Gettysburg Area School District’s (GASD) nationally-recognized elementary school came under fire during a recent school board meeting with parents calling it a “prison” due to alleged lockdowns and an increased police presence.
GASD parents expressed dismay during last week’s school board meeting, alleging there is a lack of communication at James Gettys Elementary and the school “has taken such a drastic turn for the worst.”
Just a couple years ago, James Gettys Elementary became a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School for its success in closing the school’s achievement gap in three years, according to school officials. This recognition was received under different leadership.
“James Gettys used to be a school filled with love,” GASD parent Nicole Pritchard said. “You could feel it when you walked in the door.”
Pritchard and other parents indicated how the school now has an “uninviting” atmosphere.
“It is a different school when you walk in there,” said Valerie Andrews, another parent. “It is not what it used to be. I know things change. But it is true when you walk in there, you do not feel welcome.”
The parents pointed to alleged encounters with James Gettys Elementary School Principal Lisa Royek, who was hired in June 2018.
Pritchard, who said she has a biracial daughter, became emotional when talking about an incident with Royek supposedly making “questionable comments” regarding “a black boy that was in the front office,” she said.
“She asked him to repeat his name three times, and she couldn’t pronounce it. And on the third time when she could not pronounce it, she said ‘you people and your names,’” Pritchard said about Royek.
“With the climate that we live in, is that the ignorance we want to teach our children?” Pritchard said.
Pritchard did not say if she was there during the incident, and it was unclear how she obtained the information.
Andrews shared a time her son, who had a broken arm, held the door for Royek at the school. Royek allegedly bumped into him, and Andrews’ son almost fell over, she said.
Her son “did not know what to think” when Royek did not apologize for bumping into him or thank him for holding the door, according to Andrews.
Dawn Harvey, a lifelong resident of Gettysburg and a graduate of the district, also spoke out about this year being “a disaster.”
Harvey said she used to spend a lot of time volunteering at the school, so she knows how the staff feel.
“It absolutely breaks my heart to see what this year has done to them,” Harvey said. “They are exhausted, feel depleted, and emotionally drained.”
Harvey claimed James Gettys staff members “are absolutely miserable,” looking to transfer to another building or to find work at another district.
‘Juvenile detention center’
Along with these concerns, the parents noted how the fifth graders have been “on a constant lockdown” throughout the school year.
Harvey indicated teachers are told to take a pick-their-battles type approach with students, noting there has been an increased police presence.
Through her talks with administration, parents, and staff, Harvey said “the conversation has many times turned to the fact that the demographics for James Gettys have changed dramatically in the past few years.”
Harvey said she understands that change, but her concern stems from going from a nationally-recognized institution to a “mess in such a short time,” pointing to the past eight to nine months.
Harvey said several parents have called the school “a prison,” while Pritchard likened the building to “a juvenile detention center.”
GASD Spokesperson Andrew Robinson defended police presence saying officers and agencies stop at all buildings within the district as part of the Lunch with Law Enforcement Program.
“We have a great relationship with our local law enforcement officers, so most schools are visited several times a week,” Robinson said.
At the recent meeting, school board members read a letter from James Gettys staff.
In the letter, the staff say they “welcome the changes brought” by Royek this year.
“We recognize the changing dynamics and demographics in the Gettysburg Area School District and because of this, this year the school district is beginning to look at protocols for conduct and discipline, as well as positive behavioral recognition of students to make the policies consistent across all buildings within the school district. Mrs. Royek is very well read on current research and is at the forefront of introducing new teaching practices within the building to encourage positive behaviors and interactions,” the letter reads.
Royek has implemented new ideas such as “buddy classrooms, documenting of needs and techniques to help staff and students, and even created a calming down space within the building,” according to the letter. “We are confident in her abilities to lead our building through these changes.”
When asked what is being done to address parents’ concerns, Robinson said Royek is holding “small group parent discussions” that are not open to the public. Parents can sign-up in the office or call to join the list, in addition to attending Parent Teacher Organization meetings held the first Tuesday of every month, officials said.
“As always, we expect anyone with concerns to address them with the appropriate personnel or administrator. It is outlined in Board Policy 906, and beyond that, the most effective way to have a concern addressed,” Robinson said. “Issues are always best resolved by personnel as close to the situation as possible.”
The district has been enhancing “communication efforts” through its website and social media, according to Robinson.
“We also send information out from the district office via phone or email for appropriate district level notifications and often from individual schools as deemed appropriate by the administrator,” Robinson said.
During Harvey’s public comment, she was interrupted by GASD School Solicitor Robert McQuaide when talking about an “irate parent” who supposedly made “a verbal threat” and was permitted back in the school without any investigation or notification to parents.
“You are the third person to make that allegation,” McQuaide said. “What is your source of information and how do you know that those threats were made?”
Harvey said she personally talked to “several people” who were present during the alleged incident.
McQuaide asked for the source of information.
Harvey declined to give any names.
McQuaide questioned why she would not divulge the information.
“Because I don’t feel that it is fair to them. I am speaking from how I feel,” Harvey said, before getting interrupted a second time by McQuaide.
McQuaide claimed the incident “was fully investigated and is not as been represented.”
“There were no threats made to blow up the school or hurt anybody. That is just not true,” McQuaide said.
Harvey said she did not make that statement.