The Bedford County Board of Education allowed ample time for discussion of school safety this week, responding in particular to parent concerns about a Dec. 12 incident at Thomas Magnet School, but additionally to re-address safety concerns in county schools in light of the tragic events in Newtown, Conn. just a week ago.
On Tuesday night, the Bedford County Finance Committee heard from Board Chair Amy Martin; Capt. Tony Barrett of the Bedford County Sheriff's Department, who leads the team of school resource officers (SROs) assigned to middle and high schools; and acting superintendents Mike Bone and Ed Gray.
The committee made a recommendation to the county commission that seven SROs be hired to provide a law enforcement presence at each of the county's 14 schools. Currently, SROs are in service at middle and high schools.
In the school board meeting which followed, Martin addressed concerned parents.
"There's not a one of us here in this room that doesn't have a child, an adult, a sister, a brother, a parent a grandparent, good friends, neighbors in the school system," Martin said. "We're all deeply affected this week, not only on a national level, but by what has happened here in our own community."
Tyrone Watts allegedly made a threat to return to Thomas Magnet School with an automatic rifle and cause harm to faculty and students after his wife's son wasn't allowed to leave early. Written permission for dismissal from the child's father was not on file.
Watts, 43, of Tullahoma was arrested and made bond later Dec. 12, and has since been re-arrested for a parole violation. He is now being held without bond.
Barrett described the local safety committee, which includes a representative from each public agency in the area, and the safety plans the team has developed for the schools.
Regarding the elementary schools within city limits, officers of the Shelbyville Police Department may be able to respond quicker than a Bedford County deputy, yet the sheriff's department have jurisdiction over county-owned schools.
One revision to administrative policy for all schools is that calls regarding any threat should be directed to the county's 911 system rather than non-emergency numbers.
Barrett spoke of the importance of having "boots on the ground," in each school in the form of a trained SRO. "No offense to any teachers, but we don't need to arm teachers," Barrett said. "We need SROs in the schools.
"I need your help. Call the county commissioners for your district and let them know of your support. This is a pretty good step -- when finance makes a recommendation to the full commission -- but this is not a done deal."
Acknowledging the security measures already in effect, Bone said, "What we have to focus on now, we have to be sure, first foremost, is that we execute everything that is in place," pledging to review and adapt current policies and available technology.
Martin acknowledged communication had been the major concern. Praising Thomas principal Mindi DeWitt, Martin said "She did everything right. She did everything to remove the threat from the building."
All principals were notified of the threat in a meeting Thursday morning, Martin said, and photos of Watts were distributed to each school as a cautionary measure.
"I will apologize that you didn't find out till Sunday, but that doesn't mean that people were not doing what needed to be done," Martin said. "We are very fortunate. What happened Friday in Connecticut just put us on a higher alert, brought more attention to what we can do to protect our children."
"We did a lot of the rights things," said Bone. "I apologize personally for not catching the fact that we did not get the information out to the parents in a timely manner. Furthermore, I didn't get the information out to the board when I should have.
"This time the ball slipped through, and that was my fault."
The board allowed a suspension of rules to allow a parent representative of TMS to speak from the floor.
"For many of us parents, the world changed for us a lot over the last week," said Jeffrey Howard. "The safety of our schools has been something that has been brought into focus," he said, thanking the board and law enforcement for their quick actions since the report of the incident in Sunday's T-G.
"I did feel like, as a parent, we were violated a little bit in that we were not made aware of [a] threat to our school," Howard said.
He also asked that a review be given to access policies at each school.
"I do not feel like people should be able to walk into our schools unannounced," Howard said.
"Just as 9/11 changed how you walk through an airport, I think this situation has changed how people can walk through our schools."
Parent Eddie Johnson praised the school.
"I love Thomas School and they are doing an outstanding job. I support them 100 percent. But the thing that we've not covered -- Thursday and Friday this man was out on bail, and our children were up there without any protection whatsoever."
Reminding the board that one phone call to law enforcement could have ensured their presence at the school during a time of known vulnerability, he said, "We could be at a funeral home right now."
Addressing board member Chad Graham, who also serves as director of Bedford County Emergency Medical Services, Johnson said, "Chad, you don't have enough ambulances to take care of what that AK47 could have done. There's a lot of parents who feel the same way. There should have been law enforcement Thursday and Friday. This guy was out, and he said he was coming back."
"There's a lot of parents who don't have any trust right now. This is my child, this needs to be addressed. I'm willing to help out in any way I can," said Johnson.
Bone agreed with Johnson's concern. "That's a concern we had, too, after we learned about it. I didn't pick up on the fact that he had made bond. I didn't know until Friday afternoon. As soon as I realized that, I had the same concern as you did."
Barrett explained that Watts' bond had been set by the judicial commissioner on duty at the time of his arrest. "Those bonds are up to the discretion of the commissioner."
Barrett said he also did not know until noon on Friday that Watts was free on bail. "I didn't know anything about it until I had a parent come to me .... I didn't have a clue. I didn't know what was going on.
"If something happens in a school where you have an SRO, I'll know about it before anyone else. City police don't answer to me. They don't have to call me. That's the problem," said Barrett.
In wrapping up the meeting, board member Dr. Andrea Anderson, also a parent of a TMS student, praised the positive things that had occurred out of the incident.
"We have to use this as a learning experience, and be thankful nothing happened. The biggest thing parents can do is what you've done tonight. We all need to be thankful nothing did happen and work toward making sure nothing ever does."