Members of the Cumberland County Board of Education said news coverage of a school shooting plot uncovered at a local elementary school caught them off guard in April.
“It was shocking,” Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said during the May 30 meeting of the board. “I knew nothing, as a board member, about this press conference, about what was to be said or what was happening in our schools other than there were two students. That’s all the information we got until I got on social media.
“I think there needs to be a better line of communication the next time something like this happens.”
Director of Schools Janet Graham said this was the first confirmed threat the newly formed threat assessment team had dealt with, and communication had been identified for improvement.
“This was the first time in my tenure we were faced with that situation,” Graham said. “I should have sent a text message before the press conference at 3:30 p.m.”
She said she had gone from court that morning to South Cumberland Elementary to other meetings.
“In our debrief, we recognized and realize that communication pieces was missed. We learned some things we can and will do better heaven forbid we’re ever faced with that situation again.”
She had sent the board a text message on the Friday afternoon when the plot was found. However, information was limited, she said.
“That was as far as we could go because it was an active and ongoing investigation,” Graham said.
Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said he learned more about the situation from his daughters than he knew.
“That’s kind of embarassing,” he said.
Rebecca Hamby, 7th District representative, works with the sheriff’s office. She noted the team addressed communication concerns during a meeting of the safety committee.
“It’s a brand-new thing,” she said. “There is a lot having to be worked out.”
Stace Karge, 9th District representative, said her biggest concern was seeing a press conference in progress and not having been notified.
Boston said the lack of board representation at the press conference had caused some of her constituents to question the board’s concern for the students in the schools.
“This is what has come back to me through different members of the community,” Boston said. “It gave the allusion that we were the only members of this community that did not care about our children and their safety.”
Karge said she had not heard that.
“I think Mrs. Graham did a nice job. I didn’t get that at all,” Karge said.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said, “I think what people need to realize is it was out of our hands. It wasn’t our decision or Janet’s decision when to make the press release. Once law enforcement is involved, law enforcement leads.”
Boston said the school district had “allowed” a threat assessment team to go into the school to assess a threat.
“Not knowing anything about it, I started doing a little research on what our policies called for,” Boston said.
The state passed legislation this past spring that allows local education associations to establish threat assessment teams. But Cumberland County’s team, Boston said, appeared to be under the direction of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
“They do not operate under our polices or our procedures,” Boston said.
She asked the board’s policy committee to review the policies on new conferences and emergency plans and crisis management and the recently passed legislation.
“I would like them to begin to develop a threat assessment team that falls under the board of education’s policies, where we know what the procedures are and we have a little bit more control,” she said.
Stone said he didn’t believe the board needed to vote to refer the matter to the policy committee.
“We can have a policy. We’ll work diligently to make it as good as we can,” he said. “But at some point, we lose control and law enforcement takes over.”
Boston said the school system needs policies and procedures in place to ensure everyone knows what to expect.
Rob Safdie, 1st District representative, said there were two types of failures: procedural and substantive.
“There was no substantive failure. It was a procedural issue,” he said.
The Tennessee Department of Education is currently developing procedures and suggestions for implementing the new legislation. The Tennessee School Boards Association will also be developing a model policy for school systems.