STUART – A note to parents posted on the Martin County School District’s Facebook page Jan. 22 by the head of security caused an uproar among parents accustomed to eating lunch with their children on campus while volunteering at their schools.
The note described an interview between Director of Safety and Security Frank Frangella and CBS 12 News Correspondent Erin MacPherson during which the former recommended such parents sign their children out to eat lunch off campus or eat “at an outside seating area.”
Danielle McDonough, founder of the Martin County Parents United group, was one of three parents who addressed the topic that evening at the School Board meeting and believes the District would have had a calmer response had it handled the matter differently.
“That was like a bad accident watching that take hold today on Facebook, and I think communication is key,” she said. “It could have been avoided if we would have used maybe a different tool in letting parents know.”
Renee Slabicki made the first post on the Facebook page, calling Mr. Frangella’s suggestion “absurd.”
“I have lunch infrequently with my child, but when I do, it just makes her entire day,” she said in the post. “If safety is a true concern, doing what many have suggested and getting Level 2 background checks should be implemented. There’s no reason to deny access to our kids.”
Ms. Slabicki made reference to a suggestion previously made by Seawind Elementary parent Wess Yancsurak, who repeated the same idea during the meeting that night.
“I feel that you’re setting a precedent for all the parent-involved events during the school day if we’re eliminating the ability to have lunch with our children,” he said. “If we could just require a level-two background check on all the lunch attendees at this point, I think that would solve a lot of the safety issues. We’re volunteers -- my wife is a volunteer, and I try to volunteer as much time as I can at the school. I love spending time with the students and watching them learn, and I feel that not being able to have lunch with them is taking away from that.”
Jensen Beach Elementary School parent Andrea McAvoy concurred with that assessment.
“I probably put in a good 20 to 30 hours a week of volunteering at my kids’ school, and one of the rewards that I feel is to sit down and have lunch after I’ve helped open snack packs and juice boxes,” she explained. “Having a seat with my sons is one of the things that I look forward to as being part of volunteering at the school. Taking away a privilege I feel is sad, and I would like to know if there’s any statistics that you can guys can show us that the biggest security problem is during lunchtime when parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles come and have lunch with their kids.”
Immediately after the public speaking portion of the meeting, Chairman Christi Li Roberts asked Mr. Frangella to respond to the complaints and address the issue of safety at lunchtime. The safety and security director immediately attempted to squash a rumor that the District was trying to close campuses completely to parents.
“First, I want to address the concerns of parents about my intentions -- that I’m going to shut everything down with the parents -- and that’s simply not true,” he said. “With most of our events, they’re a one-time event at one school. I meet with principals all the time, we discuss it, we make any necessary adjustments to the plans and we go forward with the plan.”
Mr. Frangella emphasized, however, that having parents on multiple school campuses during lunchtime has become a logistics nightmare in an era of heightened security since the Parkland massacre last Valentine’s Day.
“The problem with parents having lunch at school is it occurs daily, and it’s at over a dozen of our schools,” he explained. “So, I’ve received information that things were happening during those times: Visitors were not adhering to campus rules and found roaming the hallways; they were taking pictures of students; they weren’t using the designated areas, which was set aside just for them; and they were inviting extended family members.”
Mr. Frangella believes front office personnel in the District’s schools are already overworked at certain times of the day and particularly during lunchtime.
“There are three times that are our most vulnerable: during dismissal, arrival and at lunch,” he added. “On some of our campuses, we receive 30-plus visitors during our lunchtime. Our front staff are responsible for the visitors coming in, but they’re not trained law-enforcement agents. I’m more worried about somebody trying to slip in during our high-traffic time. There are other things that could happen as well, and my concern is that we have issues with custodial battles and domestic issues and those could actually intensify. At any given time it could escalate quickly, and that poses a danger to our children as well.”
As a result of his concerns, Mr. Frangella sent out a memo to all school principals in the District to address the issue of “closing of the schools”, which subsequently became the topic of the aforementioned television interview.
“I gave it to the principals, and it was a direct response to what was going on and what they were telling me,” he emphasized.
Mr. Yancsurak said he was unaware of any specific incidents at Seawind Elementary but believed his recommended security clearance, coupled with punishment for offenders, would nip the problem in the bud.
“I don’t know of any parents coming in and causing mass problems,” he said. “If a parent is not where they’re supposed to be, either have a stern conversation with them or you tell them they can’t come back.”
Ms. McDonough said her own teenage son fondly remembers such a lunch years ago when he was in the first grade, and she worried prohibiting parents from having lunch on campus could cause some to stop volunteering.
“I’ve been listening to the parents, they’re very passionate, and I think today we want parents who are involved,” she said. There has to be another way that we can go about enacting the security changes without pushing our parents away. I’m not saying lunch is good or lunch is bad… I’m just saying I appreciate that parents are speaking up about anything. They want to be involved, and they want to have a voice.”
Not all parents see the need to eat lunch on campus with their children. Gwen Rooney was one of two Facebook respondents who didn’t understand all the fuss.
“My parents weren’t allowed to have lunch with me when I was a kid and we both survived,” she said in her post. “I didn’t have lunch with mine and they survived. What are these parents going to do when their kids go off to college?”
Parent Gwen Rooney agreed and said she views her son’s time at school through the lens of growing independence.
“I think I have only eaten with him once a year, and that is only on the day that I have off work and he still has school,” she responded on the site. “I look at it as that is his time to be in school and learn and be with his friends.”
Superintendent Laurie Gaylord emphasized the District’s desire to continue encouraging parental volunteers as she attempted to debunk rumors.
“We do want parents to volunteer -- there’s no absolutely no effort in any way to stop parent volunteers,” she said. “We thrive on parent volunteers, and we want you to continue to volunteer on our campuses. I’ve heard say ‘first it’s school lunch, and then it’ll be something else and something else.’ No that’s not it: It’s to control our campuses during those high traffic times.”
Ms. Gaylord reiterated Mr. Frangella’s concerns
“On a day-to-day basis with the lunch, we don’t know how many people are going to show up, and so that’s been a problem,” she explained. “Like I said, there have been incidents on campuses. So, you can still have lunch with your student in a safe area; some of the schools from what I understand have designated a specific table so you can have lunch privately with your student. I don’t know how they’re going to work that out -- that’s up to each individual school to work out.”
The superintendent emphasized that other planned events involving parents on campus would not be affected.
“A perfect example was the spelling bee,” she said, referring to the annual Lillian A. Dassori Elementary Spelling Bee held in the Jensen Beach High School auditorium. “We had extra security there, and we were on heighted state of many people coming on campus. So, we can take that extra time when we know that there’s going to be a lot of traffic.”