Time to End Painful Saga

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. I have read the public commentary about my family and I 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.

If I speak up as a Howard County public school system 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 residents and teachers in this newspaper, I again will be accused by some of using my position for personal gain. And although I can endure this as a public official, the pain and frustration I feel as a parent is something no parent or family 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 Howard County schools 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 the Family Education Rights Privacy Act 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 Howard County schools 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 that without fear of retaliation from those very teachers?

As a teacher, principal and school system administrator in this region for more than two decades, I have fiercely defended these rights. Yet, when my husband and I, as parents, chose to exercise these very 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 very 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 very 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 Howard County school policies.

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

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 Howard County schools 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 Howard County schools 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 members 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 Howard County schools should be deeply concerned about this. This issue strikes at the very heart of the bond among 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, 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 Howard County Board of Education, 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 that was the case 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. 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

Chief Academic Officer

Howard County Public Schools