Hundreds of parents are calling on the Cobb County School District to improve its communications with parents about criminal activity involving educators and to enhance the support it provides for students with disabilities and mental illnesses.
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Teacher crimes spur Cobb parent group to press for change

Hundreds of parents are calling on the Cobb County School District to improve its communications with parents about criminal activity involving educators and to enhance the support it provides for students with disabilities and mental illnesses.

The school district is “reactive” in its approach to student safety, said East Cobb parent Rene Dodd, a member of the Cobb County Schools Safety Coalition. “Cobb’s approach is to wait until something happens.”

The coalition, which formed in 2018 and has about 430 members in its Facebook group, began to advocate for the safety of students after police charged Pope High School volunteer wrestling coach Ron Gorman with sexually molesting two boys in 2017. 

Gorman, who in 2009 started volunteering as a coach with Pope Junior Wrestling, a chartered club and the feeder program for Pope High School wrestling, pleaded guilty in 2017 to child sex abuse charges in Pennsylvania and in 2018 in Cobb County. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crimes. The news made Dodd and other parents call for background checks on part-time and full-time job candidates.

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Coalition members were also troubled by the 2018 arrest of former Kell High School teacher Spencer Herron, who was charged with sexually assaulting a student. Herron pleaded guilty in January to five counts of sexual assault against a student and was sentenced to five years in prison and 15 years probation. The student abused by Herron filed a lawsuit in July alleging administrators failed to follow existing rules that would have protected her.

Dodd said communication from the system informing parents of such incidents has been “inadequate” because they often first learn of the crimes from news reports.

“It seems like communication from the school doesn’t come out unless the press gets ahold of it,” she said. “Why are they not notifying parents about it?”

The Cobb County School District said it already conducts state and federal background checks on all new full-time and part-time employees, spokeswoman Nan Kiel said. The system also conducts “additional screens” on current employees, and performs background checks on vendors and volunteers who have one-on-one interactions with students. Its criminal background check policy was updated by the school board in July 2012.

The district also said it makes it a priority to directly communicate with parents about issues or rumors that impact an entire school “accurately, quickly and in a way which protects student confidentiality.” It uses a variety of ways to reach parents, including text messages, email and social media channels, the system said.

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Coalition member and parent Christine McKinnell thinks the school district can do a better job.

“They need to just do better in making sure parents know all students are safe and they don’t do that in a timely manner,” she said.

Coalition members also want the district to consider providing mental health counselors to students facing issues such as bullying and do a better job with sharing information about services available to students with learning differences.

Dodd and McKinnell said Cobb should look to the Cherokee County School District as a model. That system hired mental health counselors as part of its Social-Emotional Learning program, which takes the “whole-child approach” to identify a student’s needs beyond academics, according to that school district’s report.

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McKinnell said having mental health counselors can help children cope with emotions. Her son was the target of bullying while attending Pope High School, she said. McKinnell said she shared details of her son’s plight with a school counselor, but “nothing came of it.” Even after her son graduated in May from Pope, McKinnell remained involved in the school community. The school district held a town hall meeting at Lassiter High School about bullying where McKinnell said she felt like system employees did a lot of “talking at the parents.”

“There’s just a lot of things we think they could do better, and we would just like to have a dialogue with them,” she said.

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Dodd said she received very little support from her daughter’s elementary school after she was diagnosed with a learning disability while she was in the third grade. Dodd and her daughter went through three years of her daughter falling behind in her studies, which Dodd said caused her daughter to “feel like she was stupid.” Dodd pulled her daughter out of public school and placed her in a private institution at the beginning of her sixth-grade year. Her daughter remains at that school where Dodd said she is excelling.

Dodd said she had to find out from other parents — not educators at her child’s school — that “there are ways to get help sooner.” She said the school was slow in getting her the information she needed to ensure her child stayed on track academically. Dodd’s campaign kicked into high gear when she met other parents struggling with similar issues, and they began to press the system to make sure parents are aware of available tools that can help students in need of academic help.

The school system says it has implemented the Cobb Teaching and Learning System, which allows educators and parents to collaborate on tailoring their child’s instruction based on what they know and don’t know. Kiel also said the system has a podcast that details how it supports students with disabilities.

Kiel said the district’s recent Georgia Milestones scores show that its programs work since Cobb students “continue to outperform their state and metro peers.”

“We plan to build on that success by prioritizing our students and teachers and using data to make decisions,” Kiel said.

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