Allegations that Nelson County Schools has a bullying problem — not just with students, but with district leadership — was a theme among comments Tuesday night as parents, educators and community members accused Superintendent Anthony Orr of being a root cause of problems.
For 30 minutes, Orr listened as nine people approached the podium one by one to express concerns about school safety, disruptive classrooms, school performance, changing staff and, ultimately, how fixing those issues would start by ousting the superintendent.
Orr left a job as principal of Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2010 to become the Nelson County Schools superintendent.
Matthew Reynolds was the first to speak Tuesday. Last week, Reynolds created an online petition at change.org encouraging others to attend the board meeting and ask that Orr’s contract as superintendent, which is set to expire in 2018, not be renewed.
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“I’ve got over 200 supporters online, and an additional 68 right here,” Reynolds told the board. Reynolds also said he had been contacted by many staff members in the district who feared retaliation if they openly supported the action.
He said the district has some great teachers, but is also losing a lot of good educators and administrators, which is contributing to issues in the classroom.
“It really has to do with culture and lack thereof, simply because we have a revolving door of faculty and staff,” he said.
While some of those who spoke were Old Kentucky Home Middle parents, and recent discussion at board meetings has focused on the middle school, a few speakers had worked in the district.
Larry Adamson, who says he was fired from the district Monday, spent his allotted three minutes informing the room of Orr’s alleged “policies” on handling certain disciplinary issues.
“I’ve been assaulted, hit with chairs, spit on, cussed at,” Adamson said. An instructional assistant at Horizons Academy, Adamson claims he was told he’d be let go after he contacted Kentucky State Police about being threatened by a student. He said he had previously tried to meet with administrators about ongoing issues, “to no avail.”
“This is not just isolated to OKH, it’s in the district,” said Adamson, who went on to cite other issues and alleged that he had been prohibited from talking to a law enforcement officer about another incident a few weeks ago.
“Why are we not allowed to call the police?” Adamson asked. “Why, when the school is vandalized and the kids abuse us, do you say, ‘We are not going to prosecute?’ ”
Adamson was not the only person to question similar issues at the meeting. Arthur Hendricks called Orr and other district leaders bullies and said he had watched Nelson County High School struggle as a result.
Hendricks’ wife, who was principal of the high school, resigned last week but will finish out the year. He accused the district leaders of turning a blind eye to problems, and referred to a recent event where a student allegedly assaulted the school’s assistant principal but was permitted to stay in school.
“I cannot take the chance of my wife working in a hostile situation knowing there is no support from the Board of Education. It can’t happen,” he said. “Mr. Orr needs to go. You all need a change of leadership and if you can’t see it, I hope the community will show you what it takes.”
Marie Miller, a parent, said in the two years since her family moved here, she’s seen both issues with students and with staff behavior, and said something needs to be done before problems worsen,
“This is a progression. This is an escalation of violence,” she said of hearing about numerous assaults, threats and disruptions. “What’s going to protect my child when someone decides to escalate even more?”
She asked the board to create a real plan to de-escalate these issues, including possibly connecting with parents, law enforcement and students.
“You have my children for the majority of the day, and when I have to worry about their personal safety, that is a problem,” she said.
John Peterson, a former substitute teacher with Nelson County Schools, also spoke about escalating problems.
“The conditions have gotten worse and worse and worse,” he said. “When I was a teacher, I managed my discipline in my room. I very seldom had to ask for anybody to help me discipline.”
“Mr. Orr’s idea of discipline is to sweep it under the rug and make sure nobody gets me involved,” Peterson said. Like Adamson, he said he had been threatened by students or had students disrupt his class on more than one occasion. “And the only thing I can do is send them to the office? That’s a day at the spa. We need new leadership, people. You need to wake up.”
Orr’s comments at the public meeting were kept brief, and some in the audience interrupted with commentary or approached the podium for further statement.
“I appreciate the concern you have expressed tonight,” and throughout the year, he said. “I think it is fair and reasonable to say, ‘What is the plan?’ and I’ve outlined short-term plans that we will be implementing — and have been implementing — for closing out the school year.”
Earlier in the day, Orr sent out a letter to OKH parents, which included some of that plan.
The letter was sent in response to an incident Monday involving a student and a teacher. While the letter claimed a student “shoved” a teacher in the hallway and she would be OK, the employee’s daughter responded to the letter in a Facebook post saying her mother was tackled to the ground and ended up seeking treatment at an urgent care center later in the day. She was vocal in her disagreement with how Orr was portraying the event.
In Orr’s letter, the superintendent said law enforcement was called and responded immediately. He said the behavior was unacceptable and the student is “facing full administrative consequences.”
In an effort to address the safety of students and staff, Orr said officials had requested two off-duty police officers to be in the building each day from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. through May 26, the last day of school.
At the time the letter had been received by parents, Bardstown Police Chief Steve Uram said no such request had been presented to him. Later, however, he confirmed that a BPD officer had spoken separately with school officials and was working to find officers to be in the building, though he was not certain how many had committed to the task at that time.
Another step included in Orr’s letter was that staff had been added to the building over the last few weeks to provide additional resources for teachers. When questioned about that staff at the meeting, Orr said one temporary staff member had been added and a teacher had also been placed in a position previously covered by a substitute.
Orr also said both in the letter and at the meeting that the district would be working with the Kentucky Center for Safe Schools to complete safety assessments at OKH and Nelson County High School next fall.
In additional comments made to TV media after Tuesday’s meeting, Orr said he believed some of the behavior had been curbed already, though, “clearly we have not completely solved it.”
“When we come into school next year, we will definitely have additional plans and processes in place,” he said. “There will be some training we go through over the summer to make sure everybody is on board.”
He went on to say that issues in schools are about personal interactions that students have with others. “So that’s not going to be just about inexperience, it’s not going to be just about turnover,” he said. And while some of those interactions are not playing out well — whether they are initiated by a student or another person — “The fact of the matter is, we’ve got to be able to get a reset on that and building the relationships that allow kids to be more trusting, but also allow the teachers to hold them accountable,” he said. “That takes a lot of hard work. That’s not something that principals and superintendents walk into buildings and push a button and fix. That takes a lot more time and energy and that’s what we are going to be investing.”
Orr was the only person to address the public about their concerns during the meeting, serving as the spokesperson for the board, but some board members did mingle with guests after adjournment and thanked them for attending.
Board member Diane Breeding had only one comment to make.
“We are going to work on a plan for the continuous improvement and we are going to make the improvements where they need to be,” she said. “The Board is listening.”