Superintendent updates parents, students on school situation

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towns county schools covid 19

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County School District Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong updated parents and students on the COVID-19 school situation on Friday, stating that the campus will remain closed until at least April 24. “So the soonest that we can go back to school is (Monday) April 27,” Berrong said. That date is obviously not certain. This date keeps being pushed back continuously so I honestly don’t know if we will be returning to school this year or not. I hope that we can return to school. I know that our students are missing being in the classes with their friends. Our teachers are missing the students in the classroom so we’re hoping to get back to classes as soon as possible.”

Dr Darren Berrong

Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong

Spring Break is scheduled from April 6 -10. “We will be continuing our Spring Break as normal…,” Berrong explained. “Whether you travel or not during Spring Break is a whole nother story so you may be staying at home during that time.” Teachers will break as well during the week, and online learning will cease if the students have completed their assignments by that time. Berrong said that there have been issues with students not completing their schoolwork. “So we are asking parents, please check up on your child,” Berrong said. “All the communication with them from their teachers is coming through their school email, through their Google Classrooms. So take some time during the day to check up with your children, make sure that they are getting the work done that they’re supposed to be getting done.”

There will no school meal delivery during Spring Break, however, on Friday, April 3, meals will be delivered to the pick-up locations for the following week. Pick-up locations are Lower Hightower Church, the Towns County Senior Center, and Enotah Apartments in Young Harris. Berrong encouraged student participation in the meal program, explaining that it benefits the students and the school receives cost reimbursement from the state. Approximately 180 hot meals are being served each day from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. Berrong added that he hopes to see the number of participants in the meal program increase to 250 to 300 students. If the time does not work for pick-up, Berrong said that other arrangements can potentially be made.

Berrong reiterated the importance of students continuing their studies while the Towns County Schools’ campus is closed.

Towns County teacher tests negative for COVID-19

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Towns County COVID-19

HIAWASSEE, Ga- Towns County Schools announced Tuesday, March 17, that an elementary school teacher who was thought to have possibly contracted COVID-19 received a negative test result. The Towns County resident was transferred from Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville overnight on Monday, March 16, with severe symptoms resembling the virus.

“The Towns County Elementary School teacher who was tested for COVID-19/Coronavirus has received a negative test result,” School Superintendent Darren Berrong stated. “We are pleased to announce that the teacher does not have the virus and is beginning to feel better.”

Towns County Schools made the suspected virus case known on their social media page, March 16, as a precaution due to the rapid rate of spread of the virus.

“Towns County Schools learned early today that an Elementary School teacher was tested for the Coronavirus this morning.,” the school board stated March 16. “Results for the test can take up to 72 hours and we will inform everyone as we get more information. Please understand that this is NOT a confirmed case of the virus. Elementary School Employees were informed to stay home and keep their distance from parents, grandparents, and elderly populations until the test results come back. Our suggestion is the same for parents and students who were in the Elementary School last week. This is not a time for panic, but a time for wisdom. Be smart, keep your distance from other people, wash your hands religiously, and monitor yourself and children for any symptoms. Working together as a community, we can minimize the effects of this virus in Towns County. Once we learn the results of the test, a decision on what school will look like for the next 3 weeks will be made and passed on to you.”

As of March 17, no confirmed COVID-19 cases are present in Towns County.

“TCEMA (Towns County Emergency Management Agency) is monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and is connected in real-time with our local, state, and federal partners,” TCEMA Director Brandon Walls said on Tuesday. “We are working around the clock to monitor, mitigate, and respond to all situations. Proper management includes proper education. We will continue to update the public regarding potential and actual COVID-19 cases in an effort to reduce the spread of false information.”

Click to connect to Towns County EMA’s Facebook page

Walls additionally suggested that concerned citizens visit the Department of Public Health’s website.

Click for Department of Public Health

Towns County Schools to hold open house for renovation reveal

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Towns County Schools
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Schools is planning a community open house Wednesday, August 7, from 5 to 7 pm, for anyone who would like to tour the upgraded campus. The Towns County Board of Education applied for a $3.3 million modernization grant in 2017, based on an estimate from Robertson Loia Roof, an architectural firm located in Alpharetta, Georgia. Due to the true cost of the renovation amounting to $4.3 million, the school board opted to delay the wiring process, which included LED lighting, until this year when additional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds became available.

Towns County Schools

New seating in the school’s gymnasium

“Our summer projects have gone smoother and faster than expected,” Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong told FetchYourNews. “We successfully renovated all our classrooms with new LVT flooring and new paint. All our restrooms were upgraded to be ADA compliant in both the school building and high school gym. We installed a new fire alarm system and have completely replaced all the 40 year old wiring in the building. The high school-middle school library received a complete renovation with a new modern look and coffee shop feel. We replaced all the lighting in the school with LED lights with motion sensors to turn off when there is no movement in the building for energy management. The high school gym received all new paint as well as well as new gym seats. All exterior doors were replaced for security purposes to make it more difficult to enter our buildings. The newly installed turf on the soccer/football field is simply beautiful.  We also renovated the softball field with a new backstop, new windscreen, a new batting cage, and locker room. With the completion of all the projects from this summer and last summer, our school building and sports facilities rival any schools systems in the state of Georgia. I couldn’t be happier with the results or more proud that we are able to provide the students of Towns County and our community with state of the art facilities that they can use and be proud of many years to come.”
Towns County football

Towns County Schools football field received new turf

Dr. Berrong plans to provide a personal tour of the renovated campus to Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, and Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby on the mornng of Aug. 1.

Towns County Schools apologize for late “shooter prank” notification

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Towns County Schools

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong posted a message to the parents of students on socisl media March 7, notifying that a false threat of a possible school shooting was posted to Instagram by a student the day prior. Many parents responded that they should have been made aware sooner in order to decide whether to send their children to school March 6.

“An Instagram post was brought to the attention of school authorities at school yesterday, Wednesday, March 6th. The post said ‘Don’t come to school tomorrow. Pew Pew Pew.’  The school turned this over to the authorities immediately,” Dr. Berrong wrote. “The post was said to be a joke, but we do not take social media posts or comments lightly in this day and age and must take any threatening statements seriously. The appropriate consequences have been given to ensure there is no threat at school. The Police are investigating the issue further. We do not feel that there is any threat at this time and want everyone to know that it is safe to be at school. We also want to thank every parent and student who has brought this to our attention. Together we can ensure that Towns County Schools remains one of the safest school in the country.”

FYN contacted Superintendent Berrong after multiple parents raised concern over the incident. Berrong stated that in hindsight, he wished that he had handled the situation differently by contacting parents on the day that the false threat occurred.

The school superintendent said that he didn’t realize how many individuals had seen the student’s Instagram post, and once aware, immediately turned the matter over to the Towns County Sheriff’s Office’s school resource officer. Berrong stated that the student who posted the prank was on campus at the time that Towns County Sheriff’s Office’s school resource officer investigated the matter, determining that danger was not a factor.

Parents, students say bullying, discrimination accepted at local school

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Towns County Schools
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Shortly before Christmas, 2018, the distraught mother of a Towns County Schools’ 8th grade student took to social media, following her teen daughter’s suicide attempt, to share what she considered a serious, unaddressed issue in the local education system: school bullying. Alli Hurley’s post quickly went viral, gaining over 1,500 shares, and amassing comments from parents and students who let Hurley know that she was far from alone in her concerns.
Following what Hurley considered failed efforts to remedy the situation through the school administrative system, Hurley contacted FetchYourNews (FYN) with a heartfelt plea to share her daughter’s predicament with the public.
“Over the winter break, my 13-year-old daughter tried to commit suicide by taking a bottle of pills,” Alli Hurley said. “By the grace of God, she was unsuccessful in her attempt, but through this experience we learned that much of the reason for her attempt was due to being bullied at school. You see, since moving to Towns County, my daughter has been teased. Whether it be for her clothes, her hair, her socioeconomic class, or her geographical origins, the kids would always find a reason to pick on her. At the beginning of 8th grade, (my daughter) came out as a lesbian, and sadly, it gave them another reason to bully her. This was a devastating time for her, as she had exposed the most vulnerable part of herself, only for her spirit to be utterly crushed by her peers…(My daughter) went to the SRO (school resource officer) and the middle school counselor, Ms. Berrong. Also, during my meeting with (Mr.) Melton, I mentioned several names to him. Then during my meeting with Ms. Berrong,  I mentioned the names to her as well.”
According to StopBullying.gov, young people who are perceived as different from their peers are often at risk for being bullied. Bullying is not usually a simple interaction between a student who bullies and a student who is bullied. Instead, it often involves groups of students who support each other in bullying other students.
Over a series of months, additional parents of students at Towns County Schools contacted FYN with similiar stories of bullying, based on alleged discrimination.
“If a kid is not an athletic superstar, doesn’t come from a well known family, or doesn’t fit into the mold of what they think kids should be, then they don’t understand them. It is the most judgmental school, and for that matter, town, that I have ever been in,” Sharon Roach, the mother of three students who attended Towns County Schools, said. “There is so much diversity in the world that these educators need to learn how to accept and be role models for these kids in a positive way. Right now, they don’t stick up for the kids that don’t fall into what they think is acceptable, and the other students know they can pick on someone for being different, and nothing will happen to them. I think it’s just a matter of time before tragedy strikes that school if they don’t get it together.”
FYN contacted Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong to provide an opportunity to address the issue.

“All three school counselors were recently certified Mental Health First Aiders,” Superintendent Berrong initially stated. “They have also completed the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). All Towns County staff attended the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) training which was held in the school auditorium this year. Towns County Schools is working with a team of Trainers from the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program which is customized for faculty, staff, adults, student peer leaders, and all other youth. Towns County Middle School also started the Sandy Hook Promise program this year. Counselors use small-group counseling, individual counseling, classroom guidance, mentoring programs, and Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) that encourages teaching positive behavior. Towns County Schools is partnered with AVITA to offer mental health counseling and support on campus. Towns County Schools also incorporated this winter the program called Teen Safety Matters, a comprehensive, evidence-informed prevention education program for middle school students in grades 6-8. The program educates and empowers teens and all relevant adults with information and strategies to prevent, recognize, and respond appropriately to bullying, cyberbullying, all types of abuse, relationship abuse, sex trafficking, and digital dangers. Towns County Schools also met with the PFLAG organization this winter and have their brochures and information readily available for students and parents.”

Bullying

A photo from Alli Hurley’s viral post

PFLAG  is an acronym for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – a support, education, and advocacy organization. Hurley, the mother of suicidal teen, told FYN that PFLAG took interest in her daughter’s plight, and contacted Towns County School administrators. Hurley has since removed her child from Towns County Schools in favor of home schooling.
A recurring theme from interviews and research conducted by FYN was harsh disapproval of a particular staff member: Towns County Schools Assistant  Principle Jim Melton. “We told the Vice Principal, Mr. Jim Melton, what happened and we left the meeting shaking our heads, furious, and completely understanding why (our daughter) felt compelled to keep things to herself,” Hurley wrote on social media  . “His response to a wonderful, sweet student that is making all A’s in advanced placement classes, one that never gets into trouble – a beautiful, gay girl that was simply trying to be proud of who she was — trying to kill herself due to relentless bullying, made comments to us (still in shock!) like, ‘I don’t like the word bullying – it’s such an overused word,’ and ‘You have to understand that this is a small town and gay people are relatively new to them,’ and ‘you know middle school is always tough on kids.'” Hurley went on to say that Melton’s response was inappropiate for an authority figure. FYN reviewed an audio recording of the conversation between Hurley and Melton to verify the paraphrased interaction.
Dozens of parents and students named Melton as problematic in the battle against bullying. On a counter note, several members of the community spoke in support of Melton. In contrast, however, those that advocated for the school administrator were from what one might consider influential, established families. FYN offered Melton an opportunity, through the Towns County Board of Education, to add personal input, and did not receive a direct response from the assistant principle. School Superintendent Berrong told FYN that his office had not received any complaints related to Melton and bullying in Berrong’s four years as an official.
“In (a) letter received from the Hurley’s written in March, they had two requests,” Superintendent Berrong responded in turn. “The first request was for the school to add additional programs and policies to help prevent bullying in our schools. From my previous email showing the programs and curriculums we use and have added since December, I believe we were already taking those steps. The second request was the termination of Mr. Melton. I feel it is important for the readers of this article to know that that Mr. Melton nor anyone else at the school had been given any names of students to investigate for this bullying. The parents validate this in their original Facebook post when they stated that their daughter would not give any specific names to the school as to who was bullying her. The school can’t consider terminating someone for a violation of ethics or breaking a law when they had zero prior knowledge to a situation until after the fact. What the school would like parents to know is that if their child feels they are being bullied or mistreated in any form, please let a teacher, counselor, or administrator know and something will be done. We can not help combat bullying if we are not informed.”
Hurley’s social media post, with hundreds of community comments, is available by clicking this link.

Reports of bullying and threats continue at Towns County Schools

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Towns County GA Schools

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Several instances of bullying and shooting threats have publicly surfaced at Towns County Schools in recent months, with numerous parents contacting FetchYourNews (FYN) to report on the matter. In December, 2018, a seventh grade student attempted suicide by overdosing on medication after alleged bullying by a classmate. The mother of the alleged victim stated that she did not feel the issue was properly addressed by school officials.

In early March of this year, a social media “prank”  warning that a weapon may be brought on campus was issued by a high school student, much to the dismay of concerned parents who were additionally troubled that they had not been notified by school administrators in an appropiate nor timely fashion.

On April 15, at a scheduled Board of Education meeting, the parent of a fifth grade student addressed school officials in reference to a recent shooting threat directed toward her daughter by a fellow student. Erin Cross, the mother of the alleged victim, stated publicly at the board session that school officials failed to rectify the situation accordingly. A male student in question penned a menacing note, claiming, “If I could shoot someone, it would be (female student’s name).”

Cross recapped previous interactions concerning the matter with Towns County School Superintendent Darren Berrong, campus administrators, and school resource officers. The mother of the fifth grader believes that the student who issued the threat should be permanately removed from Towns County Schools, thus better suited for an alternative schooling system. Cross noted that prior instances of bullying had been instigated by the student in the past, and relayed a conversation held with school staff.

“In this meeting, they informed me (that the student in question) wouldn’t return to school until the following Wednesday, March 30.” Cross said. “I did state that (Deputy) Donnie (Jarrard) told me that he nor (Deputy) Sally (Tanner) could search students without reason or cause, but that the school could, and I was advised he would be searched daily upon his return, as well as he would be removed from (alleged victim’s) class, but there was not an alternative school to send him to. I asked about in-school suspension (ISS), and I was told that wouldn’t be feasible. I questioned the high school student, and the incident that happened the week prior, and (that student) wasn’t allowed on campus. I was told again there was no alternative school…”

On April 22, FYN contacted School Superintendent Darren Berrong, offering an opportunity to issue a statement. “An elementary school (ES) student wrote a note to another student stating, ‘If I could shoot someone, I would shoot _______’,” Dr. Berrong told FYN. “The name in the blank was the daughter of the mother present at the board meeting. The note eventually made its way to the administration at the ES. The school gave appropriate consequences, as well as ensured the two students no longer had any common classes together. The information was turned over to the School Resource Officers (SRO) which was then turned over to the Juvenile Justice System. Since Towns County Schools, nor any districts near us, have an alternative school for ES students, the Board and ES administration are in discussions for a possible future need for extended disciplinary measures in case that need ever arises.”

The student who perpetrated the threat was temporaily suspended from campus, and due to answer in court as a result of charges brought forth by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Cross, however, maintains that the student should not be permitted to continue attending Towns County Schools. “I feel as if I have went through every chain of command to see that this situation is handled appropriately, to keep not only my child safe, but others as well. I don’t feel it is sufficient enough that (the student in question) can’t be assigned in a controlled enviroment to receive his education while he is getting the help that he needs through the courts…,” Cross concluded.

A 2016 study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics revealed that over 20 percent of students reported being bullied at school in the United States. A total of 33 percent of students who reported incidents indicated that they were targeted at least once or twice a month throughout the school year.

Decision to arm school faculty moves forth

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Towns county Schools

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Schools Facility Director Roy Perren spoke with Mountain Movers & Shakers on the morning of Friday, Aug. 24, on several subjects – one of which was the process taking place within the school system to ensure students and staff remain safe on campus.

Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong and Towns County Sheriff Chris Clinton attended the forum, with both officials addressing the issue.

In light of the recent decision reached by Towns County Board of Education to station a second school resource officer on campus, along with an announcement to arm select faculty members, the room filled with local residents paid close attention to the limited details offered by the three officials. Due to the sensitive nature of the matter, based on the solid logic that individuals who may intend to cause harm should not be made privy to specific information that could potentially assist a perpetrator in the fulfillment of a detrimental plan, the trio of leaders adequately ensured, rather, that proper procedures are producing a viable security system. Towns County Sheriffs office

“School safety is something that’s very important to all of us,” Director Perren began, saying that many in attendance likely have children or grandchildren enrolled in Towns County Schools, “We take it very seriously. Last time I spoke we were planning on having a table-top drill with the emergency management agency. We had it that following Monday. It went really well, and we’ve got people in the community, everybody’s on the same page as far as what we would do in the case of an emergency, whether that would be an active shooter or any type of emergency that might come up in school. We’re really working out getting that plan.”

“We also trained our teachers, and I mentioned last time, in a program called ALICE,” Perren continued, “That stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. It went really well. The teachers, I feel, felt empowered by it, how they would act in case there was an emergency, and how they could not just be idle, and sit there and get shot, which is unfortunately how, over the years, we’ve trained educators to be, is that, you lock down your room, turn off the lights, and you all go hide in the corner, and wait for somebody to come get you. The main thing we would want to do in the case of an emergency is to be to get out. If there’s any way to get out of the building, we would want to do that. Get them to evacuate.”

Perren advised that if escaping isn’t an option, barricading within the facility is the next best choice, followed by countering the attacker.

Several table-top discussions have occurred over the summer months, in conjunction with Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), with officials from the full-scope of local first responder agencies taking part in the school safety endeavor. According to Perren, an active shooter drill, which will consist of county and city law enforcement, firefighters, and medical staff, is planned to take place in the coming months. The drill will be conducted at a time when classes are not in session.

School Superintendent Berrong stated that strict protocol will be imposed when allowing limited faculty to have access to a firearm to counter a threat in the event of an active shooter scenario. Berrong assured that extensive training is a necessity, and noted an importance for responding law enforcement officers to have the ability to adequately identify an armed protector from an armed intruder.

“I feel comfortable with what’s being done, and I’ll continue to work alongside Dr. Berrong and Mr. Perren to provide the resources needed to succeed, ” Sheriff Clinton told FYN after the meeting, “We’re all on the same page. It’s an ongoing process that is being given due diligence. The safety of Towns County students is top priority for everyone involved.”

 

Renovation to begin at Towns County School

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Towns County Schools

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Renovation to Towns County School is scheduled to begin after graduation May 18, says Towns County Superintendent Darren Berrong. The 40-year-old school buildings are in desperate need of roof replacement, upgraded wiring, and HVAC systems.

The Towns County Board of Education applied for a $3.3 million modernization grant in 2017, based on an estimate from Robertson Loia Roof, an architectural firm located in Alpharetta, Georgia. Due to the true cost of the renovation, amounting to $4.3 million, the school board has since decided to delay the wiring process, which includes LED lighting, until next year, when additional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds become available.

During the summer, a heating unit will be installed in the elementary school gym, drop celings will be added to support the addition of larger HVAC units – along with the HVAC system themselves – and the roof will be replaced. The cost associated with the planned construction amounts to $3.6 million. Towns County School will pay the contractors, then submit the bills to the state for reimbursement. The timetable for reimbursement is unclear at this time.

In the event of a budget overage, Berrong says SPLOST funds will be used to avoid a shortage to school operating costs and payroll while awaiting reimbursement.

Renovation is expected to commence shortly after graduation in order for construction to be completed before the 2018-2019 school year begins. The final phase of renovation is expected to conclude by the end of July, with time to reorganize classrooms before the next school year takes effect.

Towns County School qualified for the state modernization grant due to the age of the buildings, and the Board of Education believes the renovations are well-warranted.

Towns County BOE to advertise 2017 Tax Digest and 5-year history of Levy at roll-back rate, likely to allow half day August 21 for eclipse

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Hiawassee, GA – Towns County Board of Education (TCBOE) convened on Monday, July 3, 2017 at 7 p.m. The Board agreed to roll the Workshop and the regular July Board Meeting into one session; therefore, there will be no need for a July Board Meeting the following Monday. Present were TCS Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong, Secretary to the Superintendent Paula Whitehead, TCS Director of Finance Myra Underwood and all Members of the TCBOE.

Dr. Berrong recommended that the Board approve advertising of the 2017 Tax Digest and a 5-year history of Levy at the roll-back rate. His recommendation was unanimously approved.

In his Superintendents Comments, Dr. Berrong expressed his concerns about the effect in Hiawassee of the upcoming eclipse on Sept. 21, 2017 and the impact on TCS. He said, at first, he felt that all the speculation about the effects of the eclipse on Hiawassee and Towns County was just so much talk. However, he said, recently he has received several phone calls about it and has had, for several reasons, a change of heart. Dr. Berrong recommended that the Board approve a half day on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. This recommendation will be voted on at the August Board Meeting (see video at bottom of article).

Board also unanimously approved on Dr. Berrong’s recommendation:
• The CTAE Budget Report
• Construction Manager: Charles Black of Cleveland, GA
• Annual Service bids for:
o Sanitation – Advanced Disposal
o Pest Control – Duncan Exterminating
o Propane – Appalachian Propane
• Elementary, Middle and High School Student Handbooks
• School Nutrition Employee Handbook
• Request for a Clay County student to attend Towns County Schools
• Resignations of:
o Special Education Paraprofessional
o Physical Education Teacher
o 5th Grade Elementary School Teacher
• Hiring of (after discussion in Executive Session):
o Substitute Bus Driver
o Elementary Paraprofessional for 2nd Grade
o Elementary School Teacher
o High School Spanish Teacher

Underwood updated the Board on Sick Bank (for teachers) and gave a report on the Financial Statement.

The Board unanimously approved the Consent Agenda:
• Fund Raisers:
o ES PTSO/Membership Drive/Aug. 1, 2017
o MS & HS PTSO/”Pick-a-Dollar Amount”/Aug. 1,2017
o ES/Spirit Pride Tees/Aug. 1 – Sept. 21, 2017
o MS School Council/Secret Santa Shop/December 2017
o ES School Council/Rock Garden Rock Sale/Spring 2017-18
o MS School Council/Penny Wars/2017-18 School Year
o MS School Council/Gift Basket Raffle/2017-18 School Year
o MS School Council/Snack Machine/2017-18 School Year
o MS School Council/Tupperware Sale/2017-18 School Year
o MS/Hat Day Every Friday/2017-18 School Year
o ES/Locker Rental Grades 4 & 5/2017-18 School Year
• Field Trips:
o NONE
• Work Session Minutes/June 5, 2017
• Regular Board Meeting Minutes/June 12, 2017

Seventh-grade student delivers powerful speech on school shootings

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Towns County school safety

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – The sudden sound of automatic gunfire rang out in the courtroom of the Towns County Courthouse on Thursday, Dec. 18, a simulated start to a powerful, passionate speech on school shootings, delivered by Eastgate Life Academy student Hannah Minchew.

Minchew plans to address state leaders in Atlanta early next year in an effort to shine a spotlight on a significant subject, one which is clearly close to her heart.

“Did you not here that? Why are you still all sitting here? Do you even know what that was? That was the sound of an assault rifle,” the seventh grader began with conviction, referencing the Columbine shooting, “That was the sound heard by those students on April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris started one of the worst school massacres in history. They killed 13 people, and wounded 24 others before turning the guns on themselves and committing suicide.

Hannah Minchew

Hannah Minchew, a seventh grade student at Eastgate Life Academy

“Did you know that there has been 494 school shootings? 494, and 18 of those have occured in Georgia, and in most every case of a school shooting, the signs were there. These attackers had planned their attacks for weeks to months, but no one noticed,” Minchew continued, leading the 12-year-old to recap the warning signs present prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

“But are our schools really safe? Do barriers, locked doors, and armed guards really make us safe? Does the banning of assault rifles really make us safe? These are all hard questions with no easy answers. I believe that it takes all of this and much more. It takes everyone in our community being vigilant and aware,” Minchew pleaded, concluding with a heartfelt, “Will you notice?”

Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw praised Minchew’s speech, acknowledging that it was, “sore, sad, subject matter.”

“We have worked, as commissioner, we have worked with Sheriff Clinton, and your school Superintendent Darren Berrong,” Commissioner Bradshaw said, “We’ve had several meetings on school safety, on what we can do to try to make our school safer, and that’s why we put on the other DARE officer, hoping that it would make a difference. Our school campus is so spread out.”

FYN has extensively reported on school security in our counties of coverage, and we will continue to pursue future developments.

Board of Education proposes annual millage rate

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Towns county Board of Education

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education proposed a rollback millage rate of 7.671 percent during a special-called meeting on the morning of Tuesday, July 31. An additional meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 23, for Board’s final approval. The session will take place at 7:30 a.m. at the Board of Education office at 67 Lakeview circle in Hiawassee.

Towns County Superintendent Darren Berrong credits a steady increase in real estate values for the rollback, which was set at 7.956 percent in 2017. Real and Personal Property values in Towns County rose from over $731 million in 2013 to nearly $806 million in 2018.

“(The millage rate) is not a reduction in revenue for us, however,” Berrong stated, “It’s actually an increase of revenue of $40,000 which isn’t a significant increase for an individual taxpayer.” Berrong recommended acceptance to advertise the rollback rate, with the Board unanimously approving the motion.

View: 2018 Tax Digest – 5 year History

In addition, Towns County Board of Education approved the recommendation of Substitute Teacher Patricia “Trish” Cook, and Community Coach Tyler Crawford during Tuesday’s meeting.

Dr. Berrong stated that campus renovation is proceeding on schedule, with classes resuming on Aug. 16. Berrong said he has not received negative feedback from the community on the Board’s recent discussion on arming school personsell. Berrong says he plans to seek additional input from the community at an upcoming Lions Club meeting. The superindendent made mention of the third table-top emergency responder forum on school safety, scheduled for Aug. 6, disclosing that the school safety plan implemented must first be “approved by all emergency personell.” Detailed information concerning the plan will not be made available to the general public due to the safety-sensitive nature of the issue. As previously reported, the Board approved the hiring of a second school resourse officer to increase the safety level at Towns County Schools.

Towns County Board of Education will meet for their monthly work session at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 6, at the administrative office. Meetings are open to the public.

(Feature Image: Superintendent Darren Berrong (left) with Board member Robert Williams at Tuesday’s meeting)

Questions surface after school lock-down drill

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HIAWASSEE, Ga. – On the morning of Wednesday, March 14, a lock-down training exercise took place at Towns County School at 10 a.m.

While there was a call for a nationwide walk-out in remembrance of the 17 lives lost Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many schools across the nation chose a proactive approach.

FetchYourNews (FYN) learned of the drill and hoped to highlight the positive measures taken.

In the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, FYN has reported on the subject of school safety in Towns, Gilmer, Fannin, UnionLumpkin, and Dawson County, Georgia, as well as Cherokee County, North Carolina.

While the ultimate safety of students is not being called into question, with FYN maintaining conviction that security is of the utmost concern for Towns County School administrators and Towns County first responders alike, unexpected questions arose during our research.

Towns County GA lockdown drill

Letter sent to the parents of elementary school students

In a letter forwarded to FYN, dated March 13, 2018, and signed by Towns County Elementary Principal Dr. Sandra Page, parents of elementary school children were advised a day in advance that the drill would occur. The letter reads, in part, that “during an active shooter drill, it is necessary to reenact the scenario of a shooter on campus in order to find strengths and possible weaknesses in our emergency plans.”

The letter goes on to state that “local agencies such as the police, EMS (emergency medical services), and the fire department will be involved in this drill and will be arriving on campus.”

Following an unsuccessful, in-person attempt to acquire sufficient information on the active shooter drill from the Towns County Sheriff’s courthouse office, FYN contacted the emergency agencies listed as participants in the training exercise.

FYN was surprised to learn that the Hiawassee Police Department, Towns County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Towns County Fire and Rescue, as well as the Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) were not notified that a drill was scheduled, and therefore did not participate.

At a Movers and Shakers meeting held Feb. 23, Towns County Sheriff Chris Clinton, along with Towns County School Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong, spoke with concerned citizens regarding school safety. The sheriff divulged that a few years had passed since an active shooter drill was conducted.

Sheriff Clinton opened his speech by recalling a recent conversation with Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith.

“The chief and I were just discussing this, what, a week ago maybe, that it’s about time that we do another one, and that we do it together,” Sheriff Clinton assured.

Sheriff Clinton continued, “How do we make our children safer? Now. Not some place down the road at some philosophical perfect normal for you, but right now. How do we do that? Frankly, at the end of the day, we have to make it a harder target.”

After referencing the 1999 Columbine tragedy, Sheriff Clinton asked, “What’s been done by the government to make our children safer? Not a single thing. Because a lot of people think they can get up and talk about it, and they can harp on whatever their pet issue is. I’m pro-gun, I’m anti-gun, whatever, but as long as they’re talking about it and people are listening, they are getting political mileage out of it, and they really don’t care. I’m sorry, but I care.

“I’m coming to silence the gun. I’m not coming to survive it. I’m coming to silence the gun,” Sheriff Clinton emphasized. “Frankly, that’s what I expect from every deputy sheriff and every law enforcement officer in this nation. God help me if I have to walk past my own children while they bleed. I’m coming to silence the gun.”

At the conclusion of the forum, Sheriff Clinton acknowledged a need to ensure all first responders are familiar with the school’s campus and lock-down procedure. The sheriff told those in attendance that it is up to the community to decide what level of security they want in place. “I work for you,” Sheriff Clinton reminded.

FYN contacted Sheriff Chris Clinton on the evening of the lock-down in anticipation of learning why his plans to include other emergency agencies had changed.

Sheriff Clinton failed to provide an explanation, focusing rather on garnering the individual identities of FYN’s sources. Shortly after asked if proper protocol was followed, a concern brought to the attention of FYN by an emergency official, Sheriff Clinton ended communication.

The following day, Thursday, March 15, FYN Chief Executive Officer Brian Pritchard sat down with Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith, and Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland, reconfirming the lack of communication and coordination.

FYN met with Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong on Friday, March 16, in search of further clarification.

Berrong revealed that the active shooter drill was implemented between himself and Sheriff Clinton, following the Movers and Shakers forum.

When the question was posed concerning the absence of agencies, Berrong replied, “Well, (the school) wasn’t sure of everyone who was involved. I think there were some of those individuals there.” Upon learning that was not the case, Berrong stated there may have been a miscommunication in verbiage, saying, “Personally, for me, it wasn’t about the fire department. It was about the police officers.”

Berrong was then asked to recap the drill.

“At 10:00, Mr. Perren came over the announcement through all three schools and informed them we were going into a lock-down, that there would be police officers walking through the hallways, make sure to keep your doors locked, and to keep the kids in a safe area,” Superintendent Berrong explained. “While that was going on, police officers were making their rounds through the building, just to make sure they were still familiar with what the campus actually looks like, what’s going on during a lock-down, where can you go and where can’t you go in case there is a shooter in the school, and what areas can we access. They made their rounds through the school while we were in lock-down. We were in lock-down probably ten minutes. Our school isn’t a very big building, you can make a round through there fairly quickly. So ten to fifteen minutes, and pretty much that was the end of the drill.”

FYN inquired if there are plans to hold a subsequent active shooter exercise. “We may have further drills. We don’t have any planned currently,” Dr. Berrong said. “Sheriff Clinton and I are in discussion about this summer, getting together with all personnel, fire department and everyone, just to sit down and make sure everyone has plans of the school building, and make sure everyone has access to the ‘Crisis Go’ app, which alerts people when there is an emergency on campus, and just have another round-table discussion about what we are going to do when something like that happens, how do we shut the campus down. We had one of those several years ago, but it’s about time we had another one.”

FYN contacted Towns County School Facility Director Roy Perren. Director Perren relayed that the exercise was exclusively planned for the Towns County Sheriff’s Office and that there was never an intention to include other emergency agencies. The facility director added that a Towns County School meeting will be held in conjunction with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) April 13 concerning the involvement of all first responders, should an emergency situation arise.

Elementary School Principle Dr. Sandra Page returned FYN’s request for comment on the afternoon of Monday, March 19.

Page stated that to her knowledge, the active shooter exercise was changed to simply a lock-down drill on the morning of March 14, shortly before the training occurred, excluding the need for the involvement of  agencies other than the Towns County Sheriff’s Office. “I just wanted to get the information out so that students, parents, and teachers were aware that a drill was going to take place,” Dr. Page said. “That was my main concern.”

This left FYN with more questions than answers, considering that none of the emergency agencies listed in the letter had been notified that an active shooter drill had been scheduled.

Hiawassee Police Department, Towns County EMS, Towns County Fire and Rescue, and Towns County EMA state that their departments expect to take part in future training exercises.

 

 

 

 

Board of Education to hire second school resource officer, discussion of arming educators ensues

News
Towns county school safety

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education convened for a Special Called Meeting on Thursday, July 19, to vote on hiring a second school resource officer to protect Towns County Schools. The Board unanomosly approved the motion. Superintendent Darren Berrong met with Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw and Sheriff Chris Clinton earlier in the day, and the three officials agreed that it is in the best interest of Towns County students to employ an additional officer. Towns County Schools will fund 75 percent of the cost of employment, with 25 percent derived from the Towns County Sheriff’s Office budget. Berrong estimated the cost at $30,000 per year, which will include employee benefits. Berrong stated that the funding had been previously figured into the 2018-2019 school budget.

Discussion of the possibility of arming select school staff ensued, with Board member Robert Williams vocalizing opposition to the notion. Berrong stated that additional dialog will take place as to the specifics. The extent of information released to the public concerning the issue is unknown at the time of publication, as mention was made to keep aspects confidential due to safety concerns. “Only the Board of Education would know,” Berrong said.

If enacted, Berrong asserted that “serious restrictions” would apply, and that staff must comply with state regulations along with stringent measures set forth by the Board. The decision on whether to carry a firearm will be on a voluntary basis, said Berrong.

FetchYournews (FYN) met with Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw the following morning to gather his thoughts on the topic, and while he voiced adament agreement with the hiring of a second school resource officer, Bradshaw said that he was unaware of a discussion related the arming of staff taking place. “An additional officer is definitely the right thing to do for the safety of the children,” Bradshaw stated, declining to offer an opinion on additional precautions due to insufficient knowledge on the Board of Education’s precise plans.

At any rate, the final decision on arming educators lies with the school board.

“The law allows the school board to make such decisions, and I am confident that they will make the decision they feel is best for our school,” Sheriff Clinton tells FYN, “The Office of Sheriff is more than happy to work with our schools in any way. We are thankful for the job they do in teaching and helping our youth.

FYN inquired as to when an active shooter drill will take place, with Berrong directing FYN to Roy Perren, the facility director for Towns County Schools, for specific details.

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Commissioner amends 2018 budget, creates account for sheriff’s office investigations

News
Towns County Budget

HIAWASSEE, Ga.- On the evening of May 15, Towns County Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw announced a resolution to amend the 2018 budget, per abidance of Georgia Law, O.C.G.A. 36-81-3, which requires each unit of government to operate under an annual balanced budget, adopted by ordinance or resolution. The resolution includes a $22,152 shift in revenue, transferred from the Towns County Board of Education, into Towns County Sheriff’s Office capital expenditures. The amendment is the result of a Board of Education reimbursement of 75 percent, calculated from the cost of a patrol car purchased for the county’s school resource officer. Towns County Sheriff’s Office absorbed 25 percent of the expense.

“Donnie Jarrard, the DARE officer at the school, needed a new vehicle. He follows the ball teams – you know, baseball, basketball, football – all over the state of Georgia. When they play in Athens, (or) Monroe, he gets home at one, two, sometimes as late as three o’clock in the morning, unfortunately at times,” Bradshaw explained, “His car was starting to get a lot of problems, and it had a lot of miles on it, so I called the (Towns County School) Superintendent Darren Berrong.” Bradshaw went on to say that the cost of the new vehicle was discussed with Berrong, and a decision to divide the expense was agreed upon, based on the 75/25 ratio that the school board and sheriff’s office expend to employ the school resource officer. “We didn’t have to add any money,” Bradshaw continued, “The money was already there in their budget, so it was a no-brainer.”

In addition, Commissioner Bradshaw authorized the opening of an investigation financial account for Towns County Sheriff’s Office. The resolution states that the Towns County Sheriff’s Office at times has “need of access to operational funds” in order to assist the department with law enforcement and investigative services, benefiting the citizens of Towns County in the most efficient manner. The investigation account will be opened at South State Bank, with Towns County Sheriff’s Office Administrator Vicki Ellis, and Towns County Sheriff’s Captain James Baldwin, listed as authorized signers.

John Paul Peeples

Commissioner Bradshaw presents certification to Towns County Building Inspector John Paul Peebles

“This money that they are going to put into this account is exactly what it says,” Bradshaw said, “It’s an investigation account. They use the money for certain things, to get the bad guys off the streets, and that’s what they’re doing.”

“We don’t want to go too far into detail, you know, and let the bad guys know what they’re doing,” Bradshaw stated.

Commissioner Bradshaw reminded that there will not be a county meeting held in June, as the commissioner will be out-of-town on the scheduled date, with the next session occurring on July 17, at 5:30 p.m. at the Towns County Courthouse.

Bradshaw also noted an increase in residential building permits, elevated from 17 to 31, in comparison to the same time-period last year. Permits for additions rose from 20 to 42 in the similar time frame. Bradshaw believes the spike is a positive indicator of an improving economy.

The commissioner ended the meeting by reminding the public that his door is “always open” to receiving input from the community.

 

Sheriff Clinton and Superintendent Berrong discuss school security

News

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County officials gathered nine days after the Parkland, Florida, massacre to discuss school safety concerns with the community. Sundance Grill was filled to near-capacity during Friday’s Movers and Shakers morning meeting as residents congregated to hear School Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong and Sheriff Clinton share their thoughts in the aftermath of the tragedy. Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith, and Hiawassee Council Amy Barrett and Kris Berrong attended the weekly forum.

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BOE approves multiple Towns County Schools’ staff additions

News

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education (BOE) approved multiple staff additions for Towns County Schools at their regular work session on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018.

The individuals were accepted as follows:

Middle School Basketball Cheerleading Coach – Sara Ewing

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Middle School Baseball Assistant Community Coach – Zeke Gribble

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Afterschool Program:
Hannah David – Young Harris College Volunteer
Kurt Mueller – Young Harris College Volunteer
Haley Patel – High School Work – Based Learning Assistant
Amanda Solle – Substitute
Kaylea Parker – Substitute
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School Nutrition Substitute – Tracy Miles-Hill
Substitute Teacher – Dr. Randy Hale

Custodian – Windy Thompson

Towns County BOE

Towns County Board of Education

Fundraisers for the Elementary School Council, Middle and High School Basketball teams, and a Middle School trip to New York were approved by the Board. In addition, a third grade field trip to the smokey Mountain Theatre in Franklin, NC, was authorized for Oct. 18, and a High School Journalism class trip to the University of Georgia Tate Center was accepted.

Financial Director Myra Underwood delivered the financial statement, including an increase of $120,000 in the General Fund, according to the Department of Education’s final report which ended in June, 2018. The figure amounts to six percent under budget for the previous fiscal year.

 The Board of Education continues to await state reimbursement from summer renovation to the school campus, stating the initial funds to be received is unknown. The first stage of the renovation was projected at a cost of $3.6 million, although stage one of the construction was completed approximately $200,000 under budget. Towns County School Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong stated an amount ranging between $1.5 – $2.5 million is expected in the near future. Additional renovations to the school campus are expected to continue next summer.
The meeting concluded with the Board entering a closed, executive session to discuss an amendment regarding coaching supplements.
The regular Towns County Board of Education session date was rescheduled for Monday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. at Towns County Schools.

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