HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After concerns about fights and threatening Snapchat videos, Grissom High School parents remain on alert.
Friday, dozens of parents checked their children out of class, citing fears about their safety. Last week and into Monday, many have reached out to WHNT News 19 with their concerns.
We, in turn, scheduled an interview with Superintendent Matt Akin to talk about these concerns, and what the school system is doing to address it.
Akin said anytime a concern is brought to the school system's attention, it begins an internal investigation and often involves Huntsville Police and school resources officers (SRO's.)
"Thursday, the videos that are in question, we both considered that these were likely threats," he said. "So, we took it seriously and followed our Behavioral Learning Guide to make sure we remove those students from school."
Was there any threat to students?
"Well, you just have to assume that it was a threat," he explained. "What we want to do is make sure, if it was a threat, that it's not followed through on. Which, I think we were successful in doing that."
Akin explained that safety is the number one priority. A follow-up message from Grissom's principal, Becky Balentine, to parents echoed this on Monday.
Still, he admits that the administration could have handled things differently last week.
"We have a responsibility to investigate and try to quickly determine whether there is a legitimate threat," Akin said. "In this case, we try to investigate but we want to quickly react. Perhaps we didn't react quickly enough, and we are continually looking at ways to improve. We welcome feedback. I would rather over-communicate than certainly, under-communicate. We want to be accurate," he reasoned.
The Fights Caught on Video
We asked Akin about fights. Some videos of these have been posted online and shared in recent weeks. Some parents tell us they believe the fights happen more frequently than the district lets on.
Akin said that at the time of our interview he could not provide a number of exactly how many fights there have been, but he said there is a higher expectation for students than what they display in the videos.
"There have been fights this year, and there have been kids suspended this year," he said. "Putting kids out of school solves a problem temporarily, but we must continue to improve behavior. But, number one is safety of all students so I'm not going to sacrifice the safety of some student because we're trying to improve someone else's behavior."
The Behavioral Learning Guide Concerns
Akin is also aware of parent concerns that the Behavioral Learning Guide isn't strict enough to stop the students from acting out.
The district's Behavioral Learning Guide, and the accompanying matrices for elementary and secondary schools, is a road map to discipline within the district.
"We hear a lot that the BLG doesn't allow us to punish students. That's simply not true," Akin stated. "We look at a lot of data, and we'll have a report that we file with the [federal] judge [in the district's desegregation case] next week. We look at last year's out of school suspension, in school suspension, and expulsion. And when you look at those, particularly at Grissom, and you compare to this year, the numbers are higher for out of school and in-school."
"So this tells me that one, we are using the BLG to, when appropriate, put kids out of the classroom... But two, obviously, you don't necessarily want those numbers to go up. We are enforcing discipline, but on the other hand we have to continually work to improve the behavior of all of our students," he explained.
That is the crux of what Huntsville City Schools must balance. Akin has said in the past, and said again Monday, that the BLG is about changing student behavior. He understands, though, that it is a difficult process.
Akin said he doesn't share the opinion of some of the parents who emailed WHNT News 19, that the BLG ties the district's hands when dealing with offending students.
"I understand parents' frustrations. I understand students' and teachers' frustrations," he said. "We are working every day to improve. Fights aren't going to be common practice."
He added later, "The BLG is a different way of having discipline and more disciplined schools. But it is also about changing behavior. It's different. But we firmly believe it's the right way to go."
He added that the BLG is about being fair. But Akin and administrators in the past have said that the BLG is a "living document" that can continue to be changed.
We asked Superintendent Akin if Grissom is safe. He said that it is.
But many parents and even spouses of teachers at Grissom have written to us, saying they aren't sure about safety there. After a lunchroom fight that some parents say involved 40 students, they say some children are afraid to eat lunch at the school.
We asked Akin about the level of security in the school. Some parents have written to us, saying they don't believe there are enough security personnel there to handle the fights that are going on.
"If there's not enough, we'll have more," he responded. "We have added a couple this week, just as a result of last week. And if we see that by adding to it is improving safety, then we will continue to do that."
We asked Akin to recall the parents who took their children out of school on Friday.
He said, "We are continually monitoring. Hopefully, people know we are doing all that we can do to provide a safe environment and hopefully, more will be in school tomorrow."
Becky Balentine, Principal of Grissom High School, sent this message to parents Monday:
Hello Grissom Nation,
I would like to take a moment to thank all of the parents who have emailed or called with concerns from last week. I appreciate you contacting me with your concerns.
Please know that anytime we receive any type of alert/concern, we immediately begin our investigation in collaboration with HCS Campus Security Officers (CSO) and HPD School Resource Officers (SRO). The social media video of the school threat last week was actually brought to our attention on Thursday.
We immediately investigated the threat and followed the procedures outlined in the HCS Behavioral Learning Guide (BLG). Following the investigation on Thursday, Friday at Grissom High School was filled with high levels of teaching and learning with no distractions.
Please know that we do not take any type of threat lightly and school safety is a top priority. If you have questions or concerns, please contact the school immediately. Rumors on social media can be harmful and cause more panic in our community.
If you or your child is aware of any type of suspicious activity, bullying or other student related issues, please use the HCS Anonymous Alert System. The Anonymous Alert will immediately be emailed to all GHS administrators as well as HCS Security Supervisors and the Director of Security for HCS.
When using the Anonymous Alert System, please provide us with as much detailed information as possible.
Again, I appreciate your emails and phone calls. Grissom is an excellent school with a reputation of academic excellence. We have amazingly talented, high achieving students both inside and outside the classroom. Our parent and community support is one of the reasons we are so successful. Thank you for your support and dedication to Grissom High School.
Grissom High School
Overall, Akin said that he understands communication with parents can and should be improved. Still, he asked people to be patient.
"Just because they're not seeing a quick reaction, doesn't mean that something isn't going on behind the scenes," he said. "There is a continuing conversation of how can we support our principals? How can we support our teachers?"