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Parents riled by classroom visit rule

Petition being circulated

POSTED: August 11, 2012 8:30 a.m.

Local parent Kristina Barnard is putting her school civics lessons to use with an online petition requesting that the Liberty County Board of Education change its new visitor policy.
“I think they’re building a wall between teachers and parents, and that’s just going to cause more conflict rather than solving the conflict,” Barnard said.  
Barnard, whose daughter is in first grade at Joseph Martin Elementary, started the petition Tuesday morning after realizing that she was not alone in her frustration about the policy that prohibits her from walking her daughter to class.
“Right now, we’re at an average of, every 10 minutes, somebody is signing it,” Barnard said Thursday morning. By 4 p.m. Thursday, 300 people had signed the petition.
She plans to address the BoE on Tuesday night and will use the petition to show that parents have galvanized over the issue.
While she has not yet thought of an alternative, Barnard hopes to bring discussion to the forefront.
The policy, adopted in May, requires 24 hours notice for campus visitation requests and that visitors have an administrative escort. Parents are allowed one 20-minute observation per semester unless federal regulations require different procedures.
At first, Barnard said, her frustration was only about not being able to walk her child to school.
“I was told that it was discouraged because they need to develop independence — my daughter’s very independent,” she said. “It really gave me the opportunity to learn more about my daughter’s life outside of the house. Even though we look at a 6-year-old and we may not think they have that much of a life outside of home, it’s amazing how much they do.”
Since she created the petition, more than 10 people have shared stories with Barnard that demonstrate the need for classroom transparency.
 “I’m not saying this is with all teachers, … but some of these stories, I’m astonished,” she said. “If we aren’t allowed to enter the school and walk our children to class, then some of those go unnoticed — it kind of blocks the parent out to where we don’t see anything that goes on in the school.”  
When Deputy Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Conley presented the policy before the board in May, she said it came on recommendation from the Georgia Emergency Management Association.
GEMA spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan said the organization’s school safety coordinators conduct site assessments and make recommendations for areas that may need attention, but they do not come up with policy specifics.
“When [the regional school safety coordinator] was doing the site surveys in Liberty County, it became apparent that every school was handling it differently as to how adults were in the building … Our recommendation is that a school should know what adults are in the building and where they are,” Paulk-Buchanan said.
When asked this week about how the policy specifics were determined, Conley did not elaborate. She said she has heard from those opposed to the policy and from teachers and administrators who feel safer because everyone in the building has been accounted for.  
“Safety is a driving force in this decision. …,” Conley said. “We prefer to take the proper precautions, and our focus is on the safety of the students.  I prefer that they be upset because we are overly cautious and not because we failed to take proper precautions and something happened to one of our students or staff members.”
Neighboring counties address the issue with varying policies, though of those the Courier reached by press time, none enforced the 24-hour notice rule or limited parents’ observations.
Effingham County Schools require visitors to sign in and wear a visitor’s badge and are allowed to visit only the areas requested, according to the handbook posted online.
The Bulloch County Schools handbook states that any person entering the school campus or any school building who is not a student or employee must check in at the principal’s office, explain the reason for the visit, sign a registry and get a pass. The policy also stipulates that an administrator may ask a visitor to explain his or her presence at any time regardless of registration.
Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools also require visitors to register with the main office, sign a log and wear a visitor’s tag for identification, according to a policy provided by Public Information Manager Kurt Hetager.
Tim Byler, another parent opposed to the policy, said he may have been part of the impetus for the change after a staff member saw him lingering outside of his child’s classroom to get a candid glimpse.
“My purpose for lingering there was not to try and determine what the teacher was doing correctly or incorrectly, but to be able to have a talk with my son about how he’s interpreting what she’s doing …,” he said. “I was informed that that was not going to be the policy at the school, that the teacher needs to be made aware that I was there.”
While Byler agrees that teachers deserve the benefit of the doubt, he said he’s more apt to trust a system with an open-door policy.
“Not given the opportunity to see for myself what’s going on, I’m going to side with my kid,” he said.

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