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Letters to the Editor

Statham seeks end to controversy

As I have lived through the nightmare of the past seven months, I have seen the best and worst of Howard County, the community where I have lived and raised a family for almost 20 years - but no longer can.

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I have read the public commentary about my family and me in these pages by those who are especially insightful, those who are well-meaning but misinformed, those who have political agendas, and those who are just plain ignorant.

Edmund Burke, the great English philosopher whose commentaries in the 1700s helped shape the concept of social justice we embrace today, once said, "An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, but impossible to be silent." This, too, has been my dilemma.

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If I speak up as a HCPSS parent to defend and advocate for my family and children, I will be accused by some of using my position for personal gain. Similarly, if as an official of this school system, I address publicly the issues raised by citizens and teachers in this newspaper, I again will be accused by some of using my position for personal gain. And while I can endure this as a public official, the pain and frustration I feel as a parent is something no parent or family in this or any county should ever have to face.

To speak out as a parent on what those of us involved in this case know to be the truth requires me to risk subjecting my children and their experiences in HCPSS to public view. I can think of no responsible parent who would ever place her children - children who have already suffered - in such a circumstance. In fact, the right of family privacy is considered so important in this country that federal law - The Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) - was enacted by Congress to protect it. While a small group of Howard County teachers have knowingly and willfully broken the very federal laws that they are required to protect, I simply will not allow my children to be violated again.

What saddens me most as an official of this school system is that the public discourse about my case has missed the fundamental point: Do all parents in HCPSS have the right to question and challenge what they believe to be deficient performance on the part of their children's teachers? And do they have the right to do this without fear of retaliation from those very teachers?

As a teacher, principal and school system administrator in this region for over two decades, I have fiercely defended these rights. Yet, when my husband and I, as parents, choose to exercise these same rights at parent-teacher conferences that we requested at our 11th-grade daughter's high school, we experienced the following:

(1) Immediately upon walking into our first conference, we and our daughter were needlessly and harshly ridiculed by a teacher who was callous, unprepared and behaved in a manner subsequently deemed "deplorable";

(2) At our next conference we were taken completely by surprise by a teacher who had failed to inform us, but had informed others, about an important academic issue that had occurred nearly two months earlier in a different marking period;

(3) When we informed the school's principal and sought to immediately resolve these issues and receive explanations, as is every parent's right, we were not provided due process as required by HCPSS policies;

(4) Inappropriate documents were placed in our daughter's school file without our knowledge or consent in direct violation of state laws and HCPSS policies that govern the management of student records; and

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(5) Because we dared to challenge two of our daughter's seven teachers, we were retaliated against by a small band of disgruntled teachers who jointly prepared and circulated throughout HCPSS an anonymous and hate-laced e-mail revealing my daughter's name and confidential academic information about her.

This campaign of retaliation was so pervasive that these very individuals also illegally sent hard copies of the e-mail to schools throughout the county using the HCPSS mail system. Moreover, they included specific instructions directing school staff to post the e-mail in prominent places in those schools. Sadly, a number of staff in those schools complied in complete disregard of federal law and their moral obligation as teachers to protect children. All have gone unpunished.

What concerns me still, is that there are teachers who sit in silence, knowing full well who among their colleagues committed a federal offense and one of the worst abuses a teacher can commit against a child and her family.

All parents who send their children to HCPSS should be deeply concerned about this. This issue strikes at the very heart of the bond between schools, teachers and parents. Over my career, I have interacted with hundreds of parents who felt intimidated by their children's teachers and feared that if they complained about teacher misconduct or performance, their children would be retaliated against. I now know how legitimate these fears are. So, in all the posturing and innuendo and hating this case has unearthed, we cannot miss the point, or we will have all failed our children. Parents' and students' rights are threatened here. And it is up to each and every one of us to restore them.

And finally, so that the record remains straight, the Board of Education of Howard County, a group of five independent-minded elected officials - diverse in age, gender, background, race and ethnicity - unanimously came to a single conclusion about the anonymous and baseless accusations: They were without merit or factual basis. That should be of no surprise as it is often the case that allegations made by a band of individuals filled with hate and hiding behind the cloak of anonymity are, at best, specious. And it was the same here.

The board also found that the actions of former Superintendent John O'Rourke were "arbitrary and capricious." Despite recent efforts to redefine the board's official decision and opinion, there can be no question that the actions of the board and its members represented full and complete vindication. This means, by definition, that I was "cleared of accusation, blame, suspicion, or doubt with supporting arguments or proof." And it is also important that no school official anywhere ever confuse parental advocacy for disrespect - a topic I've become all too familiar with.

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It is time to end this painful and destructive saga by embracing and accepting the truth and confronting our fears - real and perceived. Our children demand that of us as parents and educators.

Kimberly A. Statham

Ellicott City

The writer is the former deputy superintendent of the Howard County school system.

How can Odoms find racist conspiracy?

I recently read an article in which Jenkins Odoms Jr. stated that the NAACP thinks there is a conspiracy in Howard County to ruin the careers of African Americans. I would like to respond to his accusations.

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NAACP President Jenkins Odoms Jr.'s statement that there was no grade change is misleading. According to the facts released by the Howard school board, Dr. Statham was found [to have used] her office to threaten a teacher during a discussion in which she asked for her relative's grade to be changed. In addition, sworn testimony was presented that Mr. Plunkett did try to get W's withdrawn from the transcript of Dr. Statham's relative. For whatever reasons, the BOE chose to believe Mr. Plunkett's version of events.

Mr. Odoms' point that there are two sides to every issue is well taken. The question in my mind is why neither Dr. Statham's or Mr. Plunkett's attorney cite the report from the investigation to help vindicate their clients? Why was it left to O'Rourke's attorney to enter the report? Let us not forget that it was Mr. O'Rourke who hired these administrators and who won the accolades of the NAACP in doing so. It seems disingenuous that Mr. Odoms is now saying that their demotion (by the same employer) was a conspiracy.

The board has repeatedly stated that based on the evidence provided, it made the only appropriate decision. However, I have yet to hear the board state that there was no wrong-doing. Dr. Statham may feel that she was exonerated but it is clear to me that she was not.

It seems to me that Mr. Odoms should be pleased. It is the taxpayers that funded this atrocity to the tune of $45,000 for an investigation, $20,000 for a hearing officer, more than $200,000 (combined) in annual salaries for the administrators, and various other legal fees that may not be pleased. I need help understanding how this constitutes a racist conspiracy!

Colleen Morris

Columbia


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