Debate over observation policy leads to heated exchange at Spotsylvania School Board meeting

by | Mar 5, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania

A heated debate over parental rights led to one Spotsylvania County School Board member walking out of Monday night’s meeting before a vote could take place on a change in policy regarding classroom observations. 

The board voted, 4-0, to support the revised policy on first reading. The matter will be brought back to the board for a second reading and final approval. 

Battlefield District representative Nicole Cole was absent from the meeting and Lee Hill District representative Lisa Phelps departed early. 

But April Gillespie of the Berkeley District left hastily after an argument with Livingston District board member Megan Jackson. 

Gillespie was upset about the change in policy on visitors. The revision, which was introduced by the administration states: “Classroom observations are prohibited unless arranged in advance with a building principal designee. Observations must not disrupt instruction and must be of a short duration.” 

“As a parent when I look at this, if my son, Johnny, is having problems in his classroom, whether he’s saying his teacher is mistreating him or he doesn’t want to show up to class and I just want to duck in and see what’s going on, now I can’t,” Gillespie said. “Now I have to make an appointment, and somebody knows I’m coming. So, they’re probably going to act a little different. As a parent, I don’t agree with that. We should have full rights to the schools. We’re taxpayers.” 

Spotsylvania school officials said the proposed revision is in line with surrounding counties, and it is not intended to limit parents. Instead, they say it protects students and provides guidelines for third-party agencies who are observing children to determine their social and educational needs. 

Officials said that currently, notice must be given for a parent to observe a child’s classroom and that the policy is providing an avenue to enforce what is already in place. 

“We live in a time when student safety is of utmost importance, and I do think we just cannot have anybody walking in and demanding to go see a classroom without some heads up for the building leaders,” Courtland District representative Carol Medawar said. 

Board Chair Lorita Daniels suggested changing “observations are prohibited unless arranged in advance” to “shall be arranged in advance” for the next reading and Phelps recommended a set time limit rather than “short duration” before she exited the meeting. 

Gillespie said she cannot support the policy in any form. Staff noted that they receive three to five requests a month from parents or agencies to observe classrooms. 

“Not just anybody is asking to just walk into our schools,” Gillespie said. “These are parents that are making these requests, parents that are bringing the third-party agencies in. Last time I checked, parents weren’t a safety issue, and I don’t want to portray that to the public that parents are a possible safety concern. That’s an issue for me.” 

Gillespie said she was given a two-week waiting period by a former school administrator when she wanted to observe her son who she said was being bullied. She said her son eventually attempted suicide.  

Gillespie said she asked if she could shadow her son around the school without him knowing and was told she had to make an appointment. There is no set waiting period established in the revised policy. 

“I’m sorry. That’s my child,” Gillespie said. “If I want to see my child, I should be able to see my child.” 

The policy does not address lunchtime visits, which are permitted. Parents are also allowed to visit the office at any time and meet with their child. Other board members reminded Gillespie of that before the exchange grew more heated. 

Jackson told Gillespie that the policy is not a conspiracy theory to limit “parents’ rights,” which were a major issue in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. Jackson said the policy is strictly about safety and limiting distractions for students. She noted that, on her daughter’s first day of kindergarten in the county, she could not walk her into the building. 

“I’ve never been able to just duck into my child’s classroom,” Jackson said. “There’s a reason for that. We’re sitting here talking about student achievement and you said to look at it from a parent’s lens, I would say that parents should look at it from an educator’s lens. We can’t have people just popping up when they want to see what their kids are doing in the classroom.” 

Jackson’s words angered Gillespie, who accused the first-year board member of reducing her family’s experience to a conspiracy theory. Daniels eventually called for a five-minute recess to allow Jackson and Gillespie to calm down. They continued to quarrel during the recess, after which Gillespie accused the school division of “targeting” her son. 

“What I am saying is that not everybody is out to get you,” Jackson said. “Not everybody is trying to block and silence parents.” 

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