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Majority of board remains silent about gangs, hazing in schools

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Andy Daniels
Tim Brewer
Sarah Andrews

After hearing from our readers, the Hendersonville Standard recently reached out to each of the 11 members of the Sumner County School Board via email, asking each member a series of questions concerning reported gang activity, bullying, fighting and hazing in local schools, as well as the district's reporting of those incidents.

The questionnaire follows a March 9 editorial in the Hendersonville Standard called "Our View: Half-truths and denials only breed mistrust" and multiple stories including a reported hazing incident involving Station Camp High School students that left one student reportedly being burned with a hot iron.

Another story covered an event at Gallatin High School where a fight broke out between multiple students. The school system's spokesperson immediately told news outlets the fight was not believed to be gang-related, but a police report two weeks later told a different story. The Hendersonville Standard also received phone calls, emails and Facebook messages from parents and stakeholders at GHS who told us they were concerned that the school system was more concerned about image than transparency. That incident forced an assistant principal to later seek medical care at an emergency room for head injuries.

In addition, we also asked school board members about an ongoing appeal to a recent lawsuit questioning the system's refusal to accept open records requests through email. The school system has spent more than $200,000 to defend its policy, even appealing a local judge's ruling to the State Court of Appeals.

Board Chairman Andy Daniels is the only member who responded within the eight-day requested deadline. A copy of the emails was then hand-delivered to each member during a regularly scheduled study session, after which three more board members replied. Here is what they said:

Andy Daniels

  1. Do you believe the school system's responses to the recent fight at Gallatin High School and the alleged hazing incident at Station Camp High School were appropriate? Should the school system have corrected the record when they knew the information they initially provided was wrong? Does there need to be a change in policy in terms of how the school system informs the public/media about delicate issues like these?

When administrators believe something criminal has occurred, they defer to trained law enforcement professionals to collect and gather incident details, determine the facts, and provide both police officials and school officials with factual information that can be used to make the proper disciplinary decisions; whether that be discipline of a student and/or the filing of charges.

In regard to questions about Gallatin High School and Station Camp High School, facts clearly show that as soon as school administrators became aware of the situations, authorities were immediately contacted to both respond to and investigate the incidents. The district's standard policy and procedure were followed. In both instances, disciplinary action was taken by the school district.

Local media have an obligation to report on events in our community, and as a member of the School Board, I believe we have a responsibility to share whatever details and information we can, while also acknowledging two very important facts.

First, our students are protected by privacy laws, and as such, I believe we should always be sensitive to the information that is shared, particularly with incidents that involve student discipline. This isn't a lack of transparency; it's doing what is in the best interest of all students.

Second, any information provided should always be based on confirmed facts that are known at that time, not on assumptions or opinions. This means that information provided in the immediate aftermath of an event may be incomplete, and as authorities finish their investigation, it is likely additional facts will be discovered, confirmed, and/or dismissed in the official report.

A challenge we face in the school system is misinformation and reactions that often appear on social media before administrators and authorities have even had a chance to respond to an incident, let alone complete an investigation to determine the facts. Our administrators are expected to address rumors and provide immediate information while they are still in the process of addressing the incident. I believe the priority for our administrators should be to address the issue at hand and ensure that all students are safe and secure and then provide as much timely and accurate information as possible to parents and the public.

As the chairman of the School Board, I believe we have a responsibility to not rush to judgement based on social media rumors and trust that a proper investigation will provide us with a factual account of an incident, giving us the ability to follow board policy and respond appropriately to all types of situations.

  1. Do you believe there is a gang problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?

No. See my response to question three.

  1. Do you believe bullying and hazing are a problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?

I was born and raised in the city of Gallatin, attended many of our city's incredible schools, and am a proud graduate of Gallatin High School. I am now a father with children at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and both of my high school children have been, or currently are, on school athletic teams.

I think this is important to share as a preface to my answer, because my personal experience and conversations with others lead me to believe that bullying and hazing or gangs are not a problem in our county schools.

Within our district, teachers, counselors, administrators and staff employ many preventative strategies to reduce incidents of bulling and hazing, starting in our elementary schools. And when an instance of conflict between students does occur, they are addressed by the proper authorities and/or school administrators per Board policy and state law.

Outside the school system, we are fortunate to live in a county where so many want to see our students succeed. Volunteers from groups and organizations like CASA, SURGE, the Sumner Teen Center, Girls on a Run, and local churches, just to name a few, willingly invest their time and energy into mentoring and helping our students improve academically, build confidence, acquire life skills, develop meaningful and impactful positive relationships and more.

It is because of our community and all of the people in it working with us, that I can honestly say that our children have the opportunity to learn and be nurtured in a safe and secure school environment that provides every student with the opportunity to achieve whatever dreams they may have.

  1. Do you believe the school system should agree to accept open records request through email? If not, why not? Either way, should the school system stop spending money to fight the current lawsuit. If not, should there be a limit as to how much the school system should spend to fight this lawsuit or do they have a blank check?

I believe that we, as a School Board, designed and adopted an Open Records policy similar to policies of other school districts across the state which helps our staff to best balance and manage all of our resources and obligations under the law.

As this newspaper has reported, the lawsuit referenced is currently working its way through the appeals process. While the School Board made the decision to appeal, opposing counsel made the decision to appeal as well. This is important because it means we would still have to defend our position in appellate court, even if we had decided not to appeal.

I also realize the fact that lawsuits cost money, regardless of whether you are the one pursuing damages or defending yourself. Unfortunately, as a large entity, we do occasionally find ourselves named in a lawsuit, and regardless of the lawsuit's merits, we are forced to defend ourselves. Please know our School Board typically allocates a little less than 1% of our annual budget for legal expenses, and we have prevailed, either through those suits being dismissed because they lacked merit or a favorable judgement in court, in the vast majority of lawsuits that have been filed against the system in recent years.

That being said, I cannot remember a time when we asked to be sued. In fact, I think all Board Members would prefer if we were never named in a lawsuit and never had to budget dollars for legal expenses, but I do completely support the board's right to defend our lawful policies and practices in court, just as any other business or individual has the right to do.

Tim Brewer

  1. Do you believe the school system's responses to the recent fight at Gallatin High School and the alleged hazing incident at Station Camp High School were appropriate? Should the school system have corrected the record when they knew the information they initially provided was wrong? Does there need to be a change in policy in terms of how the school system informs the public/media about delicate issues like these?
  2. Do you believe there is a gang problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?
  3. Do you believe bullying and hazing are a problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?

4: Do you believe the school system should agree to accept open records request through email? If not, why not? Either way, should the school system stop spending money to fight the current lawsuit.

If not, should there be a limit as to how much the school system should spend to fight this lawsuit or do they have a blank check?

*In response to this, I have read the Chairman's response and agree with it totally.

Sarah Andrews

  1. Do you believe the school system's responses to the recent fight at Gallatin High School and the alleged hazing incident at Station Camp High School were appropriate? Should the school system have corrected the record when they knew the information they initially provided was wrong? Does there need to be a change in policy in terms of how the school system informs the public/media about delicate issues like these?
  2. Do you believe there is a gang problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?
  3. Do you believe bullying and hazing are a problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?
  4. Do you believe the school system should agree to accept open records request through email? If not, why not? Either way, should the school system stop spending money to fight the current lawsuit. If not, should there be a limit as to how much the school system should spend to fight this lawsuit or do they have a blank check?

*I have reviewed the responses provided to you by Chairman Daniels and I stand in agreement with him. I feel as though he answered each question thoroughly and at this time I have nothing to add.

Tammy Hayes

  1. Do you believe the school system's responses to the recent fight at Gallatin High School and the alleged hazing incident at Station Camp High School were appropriate? Should the school system have corrected the record when they knew the information they initially provided was wrong? Does there need to be a change in policy in terms of how the school system informs the public/media about delicate issues like these?
  2. Do you believe there is a gang problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?
  3. Do you believe bullying and hazing are a problem in county schools? If so, what should be done to fix it?
  4. Do you believe the school system should agree to accept open records request through email? If not, why not? Either way, should the school system stop spending money to fight the current lawsuit. If not, should there be a limit as to how much the school system should spend to fight this lawsuit or do they have a blank check?

*In response to your letter and e-mail I agree with Mr. Daniels, our Sumner County School Board Chairman. He serves as our spokesman and he did so with integrity. I look forward to reading his response to your questions in the paper.

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