It was not standing room only at Dade County High School as top county law enforcement and school administration held a “Parent Safety” meeting on Monday, but a good 40 to 50 citizens showed up and they were all packed with concern and suggestions.
The safety meeting was announced after two disturbing incidents at the high school last week: First, an 18-year-old girl was arrested on Feb. 27 for scrawling an angry death threat on a bathroom wall; then, on Friday, two 17-year-old boys were arrested for brokering a handgun sale at the school. No one was hurt and no shots were fired in either incident, but recent deadly school shootings across the nation have inclined cops and educators to treat any whiff of school violence with dead seriousness. As DCHS principal James Fahrney said at the meeting: “After what happened in Florida, everybody was put on notice.”
Fahrney (left) said that in the past, educators might have dismissed small infractions with “let his parents worry about him” or “it’s just a kid being a kid.” “Well, we can’t afford to do that anymore,” said Farhney. “Those days are over.”
He and Dr. Jan Harris, superintendent of schools, both commended Brent Cooper, the assistant principal who had apprehended the boys who bought and sold the gun on Friday. Fahrney described how Cooper had decided to search one of the boys because he thought the youth was acting odd. Cooper’s hunch paid off when he found $350 in the student’s boot. Fahrney said Cooper had then questioned the other boy, who ultimately confessed: “My life is over, but I have a gun.”
Dr. Harris (right) stressed that in both the gun and graffiti threat (“f*** this school, im killing all of you 2morrow”) cases, Fahrney and law enforcement had been able to have the offenders under arrest almost immediately. In the case of the death threat, security cameras had helped law enforcement identify and arrest the suspect.
All three of the youthful arrestees have bonded out of jail by now, but Dr. Harris specified in an email this morning they have not rejoined their schoolmates. “We are in the midst of ‘due process’ with each student,” said the super. “They are not in classes at DCHS.”
Dade Sheriff Ray Cross and Trenton Police Department Chief Christy Smith both spoke at the Monday night meeting, and their message was loud and clear: We’re on it.
“I’m trying to send the message out that we’re not playing,” said Sheriff Cross.
Kids had to understand, said the sheriff (left), that in today’s atmosphere of school shootings, law enforcement must and will deal with students harshly. “I’m not going to tolerate it,” he said. “You could not have picked a worse possible time to make a threat like that,” he said he'd told the offending student.
He suggested a school assembly might be in order, to take the we-mean-it message directly to the students. “I don’t think some of them get it,” said the sheriff. He said he’d explained to the boys who brought the gun to school that if convicted of the felony charges against them they would not be able to vote or carry a gun in the future. “Do you know what you just did to your life?” he’d told them.
But Sheriff Cross also warned parents there was only so much law enforcement could do. “We can’t look in every backpack,” he said. “We need your help, too.”
Safety starts at home, said Cross. “Keep an eye on your kid,” he said. “You’ve got to let them know who’s the parent.”
Cross said he’s working with state officials to get more funds to put more SROs—school resource officers—in schools, but meanwhile, he assured: “We’re trying everything we can with the money we have.” He told parents the sheriff’s office and Trenton Police Department were both protecting the schools vigilantly, showing up randomly to patrol the schools unannounced.
And don’t worry if our numbers seem small, said Cross; he could pick up the phone and get reinforcements from all over. “We can have an army here in a minute,” said Cross. “Helicopters and everything else.”
Trenton Police Chief Christy Smith (right) reinforced that message. “Have confidence in us,” she said. “We are doing everything we can.”
Chief Smith urged concerned citizens to share suggestions and warnings—her number is (423) 645-3122—and to message through the Trenton Police Department’s Facebook page if they didn’t want to call.
She also discussed her department’s need to be tough on threats to school safety--and she touched on some resistance to that from the community. “We had a lot of backlash when we made these arrests,” said Chief Smith.
Not from us, said the parents who came to the meeting. “Thank you,” said one, for tough enforcement.
The parents, too, made it clear they were taking all this seriously. “Scare the kids to death,” one of them said.
They, after all, were frightened themselves, they pointed out. “We as parents, we’re scared to send our kids to school,” said one.
We do have 100 percent confidence in the local cops, said one mother, in that they’d be all over an incident the minute it happens. “For me, it’s getting to it before it happens,” she said.
Once a kid is shot, it’s too late, she pointed out. In the case of the Friday gun sale, she said, the boy who bought the firearm hadn’t planned to shoot it at the school. But: “If he’d been planning on shooting it, it would have already happened.”
Here’s one suggestion parents made: Bring back the metal detectors they had endured themselves going to Dade High in the ‘90s.
Law enforcement and school officials argued against that idea. Metal detectors just weren’t feasible, they said, given the layout of some schools, and would cause delays getting kids into and out of classes. Belt buckles, coins and keys all set metal detectors off. Maybe handheld wands could be used, said Fahrney, but at tough schools in the Atlanta area where he'd worked he’d found metal detectors more or less ineffectual. Besides, said Chief Smith: “We don’t really want to make our schools feel like a prison.”
That’s all right, said the parents: “It delayed us a little bit but we weren’t getting murdered by one another,” said one.
As for looking into every backpack, said a citizen, her son had gone to school in Chattanooga for a while, where kids were required to carry clear backpacks. That would make it easier, right?
As for money constraints, “We don’t want to hear ‘budget,’’’ said one parent: Just keep the kids safe.
One citizen suggested using police dogs—two were in evidence at the meeting—to sniff out gun oil or gunpowder. Sheriff Cross explained dogs couldn’t be used to sniff around a person, and in any case weren’t trained to detect weapons.
A citizen asked about security cameras: Her son had been sitting under one at the high school when another student pulled a knife on him, she said, but it hadn’t been working and the matter had been dropped for lack of evidence. Were the cameras working?
Principal Fahrney addressed that. He explained that right under a camera was a good place to misbehave because the cameras tended to point down halls, not right underneath themselves. But he’d just finished checking out the cameras and: “Every one is operational at the high school right now,” he assured.
And what about substitute teachers? parents asked. Her kid had had a sub on Friday, said one, and that sub hadn’t had a clue what to do. Fahrney and Dr. Harris agreed that was something they needed to work on.
Dade Middle School was also a matter of concern for parents. Dade Emergency Management Services boss Alex Case (left) had spoken at the meeting, describing how he met with principals each year to work out safety plans for the schools, and describing security doors in place at all of them. “They’re kind of in a semi-lockdown every day,” Case had said.
But a parent pointed out that that wasn’t true at DMS, whose layout meant kids were always out in the parking lot, walking back and forth between buildings.
“That is something I don’t have an answer to,” admitted Dr. Harris. She said school officials had met with an architect about how to make the middle school more secure, and Dr. Sandra Spivey, principal at DMS, said, “We’re working on it.”
The overwhelming theme that attending parents, grandparents and citizens in general put forth Monday night, with some robustness, was why not use volunteers? You want help? they said. Let us help.
Michael Scott, who had volunteered as an armed school guard at the February Board of Education meeting last week, made the offer again on Monday. Sheriff Cross explained there were all sorts of legal problems with that one: All right, said another man, then let us walk through the schools unarmed protecting the armed police officers.
“We want to limit how many outside people are in the schools,” said Sheriff Cross. If there’s an incident and you’re not in uniform, he explained, law officers may take you for a bad guy and shoot you.
“Give me something to put on,” said Michael Scott.
“Get ‘em a T-shirt,” urged another other man.
“If we have people willing to volunteer, why not take advantage of it?” said a woman.
Maybe, said Dr. Harris, volunteers could help at the problematic DMS campus to monitor student comings and goings. “We’ll explore that idea for sure,” she said.
Dr. Harris said the problem of school violence was complex. “It’s kind of like an onion,” she said. “There’s just layers and layers.” She blamed part of it on violence depicted on television, which she said had doubled in recent years.
Besides the message she and law enforcement reiterate over and over again about school threats--"See something, say something"--what Dr. Harris emphasized in closing the meeting was that law enforcement and school administration were taking not just the threat of violence but citizens’ concerns and suggestions about dealing with it into account.
“I hear you,” she said.