Our View: Misplaced priorities at ACPS

Our View: Misplaced priorities at ACPS
(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Circling the wagons is one of the oldest defensive tactics in existence. It originally referred to Americans moving west in the 1800s who would position their wagons in a circle for protection. It means “to gather a group of people together in order to protect them from being attacked,” according to Merriam-Webster.

The phrase is now usually used figuratively, but there’s little doubt that if Alexandria City Public Schools, the School Board, City Council and Mayor Justin Wilson actually owned wagons, they’d form a perfect 360 right now.

For those unfamiliar with events of the past week, on March 18, the conservative publication National Review broke a story, based on emails and text exchanges obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, proving that ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., the School Board, Wilson and City Council failed to notify parents that an alleged sexual assault took place at the Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School on Oct. 6, 2021.

A more recent defensive tactic, that was perhaps originated by 1960s activists, is to impugn the messenger when the facts of a situation are aligned against you. Thus, Wilson referred to National Review as a “fringe” publication, while not disputing the facts of the story, in a Facebook post that accompanied a city statement responding to the story.

National Review, founded almost 70 years ago by William F. Buckley, Jr., has been at the forefront of the American conservative movement since then and has significantly influenced several U.S. presidents as well as domestic and world events. One may legitimately disagree with their perspective, but it’s silly to attempt to smear them with the label “fringe.”

That an incident took place at Minnie Howard on Oct. 6 is beyond dispute. The city confirmed the incident and that charges of three violent felonies – aggravated sexual battery, rape and forcible sodomy – were filed against a 14-year-old suspect. Acting Police Chief Don Hayes confirmed that APD was investigating a potential sexual assault from Oct. 6 in an email exchange with a frustrated parent three days later. The parent was concerned at the lack of information from ACPS. See Times page 1 story, “Alleged sexual assault comes to light,” for more information.

The fact that ACPS did not immediately notify Minnie Howard parents of this incident is simply unacceptable. The school system is attempting to hide behind the bland statement that “it followed its protocols,” when in fact it did not. Those protocols, according to ACPS Spokesperson Julia Burgos, include “ … inform[ing] all parents at a school campus, in consultation with police, when there is a possible threat to campus safety.”

Unbelievably, in an email to ACHS parents on Oct. 6 about a separate dangerous incident – this one involving a student bringing a loaded handgun onto the main ACHS campus – Principal Peter Balas said: “The safety and security of our Titan students and staff are a top priority. Please be assured that all information provided to us on such matters is taken seriously and that we will continue to be purposeful and persistent in our approaches to school safety.”

So ACPS determined that alerting parents to a resolved situation involving a gun had been a threat to campus safety, but an alleged sexual assault by multiple students on one student was not? In the incident Balas notified parents of, no one was injured. In the incident that remained under wraps prior to the NR story, other than a brief mention at a March 2022 School Board meeting after the fact, the alleged victim was hospitalized. Both endangered campus security.

And Hutchings’ response was not to apologize for ACPS’ lack of transparency, order a review of his system’s communications protocols or detail how he plans to enhance school security. Instead, he doubled down on the defensive posture by telling the elected School Board – his bosses – that they are discouraged from speaking to the media without approval from the school public information officer.

ACPS does many wonderful things. Unfortunately, this pattern of obfuscation, censorship by PIO and defensiveness tarnishes those achievements. Parents want their children to be safe in school, and they deserve to be told when that’s not the case.