Poorly maintained restrooms. Bad food in the cafeterias. Bullying among peers. Those were the major complaints students mentioned during Thursday night’s public forum about the condition of the Muscogee County School District.
And those problems have a common solution, Muscogee County School Board members and district administrators suggested: Students must inform the proper authorities.
The “Candid Conversation” sponsored by the Youth Advisory Council of Columbus lived up to its billing after about 50 folks gathered in Rothschild Leadership Academy.
A female student said some of Columbus High School’s water fountains have brown water, some of the toilets don’t work and some of the soap dispensers don’t work. She asked, “So I was wondering what y’all are doing to maintain the school buildings?”
Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green said the problem first should be reported to the principal so a work order can be sent to the district’s maintenance department.
“Maintenance is budgeted for; it’s just a matter of it being reported and properly serviced through the work-order process,” Green said.
“But if it goes on for a long period of time,” said board member Cathy Williams of District 7, “and your principal has been told about it and they have a work order in for it, yet nothing’s been done, you are just as empowered as your parents or any citizen in this community. Contact your school board member and say, ‘Ahh, it’s been about four months, and we still have brown water in our faucets.’ Let us know about it, because then we can ask the right questions to the right people.”
A female Shaw High School student asked, “What can be done to better the lunches? … They serve us food that they wouldn’t even take home to eat.”
She showed Green her phone with a photo of an unappetizing burrito from the Shaw cafeteria. The student added, “The bread is hard. They give us hard chicken tenders and burnt stuff. You wouldn’t serve that to your family. You’d throw it in the trash. Why serve it to some student that this is probably the only meal to get each day?”
Deputy city manager Lisa Goodwin said roughly three years ago the district’s school nutrition director invited the Youth Advisory Council to taste-test some food items. “We’d love to have that opportunity again,” Goodwin said.
Williams offered some perspective. School lunch was “awful” when she was a student. “We serve 32,000 students every day,” she said. “We’re the largest kitchen in the county. We are larger than every fast-food restaurant put together. I mean, we serve over a million meals every year, so it’s hard sometimes to have top quality all the time. … Again, you have a voice. Clearly, you’ve been a part of the process; continue to be part of the process. Give us specific feedback so that we can then relay to the central administration.”
Board member Laurie McRae of District 5, the only other board member in attendance, added, “If one meal is consistently bad, they need to know that. … My children do that to me.”
A male East Columbus Magnet Academy student also complained about the condition of the restrooms in his school.
Green noted the district has been analyzing how to deploy custodians more efficiently, although the administration backed off superintendent’s recommendation after it generated too much heat,
A female Shaw student said, “The teachers and principals, they know about the bathrooms; they just don’t do anything about it. ... I know our custodian, she complains, ‘I don’t want to clean this bathroom.’”
Green: “Have you shared that with your principal?”
Student: “There’s no point in sharing it. They’re not going to really listen.”
Rothschild principal Michael Forte said, “If the bathrooms are not clean, that’s a reflection on leadership. … We need your help. So if you see something that needs attention, then I promise you, if you bring it to your principal’s attention, he or she will address it immediately. … particularly knowing that it was discussed here tonight.”
A male Fort Middle School student asked why bullying contracts are enforced more often.
MCSD student services director Marcus DuBose said, “Muscogee does not tolerate any bullying at all.”
Bullying incidents should be reported to the principal, DuBose said. If it’s not resolved, then the student services department should be contacted, he said.
Every day during announcements at Rothschild, Forte said, “We tell students that no one has the right to make an individual feel unsafe or uncomfortable. If that is occurring, please let a teacher or an administrator know.”
Complicating the problem, Forte added, is when a parent tells him about a bullying incident that happened “two weeks ago.”
“We have to be informed,” Forte said. “… If that student who’s getting bullied is not reporting, then why don’t you as a leader report it for that student? I promise you, your name will remain anonymous.”
“As peers,” Green said, “it needs to become more common for you guys not to accept name-calling, mistreating one another, just any acts of unkindness, regardless of what you’re feeling or regardless of whether you know that person. … You really have to change the subculture that you have going on. Get off that social media and talk to one another and extend a hand or a consciousness of kindness.”
Green acknowledged even her son doesn’t want to be a “snitch.” She countered, “Y’all aren’t incarcerated. Y’all are students. Y’all are peers. And it is your responsibility to look out for one another.”