“We can’t continue like this”

Parents demand action from Jefferson Somerset

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

The meeting room at the Jefferson County School District was tense with emotion and frustration as parents filled the audience for the local school board’s monthly meeting on Monday, Dec. 9.
Before the meeting could begin, several parents had already signed up on the board’s public comments.
The first parent to speak was Ms. Parrish, who was returning to the December meeting after previously speaking to the school board at the November meeting.
Parrish, who is the mother of a young child enrolled at Jefferson Somerset, had addressed concerns on the management at the county’s school in November. Her child, Parrish said, despite being a young elementary grade student, had repeatedly been sent home from school due to teacher write-ups. Parrish was concerned that her child was being neglected and overlooked in the classroom, and that the school’s teachers were overwhelmed and overworked in the school’s large and unorganized classrooms.
“Each [time] I go out there to the cafeteria, there’s no organization. The children are by themselves at their tables and the teachers? I don’t even know where some of them are at,” said Parrish. “There’s no structure, there’s no organization.”
Parrish had raised concerns at the November meeting that the disorganization and lack of oversight would lead to trouble - a point she made again during the December meeting.
“I stated last meeting that there was a safety hazard out there,” said Parrish. “I said eventually, there would be a big fight.”
And Parrish, it seemed, had been proven right, when on Friday, Dec. 6, a fight broke out on the campus of Jefferson Somerset. Parrish referenced the fight briefly, using it to prove her point that the school was experiencing a lack of oversight, administrator involvement and teacher support.
Parrish further stated that when parents are called to speak with the school’s administration on student behavior, they are fed “lies” about their child’s conduct.
“Your kid ends up being suspended or picked on, and I think it’s wrong,” said Parrish. At the November meeting, Parrish admitted that she was looking into out-of-county options for her child’s education. Despite that, Parrish advised that she still plans to be “a voice” at the Jefferson County school.
“Everybody should be afforded the same kind of education that I got from the Jefferson County High School,” Parrish added that parents shouldn’t have to transport their child out of the county in order to ensure that their child was being treated fairly and educated properly. “It’s sad out there, real sad. If they (Somerset staff) do not want to help our kids out there, there needs to be some change.”
The second concerned community member to speak was Ms. Smith, who addressed the board concerning the recent fight at the school.
The incident, Smith said, has been an on-going event that had finally reached a climactic point of conflict between an 18-year-old high schooler and a 14-year-old middle schooler.
According to Smith, who stated that she was related to two of the students who were involved in the Friday fight, the older high schooler has been bullying the middle school student for some time.
The middle schooler’s older brother has been defending his younger brother against the bully and the two high schoolers, Smith said, have had “two or three altercations over the last month and a half” following the high schooler’s bullying of the younger brother.
Smith told the school board that the older brother has been suspended a couple of times as a result of his altercations with the bully and whenever the older boy is suspended, his mother never receives a letter from the school stating that her son has been suspended.
Smith was also not aware of whether or not the bully had ever faced any suspension for his treatment of the middle schooler or his fights with the older brother.
“Whenever there is an altercation, no one - no adult, let’s put it like that - calls her to let her know that her children have been in an altercation,” said Smith. “It is another child who calls their parent who then calls [the boys’ mother] to let her know that her children have been in an altercation.”
Smith added that shortly before Thanksgiving, the older brother had been suspended after getting into a fight with his little brother’s bully. Smith said that the mother of the brothers had been told, by the school’s administrators, to not send her 14-year-old child to school.
“He wasn’t suspended,” Smith quickly clarifies, “But they told her not to send him to school for safety reasons, because now [his older brother] is not there - he’s not there to protect him.”
While the middle schooler was not, technically, suspended, Smith said that the younger boy has missed several days of school since he was cautioned to not go to school for his own safety.
The middle schooler is, Smith says, frightened. “He’s a 14-year-old with an 18-year-old in his face.”
Following the latest, pre-Thanksgiving suspension of the older brother, Smith says that both boys had returned to school and were on campus on Friday, Dec. 6 - the date of when the fight at Jefferson Somerset broke out.
While Smith was not an eyewitness to the fight itself, she did describe a student-filmed video that had been taken of the fight and referenced what had been shown in the video.
According to Smith, the fight took place outside the cafeteria (although other sources claim that the fight took place in the gym). In the video, Smith says that viewers can see the bully being followed by ‘a gang of boys’ behind him. The older brother is approaching from the opposite direction. “The security [guard] purposely blocks him. It’s like they knew that something was about to happen because there were three security guards out there.”
She says that the video then shows the bully attack the younger brother, beginning the fight.
“You see a gang of young men surround [the older brother],” says Smith, adding that as the older brother sees his little brother being involved in the fight, he tries to get to his brother’s side.
“The security guard bumps him to keep him from going and [the bully] jumps [the older brother].”
When the older brother starts to defend himself, Smith says that the school’s SRO arrives, and tases the older brother. “Now, mind you, these young men have surrounded [the older brother], and [SRO] Bradley tases him. When [the older brother] falls to the ground, do you know what the adults did? Nothing,” states Smith. “No adult in that facility did a thing. Nobody did a thing.”
Smith adds that the mother of the two brothers was never contacted by the school regarding her sons being involved in a fight - she was instead informed when students began to release the information of the fight.
Smith declared that when the brothers’ mother arrived, she was barred entry from the school, even when she learned that her oldest son was being taken to jail and wouldn’t be provided with on-scene medical attention following his tasing (this statement has not been supported by an arrest report - so ECB Publishing cannot verify the arrest or conjectured lack of care).
“A child is getting bullied and no adult is doing anything about it,” concluded Smith to the room of appalled board members. “This is ridiculous. If you send your children to school to learn, you don’t want them to be bullied, be afraid and get in fights to defend themselves because there is no adult there to take care of them.”
In her final statements, Smith said that she is trying to get the two brothers moved to an out-of-county school and advised the other parents in the room to consider removing their children from Jefferson Somerset as well.
Superintendent Marianne Arbulu confirmed that she had been notified of the fight, tasing and student arrest that had taken place on Friday, Dec. 6 - but the information was hardly forthcoming from the school itself.
As of the school board meeting on Monday, however, the district had yet to be given an official statement from Jefferson Somerset on what had occurred on Dec. 6, and Arbulu’s attempts to contact the school’s administrators for answers had been ignored.
“We can’t continue like this,” stated Superintendent Arbulu - referencing a history of the school district’s difficulty in getting in touch with the school administrative staff.
Ms. Parrish returned to the podium to agree with Arbulu on the difficulty that the school board and parents faced when contacting Somerset’s school leaders.
“The principal is barely there; anytime you ask to speak with him, he’s not there,” said Parrish, adding that she went to speak with the school in reference to her own child’s treatment and had to wait several hours to meet even with someone regarding the matter.
“What are they doing out there?” Parrish questioned.
School Board Chairperson Bill Brumfield brought up the matter of the district’s elevated expulsion rate. While the Somerset charter may expel a student, the official expulsion still has to be conducted through a private hearing with the school district. As such, the school board sees every expulsion that takes place in the county’s public school system.
“I’ve seen more expulsions since they’ve been here then I’ve seen in my years with the Jefferson County School Board,” declared Brumfield.
School Board member Shirley Washington, who has long issued objections to Somerset’s operations, stated her own concerns regarding the issues placed before the board.
“Sitting here, listening to these parents say what they have said...are we going to wait until something happens to our children? Are we going to wait until someone gets killed? Or drastically hurt?” Washington continued: “These were our children before Somerset came, and when Somerset leaves, they are still going to be our children.”
Washington also accused the school of racist prejudices when it comes to dealing with Jefferson County’s black student population.
“When Somerset was coming into this county, the powerpoint that we saw, I didn’t see children who looked like us. Every once in awhile, here and there, you might see a black student,” said Washington. “I wondered then, how could they deal with our children when they had never dealt with them before?”
“All of the administrators who we had in this county, that had been dealing with our children - fired,” continued Washington, stating that Somerset had brought its own administrators from South Florida, people that Washington said had ‘no experience dealing with our children.’ “I am definitely concerned about it. These are our children.”
She also referenced how the children of Jefferson Somerset’s leadership staff attended schools in Tallahassee. “If this system is so good, then you shouldn’t mind sending your child to school here.”
According to Brumfield, the school board has no plans to let the matter rest.
“I want you to get ahold of the state,” Brumfield said to Superintendent Arbulu. “And I think we need to have an investigation to see what happened. We want an investigation; this has happened too often.”
School Board member Gladys Roann-Watson also encouraged parents to take their own action on the matter, stating that parents needed to form a coalition and issue their own signed statement, which the school district could present to the state on the parents’ behalf.
“We’re not going to let this matter die without doing something about it,” concluded Brumfield.
ECB Publishing, Inc. contacted the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office regarding the altercation at Jefferson Somerset.
“We are currently investigating the use of force as well as the incident itself,” said Sheriff McNeill on Wednesday, Dec. 11. While the sheriff’s office is looking into last week’s fight at Jefferson Somerset, McNeill advised that his agency is limited to what information they could release to the public due to the involvement of juveniles in the case.