Officials investigate ‘non-credible’ threat at high school; Board explores ways to improve teacher morale

Harrisonburg High School. (File photo)

By Haley Thomas, contributor

School officials and police determined that a threat of a student bringing a gun to Harrisonburg High School on Tuesday morning was “non-credible,” but not before it caused “disruption”and “nervousness,” Superintendent Michael Richards said.

Richards told The Citizen that the threat — a claim that someone would bring a gun to school that day — came from a student in a chat room. The message itself, he said, hasn’t been released. District officials got word of the threat early Tuesday morning and began investigating immediately alongside the Harrisonburg Police Department, with each conducting respective threat assessments. 

After police and school officials determined the threat wasn’t credible and the school day began, someone reported the same threat again, which prompted officials to re-investigate. They put the school on a soft-lockdown — continuing instruction, but not allowing students to leave their respective classrooms until safety is assured — as a precaution until they could be sure it was the threat that was already deemed non-credible and not a new one, Richards said. Looking into it a second time delayed the school system from announcing the threat because Richards said school officials and police needed “all the facts” before releasing anything to the community. 

The school day carried on as usual once the threat was determined to be false. 

Police Chief Kelley Warner told school officials that specifics, including potential charges against the student, cannot be disclosed yet, Richards said in an interview with The Citizen.

“It’s very important that we all help children understand that threats, even when they’re joking, are taken very seriously,” Richards said during the meeting. “In the world we live in, if we don’t take a threat seriously, the consequences of that can be quite dire.”

Richards said the Jan. 6 shooting of teacher Abby Zwerner, a James Madison University alumna, has been “weighing on” the community. A 6-year-old student is accused of shooting Zwerner. Richards reminded board members that school safety is an issue that needs constant revisiting.

Tuesday’s incident was a reminder of that, but Richards said everyone who responded rose to meet the challenge. 

“Our staff were wonderful, HPD was fantastic,” Richards said.

District aims to help improve teacher morale

In response to teachers’ growing concerns over their workloads and other frustrations, school officials outlined six potential solutions to build teacher and staff morale. 

That  has been a recurring topic throughout the past several school board meetings. The consensus: HCPS teachers are drowning.

Richards invited four teachers from across the city to the board’s work session Tuesday to discuss potential solutions to this nationwide issue. At their Jan. 3 meeting, board member Kristen Loflin requested dinner be provided for the teachers. The four teachers, representing hundreds of staff members, were greeted with fresh pizza, chips and soda.

Richards prefaced the meeting by explaining that the pandemic amplified teachers’ stress. Teachers “faced new responsibilities on the turn of a dime,” Richards said, and they had to adapt to “a different world” they’d never been prepared for. 

“We take ownership, as administration, for the things we’ve done to increase stress,” Richards said.

The district surveyed teachers and staff and held 35 focus groups with hundreds of participants across school campuses over several months to gather data on teacher morale, each giving staff the opportunity to provide specific feedback and personal experiences. 

Using both the qualitative and quantitative data, district officials focused on six ways to address morale issues: 

  1. With input from teachers, revisit daily/weekly use of time 
  2. Hire additional permanent substitutes
  3. Designate workdays for uninterrupted planning (unencumbered workdays)
  4. Provide additional student behavior support 
  5. Enhance additional teacher support
  6. Redesign professional development 

Hannah Mast, a 4th-grade teacher at Smithland Elementary, said she was passionate about the first solution. 

She said teachers frequently get pulled away from planning time to attend meetings and professional development.

While the first solution doesn’t necessarily directly affect the district’s budget, Richards said hiring more permanent employees has a cost — but would help teachers make better use of their time. Permanent substitutes — currently one in each elementary school, but none in the middle schools or Harrisonburg High School — are not only meant to fill in for teachers when needed, but are more of what Richards called a “hybrid position” that would also help at the bus loop, on the playground and when a teacher simply needs a break.

Daniel Upton, Harrisonburg High School band director, said this would take weight off teachers’ backs. He said teachers frequently must scrounge to find coverage for classrooms minutes before students arrive. He added that support staff is being pulled for the elementary schools, but not the middle schools or Harrisonburg High School.

“If we pulled anyone out of the position they’re in, the place would fall apart,” Upton said, adding that multiple permanent substitute positions would be ideal.

Mast agreed and said it took her two-and-a-half hours to write plans for her substitute Tuesday. Richards said he knows several teachers who’ve brought up the same issue and said a program for substitutes could be implemented to make the planning aspect easier on teachers.

Don Vale, principal of Thomas Harrison Middle School where Tuesday’s work session was held, said they have more substitutes than ever before, “but it’s still not enough.”

As for the third solution,1st-grade Waterman Elementary School teacher Tracey Hite said “unencumbered workdays” should be used for planning but typically include meetings and other requirements for teachers. She said teachers need this time to be “truly unencumbered” so they don’t have to bring hours of work home. Hite used report cards as an example, explaining that these take at least a full day to complete.

Jessica Wszalek, a preschool teacher assistant at Elon Roads Early Learning Center, said she’s seen an increase in behavioral issues recently and spoke in support of the fourth solution.

“Sometimes there’s just not enough help to go around,” Wszalek said, adding that each student deserves one-on-one support. “It would be helpful to have additional behavior support available to us.”

Mast tied the fifth solution into the fourth, saying that more behavioral and instructional support would greatly benefit teachers, especially at the beginning of the school year when children are learning what it means to be in a classroom setting. 

Board chair Deb Fitzgerald brought up the popular meme that teases work meetings that “could’ve been an email,” prompting a laugh from the teachers while discussing the sixth solution. The four teachers said they agreed with Fitzgerald’s statement that professional development could be “shorter, more targeted, and more flexible.”

Mast thanked the board for having the opportunity to share their concerns and comment on the district’s solutions, but said she wanted to emphasize the urgency of these issues.

“We’re struggling and we need some changes,” Mast said. “We need them quickly, and we need them to be drastic…our students’ needs are very, very high. And if we’re gonna meet those needs, we need our needs met as well.”

Richards said the district partnered with EAB, a national company that provides education technology, services and research. The national narrative that arose during the pandemic was that teachers were underappreciated, prompting the company to take in a cohort of schools that wanted to improve teacher morale and provide them with a system to do so. 

Richards and April Howard, chief officer for student support, traveled to Washington, D.C., last summer to learn about the company and has been following EAB’s system since September. 

District officials first distributed a staff morale survey in the fall to identify key areas that need to be addressed. 

The survey received a 54% response rate. Many questions asked respondents to say whether they agreed or disagreed with certain statements. 

The responses revealed that many employees didn’t feel recognized for doing their job well nor did they feel they have manageable workloads. Others reported that they didn’t feel that district leaders recognized their excellent work or valued their opinions.  

Howard and Chief Academic Officer Joy Blosser said those results showed that they need to first address teachers’ concerns about a lack of recognition and their crunch of time and resources. 

The majority of respondents indicated that they felt they are consistently treated fairly by colleagues and school leaders and possess the skills needed for their profession. The problem, the four teachers agreed, isn’t a lack of confidence but a lack of recognition.

Richards said he understands this means more than “simply saying ‘we recognize you,’” but instead showing appreciation by making teachers’ work more manageable. The four teachers nodded enthusiastically to his comment.

Board member Kaylene Seigle said such solutions are “long overdue.”

“I hope that you felt freedom to voice your concerns, because you’re not the only ones,” she told the teachers, who smiled and nodded in response.

Richards said an email that includes the six solutions will be sent to all district staff now that he’s met with Mast, Upton, Hite and Wszalek.

“We take morale very seriously because we want to keep you and we want to get more of you, and we can’t do that if we don’t adjust morale issues,” Richards said. “So we’re facing it head-on.”

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