For months, parents and teachers had complained to Williamsburg-James City County school officials about bullying and harassment in James Blair Middle School.
With Tuesday’s announcement that W-JCC Schools Chief of Staff Corey Murphy was appointed acting principal, it would appear that the call for action had been answered. Former principal Ty Harris is now vice principal.
But some parents remain skeptical.
Melissa King is a parent of four students in W-JCC Schools, including one at James Blair. She said she was shocked by the sudden actions taken at the school over the past week.
“Don’t get us wrong, as parents with a student, we are grateful for any additional measures to increase administrative support and to add full-time security personnel,” said King. “Having been actively engaged on the Blair campus since before it opened, we feel that the district’s demotion of Mr. Harris and the apparent attempt to lay the blame on a single individual is beyond unfair. We feel he had gone above and beyond to address the problems he inherited.”
King went on to say that whatever issues there are at James Blair are not unique to the school, but the result of a system-wide issue that has been unaddressed for a long time.
“It’s no secret that Berkeley has faced very similar issues, and we had a daughter at Hornsby Middle last year who told us about a dozen fights, being bullied on the bus, a teacher getting their foot broken by a student, and another student running through the school with a knife he got from the teachers lounge,” said King.
“James Blair has the same kids, same struggles, just in a new facility with new administrators expected to instantaneously solve problems of bullying and poor academic outcomes that they inherited, but did not create.”
Charles Cager is a substitute teacher who has worked in James Blair, where he describes conditions as “completely out of control.”
“I was a school teacher in New York City for decades, and I have worked as a substitute teacher here in Virginia in a dozen different school districts,” said Cager. “In all the schools I have taught in, James Blair is one of the worst.”
For Cager, the issue isn’t with school leadership, but with restrictions placed upon educators within the school. He recalls one incident where another teacher, following a student repeatedly screaming profanity in class, could do nothing but ask the student to stop.
“Look, I never met the old principal, I can’t say if he was part of the problem or not,” said Cager. “I can say until they allow teachers to take charge of their own classrooms, to replace that disruption with some discipline, nothing is going to change.”
Among all the skeptics though, there is some optimism. Bellonia Marie’s daughter had long complained about being bullied at James Blair.
“She would come home and tell me how these two bullies were chastising her in class and lunch,” said Marie. “They were telling her and sending other kids to tell her ‘they were going to (expletive) her up’ and telling her to kill herself.”
This past week, for the first time in ages, her daughter came home with a positive story to tell.
“She said the girls stopped and now act like it never happened, her words were ‘Mr. Murphy scared the bejesus out of them,’” said Marie. “I almost fell to my knees when my daughter came home and said it stopped, so I’m hopeful that change is coming.”
Acting-Principal Murphy will schedule a meet-and-greet with parents at an upcoming school event, though a specific date and time hasn’t been set.
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.