By Steve Hunley
Last week both the print and electronic media reported on an incident at Holston Middle School. It caused a firestorm and called into question just how effective the school system’s security procedures are. Had this incident not immediately followed the mass shooting at a Florida school, it might have gone unnoticed. Instead, it is, at the very least, disturbing and cause for concern on the part of parents and grandparents.
The incident involved a alleged shooting threat at Holston Middle School, which caused the principal to telephone the suspected student’s mother. Law enforcement was not notified and discovering the threat on their own, eventually found the boy thought to have made the threats. The principal at Holston, according to Superintendent Bob Thomas, did not contact any of the three entities as required by protocol to evaluate the threat. Since that time, teachers at Holston and at least one candidate for the Knox County Board of Education have rallied around Principal Kathryn Lutton.
As it turns out nothing bad happened, but the entire episode called into question a very serious matter: do school officials follow their own prescribed safety protocols and is the security effective? Keep in mind, Knox County taxpayers pay literally millions of dollars to keep our children secure in our schools. Sometime after the Sandy Hook shootings, the Knox County School system hired more than one hundred security officers for each and every school in our community. Sad to say, but even this does not always guarantee the safety of our children as evidenced by the fact the security officer in Parkland never even entered the school when the youngsters were being gunned down.
Clearly every school system, especially in light of all that has happened, needs protocols and policies to be prepared for what we all hope will never occur. If protocols and policies are not followed in these instances, why do we have them? Not only do these policies and protocols matter, they are critical when the unthinkable happens. Quite unfortunately, in these situations there is a tendency on the part of the school system to operate in a defensive mode and assume an attitude to preserve, protect, and defend the system itself. Naturally, that same attitude does not lend itself to keeping the safety of the children first and foremost in mind.
The Knoxville Police Department rushed to say school security is adequate. This ignores a statement made by Sergeant Jason Hill of the KPD, who said he believes there is a “flaw” in the Knox County Schools’ security system. Hill said the Holston incident was “not the first time” law enforcement officials have not been notified of a potential threat in a timely fashion. Hill pointedly said there have been several occasions when the Knox County School system has known for “hours” of a potential threat and had not reported it to the proper law enforcement agencies. While giving the Knox County School system’s security apparatus its approval, the KPD did say there needed to be some “tweaks” here and there.
A young man in Oak Ridge has been arrested and charged with making threats to “shoot up the school” and fortunately, the youngster claimed it was a joke, although he was expelled. In that particular instance, the prospective threat was promptly and properly reported to law enforcement professionals. Another local young woman was later arrested for having made threats against another student.
Teachers and administrators are mere human beings, just like you and me. Like all of us, they can make mistakes and we ought to be understanding about those things. That being said, what is impossible to understand is why anyone would take it upon himself or herself to ignore the stated protocols to ensure the safety of our students. Even if the gamble should pay off, the wager involves the potential lives of children and that is too great a risk to take.
It is often said that some politicians never let a crisis go to waste. Apparently a candidate for the Knox County Board of Education used the incident to promote himself for public office. This is absolutely disgraceful. The people of that district ought to keep in mind they have the opportunity to pass upon a candidate who shows less interest in the safety of students than self-promotion and wallowing in an opportunity to ingratiate himself with teachers and administrators at a school his child attends.
There is no excuse for any Knox County school personnel for not following to the letter the stated protocols and proper measures for reporting and evaluating any perceived threat to the students. At least in this instance, Superintendent Bob Thomas and the Knox County School system have the opportunity to fix the problems, reiterate there will be no future tolerance for failure to strictly adhere to stated safety protocols, and strengthen ties and improve cooperation with local law enforcement agencies. There may not be a second chance to do so.