When Signal Mountain Middle/High School opened, residents of the community clearly expected an institution by which all others in Hamilton County would be measured. That expectation has come true, but not always in the manner envisioned by those who worked tirelessly to make a public middle and high school on the mountain a reality. The school has established a respectable record of achievement, to be sure, but problems at SMMHS often eclipse those accomplishments in the public's mind. The fallout from a senior class trip to the Bahamas in March is the latest example.
Seven teachers who were chaperones on the five-day cruise were suspended without pay in April by local school officials after an investigation indicated they were drinking alcohol on the trip. The Tennessee State Board of Education now has recommended that the licenses of five of those seven be suspended for a year for the same incident. Those affected can appeal the recommendation, but the board's action is consistent with long-time policy that governs teacher conduct.
According to a state school board official, teachers and school staff members cannot possess or use alcohol at school or any school-related activity. Though the teachers involved are not charged with drinking in the presence of students, that does not excuse their actions. There is no wiggle room in the rule. Those who chaperone a school activity -- whether the excursion is across town or to the Bahamas -- are not allowed to use alcohol. If a teacher can't survive without a drink for five days while in charge of students, there is an alternative. He or she should stay home.
It goes without saying that underage drinking is always illegal and students who engage in the practice should expect disciplinary action. Indeed, 16 SMMHS students were cited for drinking on the cruise.
The current instance is not the first time the schools' staff or students have been publicly connected to the illegal use of alcohol. Two of the seven faculty members cited in the cruise incident also were caught with alcohol at school. In the past, some students, including prominent athletes, have been caught consuming alcohol in various settings. Clearly, the school and residents of the community should address what appears to be the illegal and casual use of alcohol at their school and in their midst.
Alcohol is not the only problem bedeviling the school's reputation. A highly publicized fight between students and outsiders marred its image. So have assorted issues -- ranging from the use of ineligible players, fighting and still unproved charges of recruiting -- in the school's athletic program. Personnel and administrative issues have plagued the school, too.
Indeed, Tom McCullough, the current principal, announced this week that he is retiring. It's the second change at the top since the school opened. McCullough said that neither the current incident nor earlier ones played a direct role in his decision to step down, but he might be sugar-coating the truth. McCullough admits that issues like the cruise can cause a lot of stress. And stress, most people know, can prompt the desire for change.
School officials quickly named Robin Copp, now principal at Sale Creek High School, to replace McCullough. It was a remarkably swift action. McCullough said he informed Chip Baker, the District 2 school board representative, of his decision Saturday. Copp's appointment was announced Wednesday. That's speedy work for officials who generally move slowly on any topic, but it is in keeping with past practice of making major decisions with little public input or knowledge.
Copp takes charge of a school with a decidedly mixed reputation. Student test scores and measures of academic achievement are among the best in the state. Other issues -- alcohol use among students and teachers on duty, public questions about the athletic program, administrative issues -- dim the school's luster. Resolving those problems is a challenge, but it is one that must be met by school and community if SMMHS is to cement its place among the county's and state's top schools.