Rifle parents seek solutions to safety and racial issues
RIFLE – Parents voiced worries about student safety, communication and racial tensions Monday night at Rifle Middle School.The meeting came on the heels of a tumultuous week at the middle school and in Garfield Re-2 School District. Rifle Middle School principal Mark MacHale opened the meeting by explaining the two events that put parents and students on edge.On May 3, MacHale and vice principal Lara Disney sent letters home to parents to dispel rumors of an imminent Columbine-like attack at the school. The rumors started April 28, MacHale told the crowd of about 300 parents Monday. He and Disney thought the situation was under control and didn’t see a need to contact police or parents. But the rumors continued to circulate and grow.Another letter went home with students Friday. That letter invited parents to the Monday meeting and explained another disturbing event. Three eighth-grade Latino girls downloaded a chain letter off a Spanish-language Web site and distributed it to other students. The letter was titled “Five Horrible Ways To Die” and listed such things as being run over by a truck. If students didn’t pass the letter on, the letter threatened them with a terrible death.MacHale called the police Friday when the administration caught the girls, who were suspended. MacHale told parents he would recommend expulsion for the girls.’Parents have a right to know’Parents had an opportunity to voice their concerns in an open forum before adjourning to smaller groups to brainstorm concrete solutions to the problems they see at the school. In the forum, many parents said their children were afraid, and the parents were afraid for their children.Tina Dunlap, a seventh-grader and one of the only students present, held her hand high over her head until she had a chance to speak.”What I’m wondering from you,” Dunlap said, addressing the administration, “is how I’m supposed to feel safe coming to school?”MacHale answered safety concerns, saying the school would have a police presence for the final three weeks of classes and teachers would man the hallways. He also invited parents to stroll through the halls and provide extra sets of eyes and ears.The most prominent concern parents raised in the forum was open communication.RaeAnn Bartels, who has three grandchildren in RMS and a 10-year-old daughter who will attend the school next year, was one of the most vocal parents at the meeting. She said she knew of incidents when knives appeared on campus, one of which she read about in the Post Independent. She said she thought the school should inform parents when something like that happens.”We as parents have a right to know what happens here,” Bartels said before she paused for applause from the crowd. “I feel like things are being swept under the rug. I understand there are confidentiality issues, but we’re not asking about children’s names. You want our involvement – you need to include us. How can we participate if we don’t know what’s going on?”Other parents throughout the meeting echoed Bartels’ desire to be included and informed. Parents also urged administrators to inform the kids about what was happening at their school so their imaginations and rumors wouldn’t take over, scaring them.The role of raceParents also addressed worries over racial tension. Recent events at Rifle High School magnified the parents’ concerns. A group of Latino students from the high school called into Radio Tricolor, a Spanish-language radio station, and was featured in La Misión, a bilingual newspaper distributed from Aspen to Parachute. The students discussed a problem with the only English Language Learners teacher at the school, racially charged graffiti on the bathroom walls and a lack of attention to their complaints from administration.Parents at the meeting asked if there were racial undertones to the events at the middle school.”To a certain extent,” MacHale told them. He explained that the incidents involved groups of Anglo students and groups of Latino students, not mixed groups.Gary Pack, Re-2 superintendent, said the district has programs in place to try to relieve racial tension. One is Breaking Down the Walls, a nationally recognized program to bring minority and majority groups together. The other is the Safe School Ambassadors program, which aims to make students sensitive to all social groups.Darnelda Counts, mother of an eighth-grade boy, said she didn’t think those programs are enough.”Breaking Down The Walls is a great program – for the moment it lasts,” Counts said. “But it only happens once a year. And Safe School Ambassadors are not racially directed.”RMS counselor Dana Macke said she met weekly with groups of Latino boys and groups of Anglo boys during the first semester and wanted to begin again next year.Solutions sessionsAfter the forum, parents broke into small groups and went with school principals from throughout the district and district administrators, who facilitated meetings where they brainstormed concrete solutions to the issues parents presented.One group hoped students could have advisors, trusted adults, and time to meet with them and learn to trust them so they won’t be afraid to tell when something dangerous happens. They also said they hope for better communication not only with parents but also with students, and that it’s important that Latino parents can be informed and involved.MacHale said he visited a number of the groups.”Everybody wants the same thing – good communication,” MacHale said. “Parents do want letters. I don’t think I realized that before tonight. I wanted to protect student confidentiality, but I think we can work with that.”MacHale also said he fully intends to have a police officer on campus the last three weeks of school. “If we have to come up with funding, we’ll find a way.”Rifle police chief Daryl Meisner said he didn’t have enough staff to send an officer over unless the district could pay the officer’s overtime. Meisner said the police department would work with the school.MacHale also said he planned to have an assembly before the end of the week and he would discuss recent events and expectations with the students.The group facilitators will also get together this week to talk about the suggestions their groups made and work on implementing them.
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