After an outpouring of parental concern about dangerous and disruptive students at Moreau Heights Elementary School, the Jefferson City Board of Education has agreed to investigate allegations that numerous violent acts may have taken place in the school so far this year.
Dozens of parents and teachers turned out for Monday's monthly board meeting to share their concerns. Many came to share their frustration with an school system they believe has tolerated and enabled unsafe student behavior. But several parents also came to defend the rights to a good education for learning-disabled students with behavior challenges.
The audience was one of the largest turnouts to a board meeting in years.
Not only was the boardroom filled to capacity, the center aisle was filled with people seated knee-to-knee on the floor. Another 50 to 70 people stood in the building's wide center hallway hoping to overhear the conversation.
The large turnout was sparked, in part, by a lengthy letter co-written by two parents, Jeffrey and Cathleen Martin, that first circulated in the community last Friday. The Martins have three children, including a fourth-grade son at Moreau Heights and a first-grade daughter enrolled in private school.
Their five-page letter details allegations of students biting, punching and kicking teachers. Other allegations include throwing desks, hair pulling, breaking and destroying physical property and making threats to kill teachers. Sometimes these outbursts result in entire classrooms being evacuated.
"We feel it is imperative the Board be made aware of the substantial behavioral/emotional issues and discipline problems that continue to rob the elementary students of learning at Moreau Heights," the Martins wrote to the Board of Education. "At this time, when we are almost to the end of the first quarter of the 2014-15 school year, in addition to what our own son has experienced, teachers and parents of other Moreau Heights students confirm that violent students have not been removed from the regular learning environment or received any noticeable discipline."
The Board appeared prepared for an onslaught of remarks. As the meeting started, Vice President Doug Whitehead noted the board already had taken some action to address the room's concerns.
"In the past, we've taken comments under advisement, and we'll do that again tonight," Whitehead said. "But to be fair, we are very familiar with what's been happening. And we've appointed a committee - John Ruth, Ken Theroff, Alan Mudd - to look into this matter. We're going to move swiftly to try to continually improve the educational process in the Jefferson City Public Schools."
Ruth promised: "Updates will be forthcoming ... from this independent committee and investigation. I hope you know and respect some things the law will prevent us from getting into too much detail about."
The announcement did not preempt parents' and teachers' desire to share their own experiences at the podium. At least 18 people came forward to share their thoughts and concerns.
Kathy Martin said she and her husband had tried to resolve concerns with the administrators for several months, to little avail.
"That's why we created the correspondence," she said. "As you investigate ... there are some things you need to drill down on."
She continued: "We have talked to numerous teachers and the teachers - not just from Moreau Heights, but from the other elementary schools - tell us that it is commonplace for them to be bit, kicked, hit ... stuff to be thrown like desks, stuff to be ripped off their walls."
Martin lamented the out-of-control students are being returned to their classrooms without consequences.
"And this is not acceptable," she said. "We have teachers going home from Moreau Heights daily with bruises, requiring medical attention. We have got to stop this conduct, not just for the protection of these teachers, but for our students. Our students deserve better."
Martin said administrators haven't followed through on promises they made over the summer to address the concerns.
She noted a transitional classroom established to reteach appropriate behaviors has only been used by a couple of students. She said entire classrooms are still being evacuated to deal with one out-of-control person. Martin also complained that faculty still lack the resources - additional staff and administrative support - to combat unsafe behavior.
Her comments were greeted with applause.
Other parents shared a different set of concerns.
Alyssa Bruemmer, parent of a Moreau Heights student, complained the Martins' letter shared too many details, allowing individual students to be easily identified.
"Incidents that occur at school should be kept confidential to everyone except those involved," she said.
She argued it's not true poor behavior goes unpunished. Actions are dealt with in accordance with school policies by Principal Stacey Goodwin, she said. And she defended the practice of using rewards to reinforce positive behavior.
Goodwin "has an extremely difficult job in which she has to balance the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with the Safe Schools Act," Bruemmer said. "There are many students like my daughter, with varying disabilities, and these children are not to be thrown away."
However, most of the speakers favored maintaining an orderly and disciplined environment for students.
Former fifth-grade teacher Doug Van Camp said some of the problems lie with poor district leadership. As a teacher, he struggled with administrators who refused to provide appropriate discipline.
"I had a principal who didn't give me that back-up. And so I quit sending my kids to the principal's office for a reason, because it was laughable," Van Camp said. "And it was infectious throughout the group. They knew if they were going there, it was no big deal. I was forced, as a teacher, to take it upon myself to discipline those kids. And I still see those kids today. And they thank me for it."
Aaron DeSha, a teacher at East Elementary School, said he was disappointed to learn of the problem behaviors via a letter from another parent instead of from the school.
"I've been appalled at what has happened at our school the last few years. And I'm speaking on behalf of teachers, because I'm tired. I'm questioning whether I've gotten into the right profession. I've got 28 students in my classroom. It's not a safe place for students to be, much less a good learning environment."
Applause broke out in the room when DeSha continued: "It's a great wrong what we've allowed to happen in our communities. And our children are the ones suffering our poor decisions."