Parent leaders at J.C. Booth Middle School in Peachtree City, Ga., have their act together. Led by a retired Air Force officer, the well-organized group is known for spotting problems and fixing them.

But nothing could have prepared them for the challenges they faced last year, when student sexual activity put the school in the media spotlight, a teacher found a “to kill” list in a classroom, and a parent was arrested for assaulting the principal.

An idyllic bedroom community 30 miles from Atlanta, Peachtree City’s low crime rate and good schools landed it on Money magazine’s 2005 list of the best places to live. A sign at the city limits boasts of the school’s accomplishments in the national Science Olympiad, which its teams have won seven out of the past 10 years. The city’s median household income is $81,151 and less than 7 percent of students at Booth receive free or reduced-price meals, but navigating the transition from childhood to adolescence is tough no matter where you live.

“These are issues that parents are dealing with all the time with this age group, and it’s a reflection of what’s going on in society,” says Principal Ted Lombard.

The PTO worked in partnership with the administration to respond to each incident, addressing the difficult issues of sex and violence in school while taking steps to improve its regular lineup of events.

“We didn’t want to seem like a dinosaur PTO,” says parent group President Cele Eifert. “We’re not just raising money but dealing with issues in the news.”

Unplanned Events

Before classes started for the year, PTO committee chairs and Lombard met for brunch at Eifert’s home to discuss their goals. The PTO has two dozen committees and a seven-member board, but many of the parents had worked together before on the PTO at a feeder elementary school.

The first few months went according to plan. The group welcomed families back to school with the Newcomers’ Dinner and Meet the Teachers Day, made allocations to buy teacher wish list items, and provided each teacher with $100 to buy classroom supplies.

Then, on a school field trip in October, two eighth grade students engaged in sexual activity on a school bus. As word of the incident spread, parents started calling PTO officers wanting answers. “There are a lot of parents out there who talk in the community but don’t want to call the administration,” says PTO Vice President Teresa Love. “There are some parents who are more comfortable calling us.”

Realizing that the PTO could play an important role in communicating with parents, Principal Lombard briefed the group on what happened and the school’s response, and he made a plan to notify the PTO if a serious incident occurred again. It did.

In January, a teacher found a “to kill” list in her classroom that named 30 people, including the school resource officer, a member of the city police department. Police used handwriting analysis to link the list to an eighth grade boy, who was charged with making terrorist threats.

The community newspaper’s coverage evoked memories of the shootings at Columbine High School, but PTO leaders helped assure parents that their children were safe. “We provided information about what happened within the limits of student privacy,” Lombard says. “They helped me communicate what actions we were taking.”

The school received even more media attention in March, when two eighth grade students engaged in sexual behavior in a classroom on a dare while another student distracted the teacher. The school sent a letter to parents and asked them to discuss it with their children.

Eifert convened an emergency meeting of the PTO executive board, which planned a forum for parents to ask questions and discuss concerns with the principal. The PTO moderated the “Chat With the Principal” event, which drew about 75 parents and lasted more than two hours.

In addition, the PTO reallocated funds to hire a national speaker on youth issues who spoke frankly with students in school assemblies about choices and their consequences.

The PTO has budgeted $4,000 to bring in speakers for this school year and hopes to address issues that parents and school counselors say students are facing, such as self-mutilation, including “cutting,” particularly by girls.

Booth made the news again before school ended, when a parent was arrested for assaulting the principal in May. The father had been called to the school because his daughter had violated the dress code. He became violent and tried to choke Lombard.

Eifert, who has a degree in journalism, describes much of the media coverage of the incidents at the school as sensational. She was substitute teaching at Booth when a television reporter came to the school following the assault. School officials were not allowed to talk to the media, but Eifert approached the reporter and spoke on camera for the PTO.

She is serving as PTO president again this year and plans to tackle the issue of improving media relations when parent leaders throughout the county meet for the next middle school PTO symposium. “I hope we don’t have any more incidents like we had this year that warrant or don’t warrant press coverage, but we’ve got to be prepared,” Eifert says.

Through all the challenges of the past year, PTO leaders and school administrators worked well together because they had already established good relationships.

“We work together like a well-oiled team, and we have the best interests of the school foremost in our minds, so that really helps,” Eifert says. “We can accomplish so much more for Booth because the administration, as well as the faculty, supports the PTO.”


Group at a Glance

Name: J.C. Booth Middle School PTO
Location: Peachtree City, Ga.
Community: population 35,810; suburban
School Size: 1,140 students, grades 6-8
Annual Budget: $55,300
Typical Meeting Attendance: 12


5 Good Ideas From J.C. Booth Middle School PTO

Getting a Head Start
A summer mailing included volunteer, membership, and spiritwear order forms, and a newsletter. The forms were collected at school events. And volunteers were contacted right away. The result: a $3,000 increase in dues collected and a jump in the number of volunteers.

For New Parents
The Newcomers’ Dinner, for families new to the district, includes a dress-code fashion show and opportunities to learn about the PTO and the school’s extracurricular activities.

Timing Is Everything
The PTO newsletter is printed in time to go home with each report card, increasing the chance that parents will see it.

Learn From Others
The group organized a countywide middle school PTO symposium in February. Leaders talked shop about scrip, bad checks, and school dances, among other topics.

Lost and Sold
A Lost and Found Day, held during school and on the evening of a school awards program, was so popular that the group will hold three such days this year. At the third one, items in good condition will be sold.