Rockford Elementary School was evacuated Wednesday afternoon due to a bomb threat. An unknown caller issued a bomb threat at 12:50 p.m., and staff and students evacuated the building within five minutes.
Ten Blount County Sheriff's Office deputies responded and searched the interior and exterior of the school. After deputies cleared the campus at 2:10 p.m., staff and students, who were relocated to a nearby church as a precaution, were given the "all-clear" to re-enter the building.
Principal Carol Chastain produced a release several hours later informing community members about the bomb threat, said communications director Betsy Cunningham, who posted it on PlanetK8. The announcement read: "Law enforcement conducted a thorough search of Rockford, no threat was discovered, school will resume Thursday, Jan. 15."
Across the county, Union Grove Middle School dealt with its own threat. A 14-year-old boy told his peers that he had a "kill list," and the administration's investigation ran concurrently with Rockford Elementary's bomb threat.
Principal Alicia Lail notified SRO Elizabeth Courtney about the threat at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Cunningham said. Lail addressed the "disciplinary matter" with the boy and thought the matter was resolved, based upon information at that time.
Courtney and Union Grove Elementary's SRO Bret Shaw followed up on the disciplinary matter after school hours and reported the discovery of a "kill list" with three names on it, she said. Lail contacted the parents of the three children on the list and told them about the situation.
Since the incident, some community members have questioned Union Grove Middle's response. Some parents have expressed displeasure that the district didn't contact the entire school community about the incident, and others question whether the school should have been put into lockdown.
Director of Schools Rob Britt defended Union Grove Middle School's response. "I'm pleased with the overall response. The principal, SRO, staff and students did what they were supposed to do in a timely manner. It all started with the students telling their teacher, who immediately relayed that information. The administration and SRO were able to resolve the matter, and the SRO was able to find additional information after school.
"Based upon the evidence that has been collected, no one was in danger. The principal made the appropriate decision. A lockdown would have been inappropriate given the situation."
Administrators have made preliminary assessments of both responses, Britt said. "As a general practice, you debrief and reassess procedures and protocols. You determine what worked and what can be improved. Our procedures clearly worked and were well-executed."
As a result of both school-level responses though, Britt said the district will establish "general parameters" to guide communication in the future. "We want to be timely and transparent with our school community."
He also emphasized that the Blount County Board of Education's safety management team is currently reviewing security upgrades throughout the district. Team members are prioritizing items related to alert management systems, controlled access points and security cameras.
However, Britt said the system's procedures and protocols are working as evidenced by Wednesday's incidents.
"We're extremely fortunate and blessed to have an outstanding working relationship with the Blount County Sheriff's Office and its SROs," Britt said. "There are very few school districts that have an extremely well-trained law enforcement officer posted in every school. Principals work collaboratively with SROs to ensure procedures and protocols are followed. SROs also help us, staff and students, prepare and train for events."
Principals hold a brief, informal meeting every morning with SROs, Britt said. They discuss the day's events and potential risk factors.
After this meeting, administrators and SROs work independently for most of the day, he said. They reconvene when incidents and risks arise throughout the day and work together to resolve the situations.
Administrators are provided with flip charts for potential events, such as active shooters, bomb threats and weather-related threats, Britt said. Charts provide general response guidelines.
Principals might present a recommendation to the law enforcement officer and solicit his/her opinion, he said. The administrator might also request information, usually legal advice, that will help them to make a decision.
SROs might also present a recommendation based upon the situation, Britt said. "However, the principal ultimately is the person who's responsible for the safety of everybody in the building."
"We're there to assist school administrators," said BCSO Sgt. Jeff Hicks. "They are the 'loco parentis,' which is Latin for 'in the place of a parent.' They have the legal responsibility to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent."
Crisis management teams
In addition to these resources, principals have additional crisis management tools at their disposal.
Blount County Schools has school-level crisis management teams that operate under a systemwide crisis management team. Teams assess and create procedures and protocols for potential events, in addition to organizing staff and student training for these threats.
Each school team comprises the principal, school resource officer and staff members. Team members produce annual crisis management plans that are stored at the building, Central Office and Blount County Sheriff's Office.
The district's team, which includes each school team and public safety representatives, meets quarterly to review safety items, Hicks said. BCSO, Blount County E-911 Communications Center, Blount County's Emergency Management Agency, Blount County Fire Department and Rural/Metro Ambulance Service are represented.
First responders review the crisis management plans every semester, Hicks said. They maintain digital and hard copies of the plans, which feature satellite maps of each campus and identify staging areas for a number of events, including fires.
"We have all of this information available at our fingertips," he said. "It helps us keep up."
Technology can't take the place of relationship building, though, Hicks said. "You have to build relationships if you want people to buy into anything."
Britt agreed with Hicks, noting relationships are a key part of its strategic plan. "One of the things our schools are doing well is establishing and maintaining good relationships with staff, students and community members. It's an important component that gets overlooked. Union Grove Middle School's situation was resolved because students felt comfortable enough talking to their teacher about a potential threat."
By Matthew Stewart -The Daily Times