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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Communications evaluated

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

As the Thomas Magnet School gym filled with young students for an after-school science program Wednesday, a conversation with a parent was escalating in the front office.

After making specific threats of harm, Tyrone Watts was removed from the school by the Shelbyville Police Department.

He is now being held without bond on charges of violating parole (see related story on this page).

After the situation had been managed, principal Mindi DeWitt reported the incident to Ed Gray and Mike Bone, both retired superintendents who are sharing duties as interim superintendent of Bedford County Schools.

Principals talked

The incident was discussed further at Thursday's principals meeting, and in a phone conversation with Gray last evening, he explained that he was working to gather information before a notification to parents was issued.

None could have predicted the events that took place Friday morning in Newtown, Conn.

According to Gray, when he spoke with Capt. Tony Barrett Friday afternoon, Barrett was unaware the Thomas incident had occurred.

Barrett oversees the county student resource officers. Thomas, Eakin and East Side schools have no SRO.

Parents upset

After a report of the incident was published in Sunday's T-G, parents took to social media to express their outrage and frustration with the lack of communication from TMS.

"I am pleased with the quick response by everyone in this matter. But at the same time I am very, very angry," said Carmen Breedlove, a parent of students at TMS and Eakin Elementary.

"Why did the school system not notify parents of students at Thomas Magnet School that this had occurred? They could have easily done a general call (through) the phone system. Instead I read about it in the Sunday paper."

Her sentiments were shared in a stream of postings by parents on Facebook, many who expressed a real fear of sending students to school Monday morning, in spite of semester tests and school parties, which are taking place this week.

Matter of trust

"They want parents to trust them if an incident happens -- but they don't have my trust right now," said Breedlove, who admits she would have been less upset had she received a notification on Thursday, instead of the late evening call from the school's automated system which arrived on Sunday.

"Parents would be less ticked off if [the school] would just communicate," Breedlove said.

"We fell down on communicating with parents," said Gray. "Those parents should have been informed."

Changes system-wide that have occurred over the last year at the administrative, instructional and school-level may have been a contributing factor.

Looking to future

Gray retired as superintendent in June 2011, returning to the system in November after a 15-month absence. A safety plan between county agencies had been developed under his tenure, and Gray says the city and county agencies have always worked well together on crisis situations.

"We take this incident very seriously," said Gray. "Our main concern right now is how we handle these types of situations in the future."

Gray had praise for DeWitt's handling of the incident all around.

"Mindi handled this situation perfectly," Gray said. "Mindi was not at fault for any lack in communication."

Meeting planned

A safety meeting in response to the incident is being convened among county agencies, and Gray is considering a parent meeting as well to gather input from parents.

Gray spoke of a changing set of facts that cascaded as the news in Newton broke during the day on Friday.

When a statement regarding an incident is issued from the school system, providing factual information to parents is critical, but Gray says he recognizes the importance of communicating quickly.

"At what point do we decide to tell parents about an incident, how do we tell them, and how do we make them feel secure? What types of details do parents want? That is what we are going figure out," he said.