Parents demand change at Grissom High School during Community Conversation

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - At a Community Conversation event Monday, parents demanded change in the Huntsville City School system.

The district invited the greater Grissom High School community to come hear from board member Elisa Ferrell, GHS Principal Becky Ballentine, and Superintendent Matt Akin, who hosted the event at the former Grissom campus on Bailey Cove Road.

This came as parents express outrage and concern about safety at Grissom High. Some have contacted WHNT News 19 to inform us they do not trust that the school system is able to prevent bad behavior, or discipline students effectively.

Earlier this month, a Grissom student posted a video on Snapchat appearing to threaten to bring a gun to school. It's something school officials say has been dealt with, and Akin maintains Grissom is a safe school.

Monday, the former school-turned-community-center auditorium was packed with parents, community members, school staff and students who came to participate in a discussion about the problems, and have their questions answered.

Superintendent Matt Akin said it was important to hear the parents' concerns so all groups can be on the same page. He added that the district will "continually work to improve."

Threats and Fights

For the very first question of the evening, one parent referenced the Snapchat video and the surrounding concern rippling through the community.

"At what point did the administration decide that it was not a good idea to communicate to the parents that there was a threat?" he asked, to applause from the crowd.

"To be honest with you, we knew about the video on Thursday, handled the situation, and the student was disciplined according to the BLG (Behavioral Learning Guide) Thursday. I'm not allowed to discuss because it's an ongoing investigation," said Balentine in response.

"I don't care about what's going on or who the student is. I want the administration or the board to come to the parents-- you send out an email every week-- and say we had an issue. We thought it was a credible threat, or not, and it has been handled," the man said. "That was not even dealt with until Friday when probably half of these people were checking their kids out of school!"

Superintendent Akin said these concerns are valid. He stated that in hindsight, he can admit that there was a slow response from the school, with good intentions. But he acknowledged that it looks like the school was misleading parents.

"That was not the intent," he said. "We are going to do a better job of accurately and quickly communicating. "

Akin added, "There were credible threats that happened on Thursday. We would have been much better off saying, 'We identified those credible threats.' And that's how we will say it in the future."

The crowd applauded Akin, too.

But the community members were also concerned about fights, rumored to take place frequently at Grissom High School. They asked how many security and police officers were in the school, and worried these SRO's and school security were not monitoring the halls effectively.

Akin stated that security is one area where some changes were made. This continues to be evaluated, he explained.

"We have changed where security is stationed, especially during high traffic times like class changes, lunch, and power hour," he stated.

Al Lankford, Security Operations Coordinator, said the school has Campus Security Officers along with School Resource Officers.

"We have nine security officers slated for Grissom High School, right now we are down to eight but I have just interviewed a gentleman who will be good for the school," he said, noting that the district was working on filling another position.

One parent said they were concerned about gangs at Grissom, or students involved in gangs.

"A lot of our resource officers are gang-trained," said Lankford. "If we have any indication that a student, or students are involved in gang affiliation, there is counsel for that. We investigate those situations."

Lankford also noted it is important not to profile people.

Class Disruptions and Disrespect

Threats and violence are not the only concerns parents expressed in the community meeting.

Many also stepped up to say they don't like what their children or children's teachers are saying about the behavior that goes on in the classroom, particularly non-honors or non-AP classes.

"There is just a total lack of respect from several students, and they just aren't listening to direction," noted Mark Binner.

He suggested a change to the Behavioral Learning Guide, which serves as the district's road map to discipline.

"I did review the Behavioral Learning Guide... I notice that it was a level 1. I think in order to give the teachers and administration the ability to go ahead and lead and make sure our students are being educated, we move it to a level 4. So when there's a total lack of [respect] and a student is using profanity and telling a teacher, 'I don't want to it,' we just stop it right there. I think once those students understand that you're not messing around and the teachers are the authority, I think you'll see the behaviors turn around."

Other parents spoke to this, too.

"They need to be held accountable," said one woman. "In my book, there should be zero tolerance for disrespecting a teacher."

The audience applauded.

"I agree with you wholeheartedly," said Balentine.

"None of us want to treat kids unfairly," responded Akin. "But none of us want kids to disrespect teachers because it develops a poor culture in the school and means no learning is going on. The easiest thing to do is put a kid out [of the classroom,] but it's not the right thing to do. What we've got to do is we have got to continually work to change behavior and to reinforce positive behavior."

Parents erupted into outrage over his words.

"We do have the ability to, if it's not working, put the student in an alternative environment. We will do that when necessary," he finished.

"It's not working!" some parents later yelled from their seats. Parents later worried that the BLG doesn't do enough and children continue to misbehave.

"If it was where it should be, you wouldn't be here tonight," agreed Akin. "I understand that. What I can promise you is we are going to do our best to fix the problems you are addressing."

Discipline Reporting

Some parents worried about the quality of the discipline reporting teachers are doing. They said the teachers fear retribution if they report true numbers, or are in some way instructed not to report the true behaviors they are seeing.

Teachers, Balentine said, must enter behavior into BLOOM, the district's discipline reporting tool. She said they are directed to do this, regardless of the student's color or the frequency of the behavior.

"They have our support. That is our job to support them in the classroom with the behaviors they are seeing. We report all numbers. We are not going to hide behind the data... Teachers report what they see," she assured.

"No they don't!" some parents yelled. "They're afraid to!"

Other Concerns and Comments

When Lankford was asked why the district hasn't installed metal detectors, he confirmed Huntsville City Schools is considering it.

"How would that look?" he said, before asking parents who started to shout more concerns and questions to let him finish his point. "We are considering it. We are looking at the best possible way we can place metal detectors. We can't just place metal detectors in one school. It has to be district-wide."

He asked parents to raise their hands if they would like metal detectors at the school. Most of them did.  But Lankford noted that there were some who did not raise their hands.

He said once they learned if it is something that the district wants to do, they will provide more information about the decision.

Some wanted to know what consequences are for certain behaviors, telling school leaders they don't want suspension to be like a "vacation" for students who do bad things.

Other parents asked questions unrelated to discipline, from busing to laptops.

The district recorded all questions and comments because leaders said they wanted to make sure they addressed each one.

"I think this is listening, and hearing concerns. There may be some we haven't addressed," said Akin in an interview. "We don't want the conversation to stop. We are continually working to improve in all aspects of all of our schools. We will use this to continue that improvement process."