Students activism should shame officials into action

July 9, 2019 10:05 pm

Actions by students at two Virginia schools – turning a spotlight on the crumbling conditions of their individual facilities– should shame local and state officials to provide the necessary money to rectify the problems.

You would think school administrators would herald the initiative by the teenagers, who, in the best investigative tradition, researched the shortcomings, filmed the deficiencies, and brought attention to longstanding issues. 

But in one example, at Maury High School in Norfolk, overzealous school officials removed a student-produced video from the school’s YouTube channel, The Virginian-Pilot reported. The video showed mold on walls, peeling paint and plaster, and lots of potholes in parking lots at the commonwealth’s oldest high school. (The paper posted a retrieved link to the full 4-minute video.) 

Matthew Fontaine Maury High School in Norfolk, built in 1910. (Norfolk Public Schools)

The Norfolk school division’s explanation for the post-publication censorship doesn’t pass the smell test, either. 

In another example, The Washington Post recently reported that teens and tweens at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria collected samples of suspected mold on walls in the school, then shipped off the samples to be analyzed. They were spurred to action after students suffered runny noses, coughs and headaches while in some classrooms, yet got better after they left. 

The results found that 15 classrooms tested positive for mold, and lab results also found spores elsewhere in the school. The students spent the past year fighting for better classrooms, including meeting with school leaders and contacting a state senator. 

“It seemed weird how a place where we were meant to be safe and we’re able to learn had something that could cause serious ailments,” a 13-year-old student told The Post.

Alexandria school officials supported the students’ efforts. Their initiative – remember, we’re talking about children at just the middle-school level – deserves applause.

The reaction by administrators in Norfolk in a similar situation? Decidedly mixed. 

That’s surprising, since local and state officials in fall 2018 had toured several Hampton Roads schools, including Maury High. Legislators were studying how to fix aging school facilities around Virginia. (The state has provided precious little cash for school construction since the recession, pushing off the task to localities.) 

So the problems there were no secret. Dating to 1910, Maury is the third-oldest continuously operating school in Virginia, after all. I wrote about the funding shortfalls for The Pilot last year. One state senator said some facilities on the Eastern Shore are so bad they “look like back in the ’40s.”

It’s a far-reaching challenge across the state.

At graduation last month, the Maury valedictorian noted – in front of parents, division officials and Norfolk School Board members – that despite the maturation his classmates witnessed over four years, “The one thing that has not changed very much is the physical state of Maury, as the walls continue to fall apart, and the parking lot continues to be riddled with enormous potholes.”


Yet division officials put the kibosh on a video that a recent graduate and his classmate produced, in which they filmed old radiators, peeling plaster and paint, rusty pipes and other problems. They also interviewed Mark Rowe, a library media specialist who’s the adviser for the school news production. 

It seems his involvement was the vehicle to target the piece. Khalilah LeGrand, a division spokeswoman, told The Pilot “the students did nothing wrong.” But two officials reviewed the video and decided to take it down. “There was commentary by the teacher … that was not in line with NPS policy,” LeGrand said.

Don’t school officials know such censorship will draw more attention, not less? Besides, if the adviser’s comments in the piece were the problem, the division could’ve removed that section and left the rest intact.

If you want young people to be proactive, administrators should encourage good work. 

Students in Alexandria and Norfolk went the extra mile to expose subpar learning conditions. They didn’t always get the credit they deserved.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]