By Brianna Hatch
Rockbridge County High School students, teachers and parents are questioning school safety and the administration’s response following three disturbing incidents within the past two weeks.
On Dec. 1, three students played a Nazi anthem on YouTube while holding up photos of swastikas on their phones and
doing a Hitler salute in an RCHS classroom. Less than 24 hours later, a student was found with a gun and three magazines of ammunition in his backpack. In late November, a white student used a racial slur and threatened to lynch a Black student while on the school bus.
After learning about the three incidents last Thursday, 223 RCHS students did not attend school on Friday. That’s a significant increase from the usual 100 to 130 students absent on any given day.
RCHS Principal Mike Craft said the students involved in the Nazi incident have been suspended and face possible expulsion as the investigation continues. The student with the gun was removed from the school and arrested on Thursday. Craft said administration officials looked into the bus incident but were ultimately unable to take further action because the hate speech was not reported.
Parents expressed concerns about the spate of incidents.
“I think they’re linked through the sense that there aren’t enough safety measures in place at the school, and that the safety also hinges on questions of discrimination and harassment,” said Ellen Mayock, a parent who is married to teacher Patrick Bradley. “There’s so much work to be done…in terms of education…and offering resources.”
RCHS Senior Lorraine Lilly said that as a Jewish student at RCHS, she felt “very, very scared and angry” after first hearing about the anti-Semitic incident.
“I’m confident with my Jewish heritage and I’m proud of it, but I know other people who are Jewish at RCHS and are literally scared to go to school every day,” Lilly said. “And I cannot imagine the horror they feel, how much worse it must be for them.”
In all three incidents, parents, teachers and students said that the school did not effectively communicate with them about what was going on or actions taken to resolve the situations. Craft did not release an official statement about the anti-Semitic actions or the gun discovery until around 6 p.m. on Thursday. Both incidents had occurred at around 1 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.
Many students found out from social media. One student in class with the Nazi-related incident took a photo of the students on Snapchat, which was spread to students and news outlets. Rumors about the gun were also spread by students through social media channels like GroupMe.
“Hearing it through rumor mills and other students is iffy, because we don’t have all the details,” Lilly said. “And if it’s going through 20 people, there’s going to be 20 different versions.”
Mayock said this is part of a larger trend that she has witnessed over the years as a parent.
“One of the things that I have observed wanting has been careful communication and early communication, even on routine things, let alone things like safety,” Mayock said. “And so, I can’t say I’m surprised that things unfolded like this.”
Craft said that he could not release a statement until Thursday evening, after the administration had investigated both the anti-Semitic and gun incidents fully, taken the necessary punishment measures against the involved students, and informed the faculty.
“What’s the use in making a public statement if it’s not accurate?” Craft said. “I can’t be writing a statement while I’m talking to the police and I’m talking about weapons. People got to be realistic. I’m only one person.”
No lockdown implemented
One of the main concerns among RCHS members is that students were not put under lockdown after administration had been alerted about the gun found on school property.
Craft said the administration followed the guidelines in place to conduct an investigation and determined that the incident was an “isolated event” in which the student said he brought the gun for self-defense, not to hurt anyone on campus. So, there was no need for a lockdown.
“Within two minutes of it being reported by students, the gun and a student were in custody and under the control of a Sheriff’s Department Deputy,” Craft said. “The threat was neutralized very quickly.”
But many parents, students and teachers are not satisfied with that explanation.
“The question in my mind, in many people’s mind, is how within two minutes were they able to definitively determine that this is the only reason he had the gun there?” said Bradley, Latin teacher at RCHS. “They never said they investigated the possibility that he was in cahoots with any other kids who might be on campus with guns.”
“And that does not explain why it took them three hours to tell the faculty, and longer to tell parents,” Bradley added.
Mayock said students have been practicing lockdown drills for this exact purpose.
“Why do the drills if you’re not going to actually act on it?” she said.
Craft also said that the administration was concerned about the safety implications of implementing a lockdown before they knew the full information.
“Research suggests when you do hold lockdowns, if there are more weapons, they have a tendency to go ahead and use them because they feel like they’re being cornered and we’re going to catch them,” Craft said. “I didn’t want to put our school in that kind of a situation.”
But students and teachers felt unsafe anyway.
Bradley, who serves as the teacher sponsor for the Sexuality and Gender Awareness club and the Student and Teacher Association for Non-Discrimination (STAND) said he felt threatened by the presence of a weapon in the school building.
“I’ve been a target because of being involved with these student groups,” he said. “I’ve been a target on social media, and at school board meetings for attacks, assaults, innuendos, threats.”
Bradley said his daughter was one of the many who stayed home from school on Friday because they felt unsafe.
Senior Arden Courtney Collins, co-president and co-founder of STAND, said this incident put safety to the forefront of her mind while she is in school.
“After this, I’m going to be sitting in class thinking, ‘That’s where I’m going to hide, that’s where I’m going to try to run,’” she said. “It’s depressing that that’s the reality we live in, where kids have to worry about that stuff.”
The problem with reporting
Many students, teachers and parents are also upset with the lack of action taken by the administration when it comes to instances of hate speech – like the anti-Semitic actions and the bus incident.
According to Bradley, the threatened Black student was almost suspended because she punched the student who threatened her. Her suspension was eventually dismissed after her parents complained. But no one has heard about punishment for the student who threatened her.
“So, a lot of people are very upset that this was not considered important enough, like [the administration] is not addressing these issues unless it’s public,” Bradley said.
Craft said the administration did look into the bus incident. But ultimately, they were unable to take action because no one reported it.
“We can’t act on issues unless we know about them,” Craft said. “I feel like it’s unfair that we’ve been dragged through the mud and we’re trying to be held accountable for things we don’t know about. I assure you that any incident that’s reported to us is thoroughly investigated and action is taken in every instance. And for people to insinuate that it’s not is ridiculous.”
But Courtney Collins said that there are reasons why students do not always report the hate speech incidents.
“The environment in the school is really bad, really toxic,” she said. “You might be afraid of repercussions. There’s also just not a lot of faith in the administration that they’re actually going to do anything.”
Bradley said these incidents are so common that students are overwhelmed at the prospect of reporting them.
“There’s just so much. It’s just like, the kid is walking down the hallway, some kids call them a derogatory term for being LGBTQ as they’re on their way to class,” he said. “It’s more like a common daily occurrence. They hear this stuff in conversation. They hear it in class.”
Students feel like even when they do report instances of hate speech, nothing is done by the administration to address their concerns.
“They keep saying, ‘This is on you guys. You need to report more,’” Lilly said. “But we’re already doing that. It’s your turn.”
Craft said RCHS is viewing these incidents as an opportunity to increase education efforts for students and faculty. On Friday, the school hosted assemblies to talk about the incidents and dissuade students from using hate speech.
“We want to try to be a better school through this, even though it’s a very terrible thing that happened,” he said.
Courtney Collins said she recognizes the school is trying, but lecturing students one time in an assembly is not enough.
“The administration needs to put more of a focus on protecting and helping minority students as opposed to doing damage control, which seems like what they’ve been going with so far,” she said.
Mayock was also concerned that there was no offering of additional mental health resources for students affected by these incidents.
“There should just be some things that are automatic in thinking very much first about the children’s physical and mental well-being,” she said.
Many see these three incidents as the most recent proof of a larger issue: that there is an intolerant environment at RCHS.
“I’ve always known that this school has a problem with racism, antisemitism, homophobia, you name it. But it is a little bit depressing to see it in action and so blatant,” Courtney Collins said. “Depending on how people react to it, I will get more pessimistic…with where our school is going. But I also think there’s hope that the administration will take this as a sign that they really need to step up their game and maybe people will re-evaluate some of their beliefs.”