October 3, 2008

Notification of Schools’ Safety Issues Decided Case By Case


By Amy Jeter

The Virginian-Pilot

When a Portsmouth student was charged last week with attempted murder and gang participation after allegedly holding a student in a chokehold until the victim was unconscious, school officials told parents nothing, even though the attack took place in a Wilson High School bathroom.

On the same day, two Norfolk high school games were rescheduled because of fears of gang-related violence, but administrators failed to give details about the reasons until days later.

Locally, school officials say they decide on a case-by-case basis when to notify families of safety or security issues. They must weigh student privacy laws and ongoing criminal investigations against a need to warn families about potential danger and a parent's right to know, national experts and local school officials say. Too much information may be unnecessary and overwhelming, while misinformation or silence could lead to panic.

"School administrators have to struggle with that fine balance of not over-communicating every disciplinary issue they deal with, while at the same time not bypassing something that really could rise to a significant level," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

Tragedies such as the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech shootings, along with up-to-the-minute personal and public communication systems, largely have opened up a culture that traditionally has been tight-lipped, Trump said.

In South Hampton Roads, school officials said incidents with the potential to affect a large number of students usually merit some kind of communication with parents.

For example, Portsmouth officials sent home a letter after a student brought a knife to I.C. Norcom High School last year and administrators locked down the campus.

Parents will not be notified of last week's attack at Portsmouth's Wilson High School, however. School officials don't usually alert families about assaults, which is how the incident was classified, said Sharon Harris, a school division spokeswoman. The incident involved a small number of students and no weapon, she said. The Virginian-Pilot learned about the incident from Portsmouth police this week.

The Norfolk school division didn't tell parents reasons for moving the date and venue of the Granby High School football game, at the request of investigating law enforcement officers, said Michael Spencer, the school system's chief operations officer . The game was rescheduled after someone shot into a student's home the night before.

"The Granby situation was still a very active police investigation," Spencer said. "They expressly asked us not to go into the details of it."

A Maury High School football game scheduled for the same day also was moved. Administrators were concerned about a fight at the school the day of the game and about a group of people who weren't students who tried to enter the building, Spencer said this week. Other city officials have said police suspect gang activity.

Spencer didn't give details about those incidents sooner because he wasn't sure of the facts, he said . "That one unfolded so quickly, I was getting a series of phone calls that were, in some cases, contradictory."

South Hampton Roads school divisions generally notify families if strangers are approaching students at bus stops, if a school has been locked down, or if weapons appear on campus, officials said.

Parents at Virginia Beach's Salem High School received a message alert last spring after a teenager fired a gun in the school parking lot.

In Suffolk, school officials sent home a letter after a fight that resulted in a "code red," where students were required to stay in classrooms with doors and windows shut. As quickly as the rumors can now spread with text messaging and other forms of technology, it's important for school administrators to be in front of the news, said Trump, the consultant. "They really have to have a good feel of when an incident is creating a buzz" among students, parents or in the media, he said.

Chesapeake sent out letters last spring after hundreds of students stayed home from school because of rumors of a fight spread by text messages and online.

Larry Coleman, vice president of Western Branch High School's PTA, said he wishes Chesapeake had notified parents sooner. "The more of this kind of information that's out there - that makes you aware but does so in a way that calms nerves instead of aggravating panic - the safer and the better off you are," he said.

Most South Hampton Roads school divisions use an electronic system to send phone or e-mail messages to thousands of parents at once. In schools across the state, the systems are most often used to alert families of weather-related events and sudden school schedule changes, according to a 2008 survey by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Parents said access to some information about school incidents could help them discuss safety with their children.

Cheryl La Dieu, a mother of three Suffolk students, said she would like to receive monthly updates on disciplinary trends and suggested that schools post alerts on their Web sites when needed.

Yuonne Manigo, a Virginia Beach mother and school resource officer, said she wants to be warned about neighborhood incidents that could influence student behavior at school.

One Wilson freshman said she doesn't think parents should be contacted about "silly" fights.

"If they get arrested, yeah, people need to know about that," Tanaya McLemore said, "because it's pretty serious."

Staff writers Matthew Bowers, Hattie Brown Garrow, Jen McCaffery, Lauren Roth and Alicia Wittmeyer contributed to this report.

Amy Jeter, (757) 446-2730, [email protected]

when to inform

School officials said incidents with the potential to affect a large number of students usually merit communication.

Search a database of crime reports in schools at Pilot Online.com.

Originally published by BY AMY JETER.

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