The Feb. 28 monthly meeting of the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy board of directors was brief, despite a group of parents who filled the room. Many of them had come to address the board, but found copies of a policy that limits comment to agenda topics up for a vote. The issues the parents came to address were not on the agenda, so they waited through the meeting.
“We are trying to be polite here,” said parent Janelle Birchfield.
Many of the parents had also attended a Feb. 13 protest at NOMMA, which called upon the school to reinstate Neisha Reilly, the school’s former guidance counselor. The parents were unanimous in their support for Reilly, who was recently let go. Students had circulated a petition to get Reilly reinstated. School officials acknowledged receiving the petition, but declined further comment.
“She helped a lot of students,” said student Hubert Coleman. “A lot of students had problems at home, and she knew how to help us out.”
“She was the only person we could talk to, or we could go to,” said student Dacia Coleman.
“Mrs. Reilly was fired for ‘not following protocol,’ ” Birchfield said, but she noted that school officials had told parents they didn’t have a written discipline protocol at the time.
Parent Erica Simpson made the same point. “My son was suspended last week. I came and asked [Dr. Garcia] for a copy of the handbook, and she said, ‘We don’t have one on file,’ and turned her back on me.”
The handbook has since been posted on the school website.
Parents also spoke of a story they had heard involving a former science teacher named Iverson. According to parents, Iverson had separated his class into black and white students, and made a comment about the days of plantations and picking cotton. A few of the parents told stories of confrontational meetings with the teacher.
Birchfield said she had met with Iverson over an incident in which her son had used an obscenity and told Iverson to leave the school.
The incident, which she said her son is “still punished for” at home, led to a heated exchange between Birchfield and Iverson. “When I questioned him about his teaching methods — why 75 percent of his students were failing — he became angry, irate,” she said.
Reilly, the departed guidance counselor, scheduled a meeting with Birchfield and the principal. Parents claimed that Garcia fired Reilly for scheduling that confrontational meeting.
Iverson was the third science teacher hired for the position this school year. NOMMA has since announced his termination.
School Commandant Col. Bill Davis defended the school at the protest, prior to Iverson’s termination. He maintained that, while parents were free to make accusations, the school had to observe due process. “Satisfying any parent for any kind of complaint without doing investigative due process is not doing justice to anyone,” he said.
Davis stressed that parents had no information about what investigations or corrective actions the school might be taking to address their complaints.
The parents complained about poor communication from the school, and said they were no longer receiving mailings or info. Several said they had called the school and been told the wrong time for the board meeting. Some assumed that this was intentional.
Davis responded that board meetings are always held at 6 p.m. and that meeting notices are posted on the school’s door and website at least 24 hours prior. The Feb. 28 meeting, he said, had been posted since January.
Another issue discussed outside the meeting was school email. Several parents said Garcia had admitted reading students emails. “If they use school email, she has access to the account, and reads everything,” parent Mike Hardouin said.
Davis maintained that the Gaggle Net server used by the school blocks threatening or inappropriate emails. Blocked emails are reviewed, he said, “to ensure our students’ safety and for cyber-bullying prevention.”
The board unanimously passed a new grievance policy at the meeting. In it, complaints by parents are first brought in writing to the principal. Garcia has three days to act, after which parents may submit the complaint to Davis. If Davis has not responded within three days, they can request that the board discuss the issue. Member Walter Paulson said that three days was “…shorter than most… But I really think that’s better than something festering for awhile.” Paulson asked how parents could get items added to board meeting agendas in the future.
Board members present in addition to Paulson included Col. Terry Ebbert, Capt. Dave Whiddon, and James Reiss, along with new members Lt. Gen. Jack Bergman and Carol McCall.
Members Eades Hogue, Courtney Bagneris, Maj. Blake LeMaire , and Capt. Keith Amacker were absent.