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Parents crowd Monday’s school board meeting to demand answers about LES death threat

school board address Lynchburg Elementary threat
On Monday, dozens of parents crowded the Moore County Board of Education meeting to demand answers about a death threat that allegedly took place at Lynchburg Elementary against four fourth graders. (File Photo)

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — On January 6 of this year, a six-year-old boy shot and injured a teacher inside their Richneck Elementary School classroom. Though school shootings have unfortunately become common in the U.S., the young age of the Newport News shooter raised eyebrows and so did the action of the school’s administration leading up to the event.

Just like every other American school shooting to date, there were warnings at Richneck Elementary. According to multiple reports, the teacher in question, Abby Zwerner, emailed school administration multiple times about the troubled first grader’s behavior. Three months before the shooting, Zwerner reported to school officials that the boy allegedly gave his middle finger to a classmate. A month later, she emailed again to report that he bumped into a classmate and then pushed the classmate to the ground.

Miss Zwerner repeatedly stated in the media that school officials were made aware that there was a problem but failed to act. A concerned group of Moore County parents showed up at Monday night’s Moore County Board of Education meeting accusing the Moore County administration of acting similarly following a death threat by a fourth grader at Lynchburg Elementary.

Local fourth grader makes a death threat

According to a letter from one of the victim’s parents to school board members, a threat of similar violence took place in a Moore County classroom just three days before the Richneck Elementary shooting. On January 3, a local fourth grader made a death threat to shoot four other students during an art class.

The parent of one of those threatened wrote a letter detailing the incident to school board members in advance of Monday’s meeting to demand answers. According to that letter, that January 3 event was addressed by the LES SRO, who petitioned the child thus requiring him to appear before a Moore County judge in a local courtroom. On January 10, the judge in that case ruled that the child remain in alternative school until April 3. However, local administrators overruled the judge’s decision and placed the child back in their fourth grade classroom just nine days later.

The letter also alleges that only two of the fours sets of parents were notified that any threat had been made against their child in a Moore County classroom. One of those parents, Chris Limbaugh, asked to be added to Monday night’s meeting agenda.

Juvenile records are strictly confidential

Before Limbaugh could be recognized by the Board, their lawyer, Charles Cagle, warned the crowd of the seriousness of unmasking the name of any child in a public meeting.

Referring to the events in question as an “unfortunate incident,” Cagle stated that, “We find ourselves discussing a matter that’s governed by a lot of laws. The problem is that everyone wants to know everything about it but we are forbidden by both state and federal laws from talking about specifics. The name of no student can be called during this meeting.”

Cagle went on to characterize the case in question as a “collision between a juvenile petition and federal laws related to confidentiality.” All juvenile court records are held under seal and are not accessible by the press or the general public. School records are also protected under similar laws.

Cagle also informed the crowd that the Board met in private before the regular meeting in an “executive session” for “informational purposes” in which “no actions were taken.”

“We want to talk about this,” Cagle continued. “Some things have emerged that could be done better; however, there’s nothing that I can find that was done incorrectly according to the law.”

Parent accuses administration of not following policy

Two of the victim’s parents spoke at the meeting.

Chris Limbaugh stated that he tried to dismiss the bullying happening to his child as “just kids being kids” until the verbal threats escalated into physical threats and those physical threats escalated to a “death threat” inside the classroom. Limbaugh said he obtained a copy of the LES Handbook and felt confused as to why the administration failed to follow their own policy.

According to the LES Handbook, a death threat from one student to another is considered a Level IV misbehavior. Other examples include things like a bomb threat, possession of a dangerous weapon, arson, and harassment. The disciplinary procedure laid out in the policy includes speaking with staff members and the students involved, and notifying parents, contacting law enforcement. At this point, the principal involved should report the incident to the director of school and make any recommendations.

The options listed in the handbook as options include expulsion, alternative school, or “other hearing authority or Board action. The guidelines also state that ” a student shall not be suspended solely because charges are pending against him/her in juvenile or other court.”

Local judge rescinds his alternative school order

According to a letter from Judge Terry Gregory entered into the public meeting’s record on Monday night, the local judge did in fact order the accused juvenile to undergo a mental health evaluation, not be around firearms, and attend alternative school although he later rescinded the alternative school portion because he did not believe he had jurisdiction.

Judge Gregory’s letter states that during that hearing, “the public defender argued that I did not have the authority to order alternative school” — an opinion that both Director Moorehead and the school system’s legal counsel share, according to the letter.

“Director Moorehead advised me that after discussing the matter with school counsel, that I did not have the authority to order alternative school.”

At that point, Judge Gregory rescinded that portion of his court order essentially kicking the issue back up to the Moore County administration.

Limbaugh stated that the decision to place the accused child back in the same classroom as the student’s they allegedly threatened to shoot didn’t make any sense to him.

“On the one hand, it’s not serious enough to warrant expulsion or alternative school but on the other hand it’s serious enough for him to go to juvenile court,” Limbaugh stated. “Can the Board of Education or any administrator defend why the punishment laid out in your own handbook was not applied in this case?”

Director Moorehead nor any board member answered his question.

“Incident has opened a can of worms.”

Another victim’s parent, Kaleigh Hatfield, also spoke. Kaleigh is the wife of Moore County Sheriff Tyler Hatfield. During her comments, she stated that since January 3, she’d researched school shootings, local school board policy, and federal victim’s rights laws thoroughly as well as spoken with the District Attorney, legal counsel, and judicial authorities outside Moore County searching for the right answers.

“I’ve tried my best to understand every aspect of this incident and the decisions that were made by our school administrators. As a parent of one of these victims, I’ve been told numerous times by various people that our school administration had to play it off, saying ‘the child was only joking’ and the victim’s weren’t affected. As a parent of a nine year old, I take tremendous offense to school administrators telling me how it has affected my nine-year-old daughter.”

Hatfield went on to accuse school administrators of disregarding orders from the local court system, and hiding information regarding the case specifically from the victim’s parents.

“It took action from the local District Attorney to protect the victims involved in this incident,” Hatfield said. “Instead, local administrators chose to hide behind federal and state laws, all of which have built in exceptions in extreme cases such as death threats.”

She ended her comments by asking, “Why on earth did our local administration not take a threat to four of our children as seriously as the court system, as the district attorney’s office, and as our local law enforcement. This incident has opened a can of worms. As parents, how are we to trust that other issues have not been and will not be swept under the rug? How are we to respect school administration moving forward? In my mind, the answer is simple. We can not.”

No other parents stood to speak. With that, the Board moved on with their meeting without further action.

Following the meeting, The Times reached out to Moore County Director of School Chad Moorehead for comment.

“Our school system takes school safety and security very seriously.  This situation was addressed immediately and, as the school board’s legal council stated, in compliance with state and federal laws.  As a school system, we are currently reviewing our processes for handling similar situations as well as scheduling additional training for school administrators in this area,” Director Moorehead told us.

“What we have all learned in this situation is that our lines of communication, especially with other departments in the county, can always be improved upon.  As a school system we have to balance the information that the community feels it needs with the state and federal confidentiality laws that protect the rights of our students.  We are working on a plan to be able to communicate the information that we can without violating the rights of our students.  I think that the most important thing to remember is that no one was physically harmed in this situation.  Our number one priority has been and continues to be student safety.”•

{The Lynchburg Times is an independently-owned, community newspaper located in Lynchburg, Tennessee the home of The Jack Daniel Distillery. We focus on public service, non-partisan, rural journalism. We cover the Metro Moore County government, local tourism, Moore County schools, high school sports, Motlow State Community College, as well as whiskey industry news and regional and state stories that affect our readers.}

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