School strife embroils parents, principal

June 11, 1993|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Staff Writer

Walk through the main doors of Maryland City Elementary School and what catches your eye isn't the colorful paper butterflies on the wall or the paintings of oversized bumblebees, but a 3-foot-tall, smiling wooden figure.

A sign pinned to its hands reads: "Woody says: 1. Say nice things to each other . . . no name calling. 2. We will keep our hands to ourselves . . . no fighting. 3. Respect and be nice to each other and teachers."

It is a small reminder of the problems the school has been plagued with this year, ranging from fights in the hallways to live bullets being found in a classroom.

Parents have complained not only about the incidents themselves, but about what they say is a lack of discipline at the school. Many blame principal Mary Grande, who they say has not spent enough time at the school and has done little to punish students who misbehave.

At the school system's request, a task force of parents, teachers and administrators has been working for two months to revise the school's disciplinary code. They have just begun putting their thoughts on paper.

"There is a lack of discipline and respect in school," said Kathy George, a parent volunteer and mother of three children. "I worry about my children while they're in school with all these disciplinary problems. What if something happens, like a student brings in a knife?"

A petition signed by about 50 parents was sent to school Superintendent C. Berry Carter II in April. The letter cited "several alarming incidents in our school involving weapons" and complained about what it called the lack of proper disciplinary action by school administrators.

The letter referred to three incidents: A cap gun was fired in a fifth-grade classroom early in the school year; a student brought live bullets into a fourth-grade class, also early in the year; and a fistfight resulted in a student being injured April 2.

"We received a reply from the superintendent, who said that, although he understands that there is a problem, we have to understand that children are naturally curious about guns and other weapons," said Lynn Strider, a mother of two students who drafted the petition. "Is it normal for children to bring bullets to school? Is it normal to bring in cap guns when county policy says no weapon of any kind is allowed?

"There are fights in the school all the time, and that shouldn't be either," Mrs. Strider said. "We want to stop it before it gets to something serious, before someone gets hurt.

The petition itself has sparked its share of controversy.

Ms. Grande and parent Dale Coyle believe the problems are not as severe as parents think.

"It's true we have had a very fatiguing year due to disciplinary problems," said Ms. Grande, in her third year as principal. "But the rumors have gotten out of proportion to what has happened here.

She said administrators at the school have dealt with each situation in the way they thought best.

"I think there is stress in the community, but I think the people have calmed down a lot," Ms. Grande said.

Mr. Coyle, a former student and now the father of a third-grader, agreed.

"There was fighting, but that happens in any school," Mr. Coyle said. "I think it's just a case of uninvolved and uninformed parents who don't have 100 percent of the facts straight. But sometimes it takes a scare like that for people to get going."

Other parents, however, including Cathy Royal, say the problem is worse than the school says.

"I think that it is becoming severe, and I don't think the school is making the right response to bad behavior," said Ms. Royal, a parent volunteer and mother of three. "I think some of the teachers and Ms. Grande tend to gloss things over and tend to not say the case is severe."

Ms. Royal said she fears that the task force was designed simply to appease the parents.

Referring to rumors that seven teachers have requested transfers, she said, "These are teachers who have been here for 10 to 12 years -- close to retirement -- who want to leave. Why would they leave now? We think they're leaving in response to the lack of authority in the administration, namely Ms. Grande."

Three teachers, who refused to be identified for fear of reprisals, said the rumors of transfers were true. "There's definitely a problem," one teacher said. "It might not be as bad as the parents think it is, but the situation is far from hunky-dory. A lot of people are not happy here."

Ms. Grande said she was aware of only two teachers requesting transfers. She attributed those to an offer of a better job and a teacher who wanted to work closer to home.

"I've gone to places where some loved me and some hated me," Ms. Grande said. "I've done the best I can. I work for the kids and work with the staff the best I can. I'm definitely not perfect, but I feel that I've always done a good job.

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