re doing it and we’re going to continue to do it, because we hope that it’s a learning opportunity for them and they learn not to make those choices anymore.”

Adrian Pettitt, a parent of a senior, was happy to hear about the code of conduct. But also confused. If it’s true the school has always been disciplining students, then why have there been so many ongoing problems?

“I like that I’m hearing this thing, but now you’re telling me you’ve been doing this thing and now I’m starting to feel worried,” Pettitt said. “They saying they’re doing all of these things. So I’m like, ‘OK, then what’s missing?’”

“The Students Rights and Responsibilities existed before. That’s not a new document,” added her husband Damon Pettitt. “They’re like, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to turn the corner. We’re fixing this thing.’ And I’m still not even clear what is it exactly that we’re fixing.”

Otey also brought up the issue of cell phones. Charlottesville High School had planned to ban the use of mobile devices in the school, and while administration has seen improvements in the classroom, phone use is rampant in hallways between classes. The school is still working to keep phones “off and away” throughout the day.

“You see kids sitting by themselves with their cell phone instead of talking to their friends,” Otey said, adding that phones have also exacerbated disciplinary and safety issues. “Another way they’re exacerbating issues is that students are able to text each other and meet up for not great things."

School leadership insists that there are only a few students who have been causing disruptions during the school day.

“The vast majority of our students are doing the right thing and making the right choices,” Gurley said. “They’re making a choice to get to class on time, they’re cooperating with staff, they’re doing their work.”

After the 45-minute presentation, the crowd was split into small groups of roughly 15 people each. With the help of a facilitator and question prompts, community members had space to express their feelings and concerns about the current state of the school. The groups were spread out across the school itself, in classrooms, lobbies, the cafeteria and library. The conversations were calm and respectful, with facilitators taking notes that will be presented to the administration and the school board.

Matthews did not find the small groups helpful. He said he wants answers from administrators.

“What should have happened is those guys who are up there right now should have been the ones doing these little small groups so we can ask questions,” Matthews said. “This was a complete waste of time. I think the majority of parents here thought we were going to be getting answers for why we closed on Friday and what really was going on. Teachers don’t just silent quit or silent strike for no reason."

Matthews said he doesn’t believe that student fights are what caused so many teachers to call out of work.

“Something else is happening,” he said, suggesting the issue is “bad leadership."

Maggie Heaphy, senior class president at the high school, was among the hundreds in attendance Thursday night.

“It’s encouraging to see that so many people who are here today care about my education and care about the education of my peers,” Heaphy told The Daily Progress. But she said she also believes that student fights aren’t the root cause of recent problems.

“Personally, I think that one of the biggest issues of the school is much deeper than fighting. I don’t think that is what drove this,” Heaphy said. “I think it was a much deeper systematic issue within our system.”

Heaphy, who said she has never felt unsafe at her high school, pointed to the fact that many students have been refusing to attend class.

“Why do they feel the need to not be in class?” she asked. “Why do people not feel safe and comfortable in classrooms? What can we do to make classroom environments more fun and engaging?”

Calling the event a “complete waste of time,” Matthews said he is planning to enlist as a substitute teacher. “Because I want to see what’s really happening."


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