Threats, furries and drug testing: Spotsylvania School Board addresses members’ concerns

by | Jun 12, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania

Spotsylvania County School Board Chair Lorita Daniels ordered a threat assessment of the administrative offices after two board members emailed her expressing safety concerns at meetings.  

Daniels requested that Jeremy Siefker, director of safety for Spotsylvania County Public Schools, conduct a thorough threat assessment after Berkeley District representative April Gillespie and Lisa Phelps of the Lee Hill District claimed to be targets of intimidation. 

Phelps filed an assault and battery complaint against Battlefield District representative Nicole Cole after a May 20 meeting in which she alleged Cole slammed a door into her shoulder and extended her leg causing her to stumble. 

Cole was arraigned in Spotsylvania General District Court last Wednesday on a misdemeanor assault and battery charge, and the case will go to trial July 1. Cole and Courtland District board member Carol Medawar both denied that an assault took place. 

“If anybody in the community is feeling unsafe or on this board that is feeling unsafe, we have deputies in the back of the room,” Daniels said. “I would ask that you seek their assistance because they are formally trained to handle any safety concerns that are here in this room … The tension has been brought to my attention, and, as board chair, I have to address it.” 

Gillespie, however, said she does not trust some of the county’s deputies who served in the building because she witnessed them treating community members and other board members unfairly. 

“So why would I go to an officer saying I do not feel comfortable here, that I know my safety is at risk?” she said. 

Gillespie said her discomfort extends into the community. She said she declined to participate in a board retreat that would have been hours away from home because of safety concerns. She said someone followed her in the grocery store and on her way to board meetings. She said she switched vehicles with other family members so that whoever was following her would be thrown off track. 

Gillespie said her hope with the emails is that Daniels could help implement safety protocols. However, she said a threat assessment — a systematic process designed to identify and manage potentially dangerous or violent situations — may not be enough because it includes asking others about safety concerns. 

“What’s happening to you may not be happening to them so they may not understand,” Gillespie said. 

Gillespie added that she has questions about Siefker conducting the assessment because she claims he was unresponsive regarding other issues she raised. 

Gillespie cited the example of a motion she made at Monday’s meeting to edit the code of conduct to ban “furries” — or students dressing up as animals in schools. The board voted 5-2 not to add the ban to the revised code of conduct, with Gillespie and Phelps voting for the restriction. 

Gillespie said she sent Siefker evidence of the furries. But Siefker said he has not received any reports from school administrators about students dressed as furries disrupting instruction or causing harm. He said if the trend becomes a major distraction it could fall under the dress code, which calls for students not to wear any clothing that disrupts the learning environment. 

“Absent that, it may not be a violation,” Siefker said. 

The board voted 5-2 to approve Phelps’ motion to request Interim Superintendent Kelly Guempel and his staff come to the August meeting with data showing how many employees went through the Employee Assistance Program for drug treatment or were terminated for drug use. The motion also included a cost analysis on implementing initial and random drug testing for any employee who comes in contact with children as well as developing a creative anti-drug campaign. 

The motion comes on the heels of a Spotswood Elementary School teacher being arrested and accused of having narcotics in her second-grade classroom. Guempel explored the cost of initial drug screenings upon hiring and random drug testing in the school division. He said it would cost $91,000 for the division’s 3,500 employees. The cost would go down with either initial or random testing. School bus drivers and others with a commercial driver’s license are currently tested initially and randomly. 

Guempel said he is not sold that drug testing is the best strategy to combat substance abuse in schools. Cole and Medawar voted against Phelps’ motion, with Medawar stating that drug testing would be reactionary to an issue that does not appear to be rampant. 

In addition to approving a revised code of conduct and the exploration of drug testing, the board voted to finalize approval of revised policies on instructional materials and school libraries/media centers. 

The new policy states that a current list of instructional materials with sexually explicit content by grade and subject matter will be maintained on the SCPS website. Parents can opt their children out of any parts of the curriculum with sexually explicit material, and the school will provide an alternative lesson plan.  

The library policy mentions that the school division maintains a library media center to promote the intellectual, cultural, social and personal development of the student body and staff, and that media specialists are responsible for maintaining a comprehensive collection of resources and equipment in accordance with the board policy and established regulations supporting general interest, literacy and curriculum standards. 

The meeting ended abruptly when Cole motioned to adjourn after Gillespie and Phelps questioned Guempel about the 37 library books that former Superintendent Mark Taylor removed on two separate occasions in 2023. Guempel told the board that all the books were returned to the schools after the board reversed the ban at its Jan. 8 meeting. 

Phelps and Gillespie were dismayed by that response, with Phelps suggesting that funding from the board of supervisors is tied to the removal of the books. 

“The porn books are back,” Phelps said. “So, good luck at getting funding.” 

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