‘Uncomfortable and unsafe’: Alexandria City High School teacher alleges harassment

‘Uncomfortable and unsafe’: Alexandria City High School teacher alleges harassment
An excerpt of Matthew Henry's letter to the Alexandria City Public School Board. (Letter/Matthew Henry)

By Brianne McConnell

“Uncomfortable and unsafe” are words one Alexandria City High School teacher is using to describe recent interactions he said he’s had with students in what he calls the “nightmare” halls of the high school.

In a letter written to the Alexandria School Board, Matthew Henry, Ph.D., an English teacher at ACHS, said this year he’s been verbally and physically threatened by students while inside the school.

In the letter, Henry, who is gay, described two incidents since November during which a group of students have used derogatory language toward him while he was directing students in the hallways to class.

Henry said in another instance he was physically threatened by a student.

“I never thought that I would have to defend myself at my place of employment, defend myself from the very people I have been called to educate, protect and serve,” Henry stated in his letter to the School Board. “I, and other staff and students, should not be made to feel unsafe, through verbal or physical assault or threat thereof, at a place of employment and education.”

Henry said during one interaction he tried to use what he called “the teachable moment strategy,” but said the situation quickly grew dangerous as he was surrounded by this group of students who continued to direct a derogatory term at him.

An ACHS parent, who requested anonymity to protect their child, spoke to the Times for this story and will be referred to as “Tom.”

“Every parent should be angry; anyone who hears this should be angry. It’s just completely unacceptable,” Tom said.

Tom, who said his child was once a student in Henry’s class, said hearing about ongoing behavior like this toward a teacher – who has more than a decade of experience at the city’s high school – makes him sick.

“If we can’t even protect or make a teacher who’s been there as long as Henry feel safe, how can we make a child feel safe?” Tom said. “It’s just unacceptable.”

Henry, who declined to speak with the Times for this story, but instead referred us back to his letter, said his goal in speaking out is to try to affect positive changes within the school community, not only for teachers but for students as well.

In the letter, Henry said he’s always been a defender, and that his instinct is to “defend both myself and others especially LGBTQ+ students, in all aspects of my life.”

“I’m not allowed to defend myself in these incidents – incidents that had they happened anywhere off campus, a nearby town, a street in another city or a street in this city, I most certainly would be prepared to defend myself,” Henry wrote.

Henry said something needs to be done. In his letter, he said he feels like his school and district is letting him down, calling the actions taken by campus leaders “unsatisfactory.”

It’s unclear exactly when school administrators were first made aware of the incidents that Henry describes.

The Times reached out to the Education Association of Alexandria, the union representing teachers, but had not heard back by our print deadline. We also reached out to school leaders, asking whether or not they had previously known about these claims and if any actions were taken. We received an emailed response from Julia Burgos, ACPS chief of school and community relations.

“We are dedicated to creating a safe and welcoming environment for all students, staff, visitors and members of our school community. To that end, we place a strong emphasis on adherence to our Student Code of Conduct with our students. When we are made aware of matters that do not align with our code of conduct, we address them and take appropriate action with those students as warranted,” the statement from Burgos read.

Tom, who has had children in ACPS schools for years, said groups of students being disruptive and hanging out in the hallways at ACHS has been an ongoing problem, but that there doesn’t seem to be sufficient resources to handle the issue.

In his letter to school leaders, Henry lamented ACHS’ handling of chronically troublesome students.

“We’ve seemingly created a safe space for aggressive kids who don’t want to be in a classroom and who have chosen not to participate in their education,” Henry said in his letter. This sentiment has been echoed by numerous parents on private education-related Facebook pages in Alexandria.

Tom criticized the lip service that school leaders pay to issues like equity.

“If they believe in restorative justice, send [troublesome students to] ‘A Chance for Change’ and get someone who can teach them and help these students understand that what they are saying is hurtful,” Tom said.

A Chance for Change Academy is an alternative education facility within ACPS. According to the ACPS website, the Academy attempts to help with behavior modification.

“The Academy will equip students with the tools to manage their behavior and identify necessary resources needed to improve their academic achievement,” the website reads.

Students may attend the Chance for Change Academy for the following reasons: Recommendation from a disciplinary hearing, the transition from a non-ACPS facility or parent request. It’s unclear if the student behavior Henry describes would qualify a student for the program.