Opinion

November 13, 2013

Chris Whitfield: School system officials hiding behind ‘paper shield’

Recent events at Coahulla Creek High School have some parents concerned about the safety of their children and questioning a lack of communication from the leadership of Whitfield County Schools.

School officials discovered a student with a “kill list” at Coahulla Creek that included the names of students, teachers and an administrator. The matter was turned over to law enforcement and rightfully so. But once an arrest was made, nothing was said publicly by the school system, and parents were not told of the threat. It wasn’t until a grandparent of a student notified The Daily Citizen about two weeks later that parents had any idea what was going on at the school.

School system officials claimed at the time they couldn’t comment on whether or how the student was disciplined because of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and later said they didn’t want to hinder the investigation by releasing any information.

FERPA is a paper shield that school officials love to hide behind whenever they don’t want to comment on things that could bring negative publicity. Rather than say “no comment” or answer questions about their actions, they claim they can’t comment because FERPA won’t let them. But unless you name a student or provide details from the student’s educational record, FERPA doesn’t apply.

Under their strict definition and narrow interpretation of FERPA, Whitfield County Schools officials really need to stop sending pictures of their honor roll students to the newspaper since identifying them would seem to be a violation of FERPA. They also need to stop handing out rosters at football games because identifying the students would be a FERPA violation under their interpretation.

Whitfield County Schools officials refused to discuss the punishment of an Eastbrook Elementary School student who was caught “smoking” Smarties. The Daily Citizen contacted school officials after the mother of the student brought the discipline to the attention of the newspaper. School officials said they couldn’t comment because of FERPA.

FERPA is meant to protect the student’s right of privacy. It does not shield school officials from questions they are uncomfortable with. Once the mother of the student identified the student, there was no privacy to break.

In the case of the Coahulla Creek “kill list,” Superintendent Judy Gilreath said school officials did the right thing because the school’s attorney said they did. Well, of course he did. When was the last time you heard an attorney tell you his client did the wrong thing?

Legitimate questions and concerns from parents need to be addressed. Why weren’t parents notified? Why did it take several days for this situation to come to light? Were teachers alerted to the situation so they could be on the lookout for any potential problems? School staff who spoke confidentially to me said they learned of the threat after the fact.

As far as concerns about possibly hindering the investigation — which were not mentioned at the time of the first newspaper report, but were told to a reporter last Wednesday after rumors of a bomb threat at the school — do Whitfield County Schools officials think so poorly of our local law enforcement officials that they believe the law enforcement officials cannot conduct a proper investigation? Or are our school officials insecure about someone entering the school who could “tamper with evidence,” as Gilreath contended in an interview with reporter Christopher Smith?

Sadly, they are.

On the same day of the bomb threat rumors, I walked into the foyer at Coahulla Creek some 15 minutes before students were to be dismissed for the day. I walked to the front counter. I milled about the lobby. Am I so well known that everyone knew I was there to write a story on the cross country team? Did anyone ask me what I was doing there? Did anyone ask to see my credentials? Did anyone ask if they could help me? Was I confronted in any way on a day when the schools were being “extra vigilant?”

No, they did not and I was not.

“There’s probably more scrutiny over there than there ever has been,” Gilreath told Smith.

Really?

Whitfield County Schools officials can continue to hide behind FERPA, but eventually parents, who have legitimate concerns for the safety of their children, are going to demand better communication. Because nobody seems to be answering their questions right now.

Chris Whitfield is a sports writer for The Daily Citizen. He is a certified educator.

1
Text Only
Opinion
  • Successes continue at Dalton State College

    These are exciting times for our local college, Dalton State, both on campus and off.

    April 16, 2014

  • Mark Millican: The birds hushed their singing

    For the uninitiated, that line is from what many consider the greatest rock song of all time, “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin.

    April 15, 2014

  • Misty Watson: When blood sugar drops, anger rises

    It wouldn’t have taken 107 married couples and 21 days to figure out that being hungry makes people angry.

    April 15, 2014

  • Working for the man

    You may be one of the many Americans who will rush to file their income taxes today. But you may not yet have earned enough money to pay all of the taxes that will be imposed on you this year.

    April 15, 2014

  • Letter: The glib tongue, the fake smile

    A recent Daily Citizen column by Walter Williams will both awaken and frighten any thinking person who claims even a smidgen of knowledge about — or belief in —  either the Bible, world history or current events.

    April 15, 2014

  • College soccer team would bring local talent together

    Dreams of combining the best soccer players from all local high schools into one team finally could come true.

    April 13, 2014

  • Letter: Primaries feature many choices

    Many people are confused this year about the May 20 Election Day. Unfortunately, very few voters in Whitfield County actually go to the polls for a primary election. But this means any increase in participation can have a significant impact.

    April 12, 2014

  • Letter: Hooper for Murray chief magistrate

    Thanks to all the wonderful people and friends who backed me for District 1 Murray County Board of Education. You sure showed a lot of support. Sorry I had to step down due to my and my wife’s health. I am a lot better now.

    April 12, 2014

  • Judicial dispute could have been avoided

    Judicial elections in Whitfield and Murray counties tend to be low key. In fact, we can’t recall the last time an incumbent judge on the Conasauga Superior Court, which cover the two counties, has even faced a challenger.

    April 12, 2014

  • Citizen of the Week: Jonathan Rose

    Running for exercise is a popular hobby among many local residents, but at least one racing enthusiast plans to take his fun a step further today.

    April 11, 2014

AP Video