‘Cold And Uncaring’: US Navy Parents Say Kids Suffer Discrimination, Poor Teaching At Military-Run School

Screenshot / Video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Schaeffer U.S. Naval Forces Central Command / U.S. 5th Fleet via DVIDS /

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • U.S. Navy families are concerned the only Department of Defense-operated school in Bahrain does not care for their children’s education and has stonewalled parent inquiries, four parents told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • The DOD’s regional superintendent is investigating a possible case of violating special education law, according to correspondence viewed by the DCNF.
  • “At the end of the day, these military children are the ones to suffer. They are receiving a subpar education in a poor environment with an administration and staff who just don’t care,” one parent told the DCNF.

Military families stationed in Bahrain have soured on the island’s sole Department of Defense (DOD)-run school, alleging the administration shows little regard for students’ education while largely ignoring parents’ concerns.

U.S. Navy families have pulled their children out of the Bahrain Elementary School (BES) and Bahrain Middle High School (BMHS) and opted instead to home educate after their children’s academic progress stalled due to a lack of qualified teachers and apathetic administrators, according to four military spouses who had children enrolled in the school in the last two years. However, problems run deeper than academics, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) regional headquarters, which oversees the Bahrain School, is investigating a possible case of disability law violations, a spokesperson confirmed.

Two parents said they felt duped by the school’s reputation — the Bahraini royal family attended in the 1980s, and many non-military families in Bahrain pay tens of thousands to send their children there every year.

“The Bahrain School is like a mirage, where you think something is there but there’s nothing at all. After one year, we feel like we were lied to before arriving about the reality of it,” one of them told the DCNF.

Parents requested to speak anonymously, fearing reprisal against children or their spouses, who are still serving in the Navy.

“When you’re moving to another country, this is your only option, except to pay $27,000 for each kid at another school,” another parent told the DCNF. “That’s not really an option, so you homeschool.”

‘Your Son Doesn’t Belong Here’

Problems at BES centered around the “cold and uncaring atmosphere” fostered in the classroom and at lunchtime, which is largely the principal’s fault, two parents with elementary-age children told the DCNF.

Penelope Miller-Smith has violated U.S. disability law at least three times in the case of one child, who has ADHD and had an individualized education plan (IEP) set up to accommodate the disability, a parent told the DCNF.

Miller-Smith “flat out told me, ‘Your son doesn’t belong here,'” the person said.

When the child acted out in class, he was punished and barred from the school for a month, even though disability rules mandate that students cannot be punished for behavior stemming from a disability, the parent said. One of the child’s teachers exacted punishment to what seemed an excessive degree despite the parent’s efforts to engage the teacher on how to best handle his hyperactivity, the parent said, noting that the child did not have problems once moved to another classroom. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: School District Puts Misbehaving Kids Through Diversity Trainings Instead Of Suspending Them)

The person requested a reading assessment for her child in September. It never happened, so the parent filed a formal complaint to the DODEA Inspector General’s office.

The response, which was seen by the DCNF, acknowledged that the complaint “does present alleged violation(s) of Federal law or regulation within DoDEA’s investigative purview” but referred the case down to Dr. Jeff Arrington, who heads all schools in the DODEA district that includes the Bahrain School. Arrington promised to schedule trainings and assistance on special education for BES administrators and mandated reports on the child’s progress.

“That’s not an acceptable answer. You don’t do more training for somebody that violates federal law multiple times,” the child’s parent told the DCNF.

The person added at least two other parents said the school delayed authorizing individualized education options that accommodate disabilities for their children. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, teachers are required to complete IEP assessments within 60 days, but instead it has been “months.”

“We don’t have time anymore because you’re moving,” the school would say, according to a parent. The principal has personally encouraged families with disabled children to return stateside while servicemembers finish out their tours of duty at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain.

The DCNF reached out to Miller-Smith through an email address provided on her DODEA administrator’s page but did not receive a response.

“DoDEA is aware of the situation to which you are referring. District and Regional leaders are working with school leadership, NSA Bahrain command and the families to determine the best way forward,” Stephen Smith, a DODEA spokesperson, told the DCNF.

Miller-Smith “should be fired. She is inappropriate with parents, rude to students and lacks all respect,” a parent told the DCNF.

(A screenshot obtained by the DCNF shows a message posted on a private Facebook page for the U.S. Navy families in Bahrain.)

Unqualified Teachers, Stonewalling Parents

Problems at BMHS are different but no less detrimental to students’ education, according to interviews the DCNF conducted with three parents who each had children in the combined middle and high school during at least one of the last two school years. All of them complained of an over-reliance on substitute teachers and lax course requirements that did not prepare students to succeed in American public schools once the families return to the U.S.

“The kids don’t seem to be the focus of the Bahrain School. They seem to be happy to be run and accept money to run the school, but the ratios have gone sky-high with teachers for kids,” one of them told the DCNF.

“The school celebrates mediocrity and does not strive to do better or challenge the students to do better,” said another.

For example, “Accelerated 7/8” math was overseen by a substitute who mostly left students to teach themselves for three months before the permanent teacher came in November, one parent said. By the end, long sections of the workbook remained empty and students were not prepared to move on to Algebra I, the parent said.

Algebra II did not have a teacher for an entire semester, instead passing from teacher to teacher each day, a parent said. American History class had four teachers, including two long-term substitutes, in just one academic year.

Unlike teachers, substitutes are not required to hold certifications or meet academic and preparation requirements.

Other teachers berated children for missing class even when informed in advance, resisted families’ efforts to communicate concerns or questions about grades or did not appear to understand what they were teaching, according to one of their parents.

When the 10th-grade English teacher, who speaks English as a second language, was asked about a grammar rule, she responded, “I don’t understand the rules of English. I just play it by ear,” the child’s parent told the DCNF.

Incorrect dates were posted for the PSAT, a test high school juniors take to determine eligibility for major scholarships but which can be taken any year to practice for the SAT, causing a student to miss the test due to existing travel plans, the person said.

The middle and high schools’ guidance counselors demonstrated unfamiliarity with the most recent U.S. high school guidelines, parents said. When one of the parents had questions about whether American high schools would accept Biology taken in eighth grade, the school’s principal responded that she “had no idea.”

“It is their job to be in the know and understand all of their students,” the parent said, both “the ones who spend two years at the school and transfer back to U.S. public schools and the ones who spend many years there or go to other DODEA schools.”

All three parents described similar experiences of substitute teachers without appropriate subject knowledge. One requested a chemistry tutor for a 10th-grade child but did not receive one until the school year was nearly over. The principal later admitted in an email to “deliberately avoiding” the parent because she did not have an answer yet, according to the parent.

Shana Seawright, whose LinkedIn page shows her as the school’s principal since 2018, directed the DCNF to the DODEA when reached for comment.

“At the end of the day, these military children are the ones to suffer. They are receiving a subpar education in a poor environment with an administration and staff who just don’t care,” one parent said.

DODEA did not respond to the DCNF’s follow-up inquiries.

Limited Accountability At DODEA Schools

Despite frequent use of substitutes, the school cut nine teaching positions before Fall 2023 citing a lower student population, one parent familiar with the decision told the DCNF. A scan of the current openings for DODEA on the U.S. government’s job site shows postings for substitute teachers, educational special assistants and a fourth-grade teacher, which does not appear unique to other schools.

NSA Bahrain is host to 9,000 DOD military members and civilian employees, as well as their families, of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet, according to Military OneSource. The base provides shore support to U.S. and allied naval forces in the surrounding waters tasked with supporting CENTCOM operations, countering piracy and other missions.

Parents with whom the DCNF spoke had mixed experiences at other DODEA schools, including those in Japan and Italy. But they worry that the entire system is tilted in favor of DODEA administrators at children’s expense.

Military families move every 2.5 years on average, so there’s little continuity of oversight or accountability for DODEA schools, the parents said.

“As military families, you know, we just have to deal with things,” one of the parents told the DCNF. “And a lot of people are like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll just get through these two years and then correct when we go back to the States, and then our kids are behind in school.'”

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