Parents again share concerns about safety at James Blair

During public comments at Tuesday night’s Williamsburg-James City County School Board meeting, several parents spoke out about violence, bullying, harassment and what they consider the unsafe atmosphere at James Blair Middle School.

Genevieve Bennett was the first parent to speak, and said her son, a seventh-grader at James Blair, comes home each day and describes everything from fighting in the locker rooms to girls being groped in the hallways.

“Since the school year started, my son has told me about numerous fights, death threats, mentions of rape and sexual harassment, that a lot of girls are getting harassed and touched inappropriately by other students. (There is) just an utter lack of control at the school,” Bennett said.

“Schools should be a safe learning environment, and parents should not have to worry about the safety of their children at their schools.”

This isn’t the first time parents of students at James Blair — which opened in September — spoke to School Board members about bullying.

In October, several parents shared stories about violence at the school that ranged from students being shoved into trash cans to fights in the locker room. At the time, Olwen Herron, W-JCC Schools superintendent, said she was “very concerned about the allegations by parents,” and pledged that something would be done.

Regarding the newest parental complaints, Herron said there is still more to be done.

“Student safety and wellness are the top priorities for all W-JCC Schools employees, myself included, and we take all concerns and reports very seriously,” Herron said. “During the first semester, we provided additional adult supervision during class changes and at lunch. They’ve worked with staff on developing common expectations for behavior and instruction. And we will continue to add security resources with the start of the second semester on Monday.”

Bennett went on to tell the board about a student in one of her son’s classrooms who threatened a shooting at the school only to be back in class in less than a week.

“In the fall, there was a student in my son’s class who threatened to shoot everyone, and told my son he would start with him. (The student) had to be escorted out of the classroom,” Bennett said. “That student was back in school two to three days later, and only much later was he moved to another classroom.

“There are no consequences for bad behavior at the school.”

Anna Rose, who also has a son in seventh grade, told the School Board her son has told her similar stories of bullies in the locker rooms and harassment in the hallways. Worse, her son says one of the people who bullied him is a teacher.

“My son was talking with one of his friends before class, and his teacher turned to them, and in front of the entire class, told them, ‘It is OK to be gay, just not in my class,’ ” Rose said. “If this is the kind of toxic environment caused by teachers, I can only imagine that the school as a whole is not a safe space.”

Regarding claims that teachers may have potentially harassed students, Herron was ironclad: absolutely unacceptable.

“I first became aware of this claim at the School Board meeting on Tuesday, and we have our Department of Human Resources looking into it now,” Herron said. “We do not condone any behavior that marginalizes any student or staff member.”

Several School Board members commented on what had been said about bullying and that it had continued since the October meeting when parents spoke about it.

”It’s disappointing, especially because we keep hearing the same complaints,” said board member James Beers.

Several other parents of James Blair students, while they did not speak at the meeting, were in attendance and shared similar stories.

One of them, Courtney Martinez, spoke about how her daughter, after starting eighth grade in the fall, was afraid to set foot in the school by November.

“My daughter attended sixth and seventh grade at Hornsby Middle School, but almost as soon as she had started at James Blair, she became almost a totally different person,” Martinez said. “She had a real fear of going to school based on what she saw and experienced. She told me, ‘Mom, I don’t feel safe here, it’s not a safe place.’ ”

Martinez also described how, with teachers having to divide their focus between disciplining their classes and teaching them, her daughter felt she wasn’t learning anything. Eventually, Martinez pulled her daughter out of Blair in November and put her in private school. She said she has seen a marked improvement in her daughter’s state of mind since then.

“Something has got to be done. The School Board needs to find a solution, any way they can to make James Blair a safe space, because it’s an injustice to our children.”

When asked about the bullying, James Blair Principal Ty Harris wanted to assure parents that steps are being taken.

“Bullying refers to repeated, targeted behavior tied to an imbalance of power, what we see more often is bad behavior and poor decision making. And when we drill down on who is doing this, we are finding it is the same small group of kids over and over,” Harris said.

“We suspend students that need to be suspended, we change schedules, limit opportunities for disruption and adjust supervision as needed. We take this very seriously.”

Harris also wished to apologize for any continued frustrations parents may have.

“It is very frustrating and I certainly understand and appreciate the concerns that have been raised by our families. I want to assure them and our community that we have clear expectations for student behavior at Blair Middle School, and I’m disappointed that the teachers and students here at Blair are doing so many amazing things, but all of that is being overshadowed by isolated bad behavior.”

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