Martina Boone, chairwoman of the Prince William County Parents Executive Committee, keeps in touch with more than 100 parents in the county's western end. Many of them say that their chief complaint about the school system is not the quality of instruction, she said.
Instead, the top issue for many parents is how their children are bullied or sexually harassed, and what school officials do to deal with the incidents effectively and fairly, she said. In recent months, Boone and other parents have helped prod Prince William County School Board members to examine the discipline procedures to see where improvements might be made.
Last week, the School Board agreed to form a committee of community members to scrutinize the school system's guidelines on student behavior, board members said. The committee is supposed to make recommendations for change to the School Board, but so far the focus and precise makeup of the committee are still being debated.
Bullying has become a major flash point in Prince William County, particularly in the Gainesville area, where, on the final day of school last year, a 12-year-old boy sneaked a loaded rifle into Bull Run Middle School and threatened to shoot people. His parents and police said the boy had been incessantly teased because of his weight and clothes.
No one was injured in that incident, which galvanized the community, especially Bull Run parents such as Boone, and gave people a sense of urgency to solve what they view as a growing problem in the county's school system.
School Board member Milton C. Johns (Brentsville) said he had proposed that the discipline committee should begin meeting this month and report back to board members in September, telling them which guidelines should be improved, added or deleted.
Other board members disagreed with that approach, said School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large). Instead, board members last week merely approved the concept of the committee and will hold a workshop this summer to determine how it will be made up and what issues it will examine.
If the initial proposal had been approved, Beauchamp said, the committee could have selected certain issues that are not priorities for the School Board or school system's staff.
Beauchamp said that other board members also thought the proposed committee -- 30 people picked by board members, the superintendent, two teacher representative groups and a special education advisory council -- was simply too large to get any work done, particularly over the summer, when many people are on vacation. She said the committee needs to have staff members who can be on hand to provide relevant school data or research.
"Maybe the issue [that the School Board cares most about] is parental responsibilities," Beauchamp said. "But if the committee comes back and says that's not what they want to look at it, but that's a big thing for School Board members, then it sets up that possibility" for a confrontation.
Johns said he simply wanted as much feedback from the public as possible, even if it differed from board members' priorities. He stressed that the committee is designed simply to take a "fresh, global look" and that "there's no presumption that anything needs improvement."
"I would like to be able to defer to the committee as much as possible as to what they would like to review," he said.
Boone said she would like the committee to make the code of behavior more readable so that students and parents can more easily understand the rules, and the consequences for breaking them. She said the school system needs to adopt stricter rules that would require officials to alert parents quickly when their children have been involved in a bullying incident.
Teachers also need to be better investigators with students so they can figure out the details surrounding an incident quickly and accurately, Boone said.
"There is a pervasive attitude on the part of teachers and administrators that they are educators, not enforcers," Boone said. "What I have heard multiple times is that they don't ask leading questions . . . and what you get in most of these cases is the tip of the iceberg."