Residents of Roanoke County, Virginia are waiting for answers after a mystery illness struck in a local high school. It’s reported that since September, one teacher and six students attending William Byrd High School have come down with a set of symptoms for an unknown illness. Although the school district stated it would not release the symptoms or any medical-related information about those ill, community members have described the symptoms to the media.
“They wave. It’s convulsing. They can’t stop it,” senior Layne Gulli said in an Associated Press story. “You don’t know how to avoid it. You don’t know if you’re next, or if your friend is next, or if it’s an epidemic.”
Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children and will stop at nothing to protect them. William Byrd High School parents have asked the school district to disclose symptom information and close the school. School system officials have stated that no environmental causes for the illness have been found after conducting tests and that there is no need to close the school.
After the recent cause for alarm at the school, parents received letters signed by the Assistant Superintendent of Administration Allen Journell. These letters stated that due to legal requirements, specific information about the individuals involved and their symptoms could not be released. This letter obviously did not go over well with worried parents.
Parents and students then attended a meeting run by school officials, the Virginia Department of Health and the companies that conducted the environmental testing done to the school facilities. Although the meeting was open to parents and students, those running the meeting again stated what these community members already knew. And nothing more.
Although the school district is keeping parents updated with developments as they happen, there is a line drawn as to how much information is really being released. Parents do not know much about the symptoms or means of preventing the illness, if there are any.
The school district is attempting to listen to concerned parents and students, but not really taking what they are saying to heart. Parents wants the school closed until the medical problem is solved and want other schooling facilities opened to accommodate the close to 1,200 students. The school system says it’s not going to happen.
Vague letters and stand-off type town meetings are not good practices of public relations. School systems have an obligation to protect their students and keep their best interests in mind. Who better to let you know what their best interests are than the parents directly involved with their lives? I think the school system needs to take a step back and rethink the public relations strategy here.
The school district needs to put the students at ease, which will then put the parents at ease. Staying in touch with the community, running tests and releasing updated information is key to keeping these students and parents at ease. School officials have to do it with tact and understanding though. Once a member of the public has to question the motive of the school system’s decisions, then there is a big problem. Especially when the well-being of someones child is at stake.
Photos courtesy of William Byrd High School.