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.

Towns County Sheriff, SROs no-shows at school security training

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GASRO

YOUNG HARRIS, Ga. – The 2019 Georgia Association of School Resource Officers (GASRO) conference was held at Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, July 8-10, purposed to provide updated school security training and networking opportunities for school resource officers (SROs) to connect statewide.

Law enforcement officers from cities as far south as Tifton made the voyage to Towns County to attend the school safety seminar, hosted this year by Habersham County Sheriff’s Office who was chosen by GASRO as the result of “the incredible strides (they) have made in connecting with the school community, and in enhancing school safety through technology.”

Following the closure of the school security conference, FetchYourNews (FYN) was contacted by multiple law enforcement agencies who disclosed that Towns County Sheriff’s Office had declined additional training “in their own backyard.” Research revealed that Towns County Sheriff’s Office was, in fact, signed up to attend the state seminar, although no officers attended. Furthermore, Towns County Sheriff Chris Clinton was personally invited by GASRO to address participants, and in the words of a ranking officer, “refused the chance to network with other departments while representing his own jurisdiction.”

FYN reached out to Towns County Sheriff Chris Clinton, along with personnel within the agency, offering an opportunity to comment on the matter. FYN did not receive a response from the elected official. Towns County Chief Deputy Terry Conner met with FYN, however, stating that Towns County’s dual school resource officers had attended a training session in White County earlier this year, and due to staffing issues, an executive decision was made to forego the GASRO course.

Chief Deputy Conner politely declined to respond to FYN’s questions concerning Sheriff Clinton’s absence from the school security conference.

FYN received a formal statement from the chief deputy the following day.

“During the last six months, (both SROs) have completed a total of 40 training classes between the two. The State Of Georgia Peace Officer Standards Training requires officers to complete 20 hours of annual training yearly,” Chief Deputy Conner said. “Both Towns County school resource officers completed double the state required training hours during the first six months of this year. The State of Georgia Peace Officer Standards Training requires the 20 hours to include four classes; firearms requalification, use of force, de-escalation, and community policing.”

The statement read that one of the school resources officers has completed four-out-of-four of the required courses, with the second officer to complete the final two requirements in coming months. The chief deputy added that Towns County Sheriff’s Office allows officers to attend training as budget and manpower needs allow, adding that both deputies will receive the required training by year’s end.

“School Resource Officer Programs across the state are experiencing many new challenges when it comes to keeping schools safe,” Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell, host of the GASRO conference, explained to Now Habersham in May. “Whether it be dealing with issues that have been in the schools for years or new trends that are becoming more commonplace, it is imperative that we stay up to date on the latest technologies and training.”

The three-day course involved advancement in vital areas, including criminal investigations in campus settings, evaluation of threat assestments, students and social media, and drug interdiction.

 

Feature Photo: GASRO training at Brasstown Valley Resort Credit: GASRO

 

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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.”

 

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)

Towns County students return to renovated campus, second resource officer

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Towns County Board of Education

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County students are scheduled to return for the 2018-2019 school year tomorrow, Aug. 16.

First-stage renovations to the school campus have been completed on time, and a second school resource officer is signing on to provide additional safety measures for students and staff.

Towns County Board of Education decided at their regular monthly meeting on Aug. 13, to hire Towns County Sheriff’s Deputy Sally Tanner to fill the role. Tanner, a former Union County school resource officer, has served with the Towns County Sheriff’s Office since 2017. Tanner will be assigned to the elementary school, with veteran Resource Officer Donnie Jarrard manning the middle- and high school areas.

Towns County School Superintendent Darren Berrong

Towns County Board of Education voted unanimously at a special-called meeting on July 19 that a second school resource officer was in the best interest of student safety, as Officer Jarrard has been assigned to traffic duty in the past, when classes begin and end each day, and often travels with students out-of-town for field trips and to sporting events.

Towns County Board of Education will be responsible for funding 75 percent of the cost of the additional officer, with the remaining 25 percent taken from the Towns County Sheriff’s Office budget.

As for the renovations, the second phase is expected to begin next summer, and will include an updated fire alarm system, electrical rewiring, painting, and new flooring and doors. The construction that occurred this summer consisted of  roof replacement and an overhaul to the HVAC system.

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

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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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Sheriff Clinton and Superintendent Berrong discuss school security

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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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