By Heather Mullinix
A local parent says he wants the rights of parents to pick up their children from school recognized while school officials and law enforcement say procedures and policies for after-school dismissal are necessary to keep the students, staff and parents safe in local schools.
"I've waited in line for years at that school. It has nothing to do with waiting in line. It has everything to do with the school having the power to say when you can or cannot pick up your child," said James A. Howe, 40, of Crossville. "We did not do this to get out of sitting in line."
Howe was arrested by School Resource Officer Avery Aytes, a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, on a charge of disorderly conduct Nov. 14. A video posted to YouTube by Howe and shared on social media sites of the arrest has gone viral, reaching more than 500,000 views. Howe said he did not send the video to any news outlets, but that news media contacted him after it was shared on social media.
The video starts inside the office of South Cumberland Elementary School with Aytes saying, "I'm telling you right now, I'm not putting up with this today. You're being childish and it's uncalled for."
The affidavit of complaint signed by Aytes states Howe was "making unreasonable noise, arguing, being disruptive, refusing to follow rules. His actions prevented others from carrying on lawful activities."
Aytes wrote this was the second instance of such behavior at the school by Howe.
Howe said he was unaware of the new procedure after being out of town the week prior to the change. Before, parents would either line up in a car line or park in the school and overflow parking lots and walk to the front of the school. Parents would line up, he said, and wait for the staff member to call the children outside and then they would walk their children to their vehicle.
"We did know that there was a new policy coming down the line; however, we never got anything in the mail about the new policy that spelled out what it would be," Howe said. "In all fairness, nobody knew from a written piece of paper, how the new system would play out."
Nov. 12, Howe said he arrived at the school between 2 and 2:15 p.m. and parked and waited for the dismissal bell, as he had in the past. He says he was told he need to get in the car line in order to pick up his two children.
"The SRO officer asked us plainly, 'What are you doing?' We said, 'We're here to pick up our kids,'" Howe said. "He was very rude, very blunt."
At that time, Howe said the traffic was backed up a long distance on Lantana Rd., with some reports saying traffic was backed up to Lantana Rd. Baptist Church waiting to turn into the school.
"I said I was not going out on the road to be a sitting target. I said, 'You can't hold my kid. I need to pick him up,'" Howe said.
A video of that day is posted on YouTube, along with a video of the arrest two days later.
Howe said the school would not release his children to him on Tuesday without going through the car line.
"Rather than have a bunch more arguing and fighting, we got our kids the normal way and left," Howe said.
The next day, Howe said he met with Sheriff Butch Burgess regarding what he said were dangerous conditions, specifically the line of cars backed up to Lantana Rd. on the shoulder of the highway. That afternoon, he waited in line on the road and picked up his kids without incident.
Burgess said, "I agreed there was a problem with the traffic. But as far as the policies for picking up students, I referred him to the school system, either the principal or the director of schools."
On Nov. 14, Howe said he talked with Burgess again and was advised the department was working with the school to develop a better plan.
"I told him I still was not comfortable sitting out on the road and that, on that day, I was going to walk onto the campus to pick up the kids," Howe said. "I asked if he saw a problem with that. I told him that this deputy had a severe problem with me and I feared he was going to arrest me."
Howe said when he walked up to the school entrance, he was asked to go into the office and sign a form. The problem was the form allowed his children to leave the school as unattended walkers. Howe said he did not want that. He wanted the students released to him to walk to his vehicle parked off campus.
"I said I would not be signing that piece of paper to give my kids the right to walk on their own. I was there to pick them up, walking, not to release them walking," Howe said.
There are about five students at South Cumberland that walk to and from school. Those students are the last to leave campus, after buses have been loaded and the car line had disbursed.
Principal Darrell Threet is heard on the video asking Howe to follow the same rules the other parents were following.
"He [Aytes] started saying that I was not above the rules and that I was going to follow the rules. He just started being belligerent. As soon as he started raising his voice, we started filming again," Howe said.
Howe said his main complaint has to do with when children are returned to the supervision of the parents by the school.
"The law is, after the bell, you give our kids to us. The law says a 'reasonable amount of time.' That's 15 minutes," Howe told the Chronicle.
Director of Schools Donald Andrews said, "There is a question that we are trying to say that we can control when parents can and cannot pick up children. That's the furthest thing from the truth. What we are saying is we have to have controlled pick up.
"What we cannot tolerate is parents coming on to campus in any situation and violating the guidelines and jeopardizing the safety and well being of other parents, staff and, most importantly, our children. That's unacceptable and we will defend that."
Andrews said another parent had asked to walk to the school and pick up their child. That request was granted by filling out the form Howe was presented and the parent was advised he would have to wait until walkers were released.
Howe said he was at no time asked to leave the school grounds, though on the video, Threet says, "I'm asking you to do the same thing the other parents are doing."
Howe replied, "I can't stand in line. I'm walking and picking my kids up."
Threet explained students who walk wait until after the buses leave.
Howe responded, "Kids who walk by themselves. I'm here to pick my child up, walking."
After the conversation continued, Aytes asked Howe to place his hands behind his back and placed him under arrest. He was transported to the Cumberland County Jail and booked on the misdemeanor charge. He is to appear in Cumberland County General Sessions Court Dec. 2.
The video was posted to YouTube and shared on Howe's Facebook page. The school, Central Services office and the Sheriff's Department have been flooded with phone calls this past week from across the country and around the globe with many condemning the deputy's actions and calling on the school to change its policies regarding parental access.
Burgess said he was looking into the situation and talking with others that were at the school during the arrest.
"I'm not making any snap judgments," Burgess said.
Fundraising for Howe's "legal battle" has been launched online, something many people commenting on the video asked him to do. He said it would be used to fight the criminal charge and a possible civil liberties lawsuit. As of Friday, $2,600 had been raised through the site.
Howe does have a legal battle in another county, with charges of aggravated assault and vandalism from an Aug. 23 arrest. According to the McMinn County General Sessions Court Clerk's office, the vandalism charge was dismissed Nov. 21, and the aggravated assault charge was bound over to action of the grand jury, with the case to be presented in December and any action reported back in January. When asked about that situation, Howe said he did not believe that situation had any bearing on the Cumberland County incident and told the Chronicle the case had been dismissed.
Howe did say GoFundMe was a reputable site and if he did not use the funds donated in the manner presented, he would face the consequences of that.
In the meantime, he wants to work on changing school policies to better protect parental rights he says are guaranteed by the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions.
"I don't feel our rights are being upheld," Howe said.
Howe did say he believed the incident was an isolated incident.
"We have a bunch of good officers and deputies," Howe said. "This does not paint a picture of Cumberland County."