Belton BOE backlash over bullet

Special to the Democrat MissourianSeptember 20, 2013 

A bullet without a gun might seem inconsequential, but when it's found on the floor of a middle school classroom, the stakes suddenly get much higher.

After a student discovered a bullet on the floor at Yeokum Middle School on Sept. 9, she reported it to the teacher, who notified administration.

The Belton Police Department was called to the building. Along with school administrators and school resource officers, they conducted a threat assessment and monitored the hallways/common areas throughout the day. However, no gun was found, nor was a legitimate safety threat identified.

Three days later, concerned parents - many of whom found out about the incident on Facebook or on the evening news - filled the room at the Belton Board of Education meeting demanding answers as to why they weren't notified about this safety matter until Sept. 11. Tension was thick in the room as members of the audience anxiously awaited their opportunity to address the board - and, as Rebecca Edmonds’ put it, bring up the “elephant in the room.”

A parent of three children and a Belton alumni, Edmonds' main concern was not to bash the school district but rather to inquire about the delay in communication.

“My main question is, were you planning on addressing the parents once you had more information, or did you simply address the parents because it came out?” asked Edmonds.

According to Superintendent Andrew Underwood, who was out of town on school business in Jefferson City at the time of the discovery, he was not made aware of the situation until Wednesday afternoon - at which time a message did go out to parents.

“Obviously this was a communication error, we dropped the ball, and we are addressing that," he said. "I apologize that we did not share this information sooner. All of the steps were followed, but we did not communicate with everyone as we should have — and that responsibility falls on me."

Belton alum Elaine Garsow, a parent of a Yeokum Middle School student and a teacher in another district, commended Underwood for shouldering the blame and taking responsibility.

“As a fellow educator, I understand your hands are tied somewhat, and you were blindsided,” she said. “I have no qualms about sending my child to Yeokum, but this is not the first time parents have been neglected to be notified immediately when something like that happens. Can you put something in place so that we have a checks and balances system that ensures the right information will get to the parents at the appropriate time?”

Underwood reiterated that the proper protocol was in place; the problem stemmed from a breakdown in communication. Communication failure equals a failure for administration, said parent Teresa Cervantez, who noted that this is the third time she has addressed the board about a safety issue. "There are some serious problems as far as reporting and following protocol," she said. "You said we have protocol, but what good is it going to be if you don’t follow it? We are better than that. That is why we are all here demanding more out of you guys. We are not questioning the school's reputation, but as concerned parents we deserve to know why we were failed in the communication process."

Parent Brent Peterson expressed similar sentiments, expressing frustration with the fact that no lockdown was issued, and lockers were not searched on Monday.

“So, as far as you know, there could be a gun in someone's locker as we speak,” said Peterson, who pointed out several other similar occurrences around the country recently reported in the national news and said he feared the threat of possible copycat crimes.

Following the feedback session, Underwood assured parents that the situation would be dealt with swiftly and thoroughly from this point forward, including an immediate search of the school, discussions with students in that particular class, and, based on the evidence, a decision as to whether or not any further actions/investigation would be necessary.

“We did make a mistake, and we are not happy about it,” Board President John West said, adding that he found out about the incident on the news. “We put a lot of trust in our administration in doing the job right. Rest assured that the thing we are most concerned about in the district, above all, is the safety of our students.”

Receiving improvement plans from individual building principals, the board heard from Lance Miller, principal of BOSCO, first. He stressed the emphasis on the reading program and positive results of performing DRA tests on all students in grades 1 through 6. "As a behavior school, we kind of have a saying that we are trying to work ourselves out of a job," he said. "This is the first year we haven’t had a test thrown across the room. With tests come anxiety, and then the behaviors come out."

Fred Skretta, principal of Belton High School, discussed performance data, noting that it is a good sign the school continues to grow. “For the most part, we are outperforming the state averages,” he says. “We don’t know for sure what the Common Core will look like.”

They also voted in favor of a resolution that will recommend to the state board that the Kansas City School District be granted accreditation.

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