Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Expect the best at WBHS
- Our week as a Nielsen family
- Stop throwing money out the windows
- Point/Counterpoint gets a makeover
- All too quick to judge
From the RoundTable blog
My daughter will attend William Byrd High School today even if she's the only student. Which is a possibility, judging by the level of concern that quickly ramped up to hysteria Monday evening as parents vented their frustrations at school officials reluctant to tell them much about the mysterious twitching incidents.
Byrd parents and students "expect the best at WBHS" because we are told repeatedly that we should. We don't expect to be treated like cheerleaders so enamored with our school that we won't question why Byrd has failed to provide us with information about this mysterious ailment.
A list of symptoms, a chronology of the cases, a report of the school's response from the beginning all would have gone a long way toward alleviating the hyped fear.
Correspondence along the lines of the standard lice letter would have been helpful. It could have said: "On Sept. 26 we learned of an unusual neurological illness involving headaches, dizziness and twitching that appeared to have no connection to our school. When a second ailment came to our attention a week later, we decided to hire two environmental firms to test the building and rule out any connection. We do not believe there is cause for concern. This is a precautionary measure, and we will keep you informed. If you have any questions, please contact ... "
Instead, rumors circulated at school and eventually were picked up by the media. Now Byrd's secret is out, turning it into not so much a public safety concern but a public relations nightmare.
Superintendent Lorraine Lange opened the forum by saying officials would share information, then refused under a trumped-up claim of medical privacy rights to describe the symptoms. Then she blamed the media.
Surely Lange is savvy enough to understand that stories spin on available information and that a news conference can work to the school's advantage in conveying accurate information. When officials refuse to comment, reporters must look for other ways to answer the public's questions.
What could have been an information-sharing story a month ago, with officials putting the mystery into context, turned into a belated story of parents demanding to know why the school won't tell them anything and what is being covered up. The meeting did little to bridge the rift.
By the time I left the auditorium, I was convinced:
n There is no evidence to indicate the school building poses a greater or lesser harm to my daughter's health than any other building.
n School officials have taken this seriously. They are continuing to conduct environmental tests; they called in the health department to coordinate with neurologists and toxicologists to methodically review each case to determine if there is a commonality and, if so, what that might be.
n The school system has attempted to do the right things in figuring out if two illnesses -- and that's all that had been known by Byrd before the public became aware of this -- were in any way connected to the school.
n The Roanoke County school system has done an absolutely terrible job in providing students and parents with information that would better help them evaluate the risk. Instead, officials keep repeating that the condition isn't contagious and poses no apparent public health hazards.
Those claims are hard to accept at face value when school and health officials admit they still don't know what they might be dealing with. Further, by keeping it quiet they have cut themselves off from information that students, parents and other doctors could have shared.
As the meeting wore on, one thing became increasingly clear as parent after student stepped to one of two microphones: The school's credibility is shot.
For example, a football mom lost faith in the school after a meeting a few weeks ago about staph infections. Parents were told their sons would receive a special body wash. They never did. And, she claimed, the players had to scrub down the locker rooms with bleach themselves.
Lange said she assumed there was follow-through and would check into it. Not only should she investigate, she needs to publicly disclose her findings.
A recent grad asked if rat poison could be to blame a rat had been caught last year. School board member Michael Stovall dismissed that saying they didn't have a mice problem.
Stoval was a large contributor to the crowd's increasing uneasiness.
Instead of deferring to the assembled experts, Stovall commandeered the forum, repeatedly assuring parents they had nothing to fear, and then incredibly at one point saying that now that he knows the symptoms -- even though he refused to share them with worried parents -- he was looking at his middle-school son's headaches with a renewed concern.
Is this the best to expect at WBHS?
Traud is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.