School incident sparks concerns
HUNTINGTON — Meadows Elementary Schools’ Parent-Teacher Organization meeting on Thursday uncorked a flurry of alleged inconsistencies and outright failures in the school’s safety procedures, leaving Cabell County Schools with much to consider moving forward.
The concern stems from a Jan. 16 incident in which a man who was being pursued by police was allowed in school during class hours before leaving and being arrested nearby, then prompting the school to go into lockdown.
The way the situation was handled prompted worried parents to petition the Cabell County Board of Education that they have no confidence in Principal Connie Mize’s leadership, and call for the board to create a plan to improve safety at Meadows.
As of Thursday, the petition had 109 signatures from parents representing 45 percent of the school’s students. In addition, Meadows Elementary teachers and
families submitted statements that they had moved away from Meadows Elementary School as a direct result of Mize’s leadership.
Mize appears to have “at least temporarily” been replaced at Meadows by substitute Principal Mary Campbell, a retired Cabell County principal. Cabell County Schools did not comment on questions about whether Mize has been suspended or reassigned, exercising the district’s common practice of withholding comment on active personnel matters. No board action against Mize has been levied as of the Feb. 5 meeting.
Mize did not respond to an email for comment.
At around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, a man who was being pursued by police entered the school in order to evade capture, according to police.
Andrea Gardner, a parent whose eyewitness account was presented at the PTO meeting (though she was not physically in attendance at the meeting), said the man was buzzed into the building by a secretary without being asked for identification or to state his business, and he falsely identified himself as picking up a student.
The name he provided did not match any student who attended the school, and the secretary proceeded to list the names of students that were similar to the one he provided.
If the secretary did share names of students with the man, it’s a possible violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law that protects student privacy.
The man was asked to leave, and Gardner, who was sitting in the school’s office to pick up her child, saw the man attempting to enter the school through other doors.
Twenty minutes later, an announcement was made by Mize to faculty that the school was on a “practice” lockdown drill. Teachers at the meeting said they had never heard an announcement of that nature and that many of them were uncertain as to what they should be doing.
Parents received alerts from Cabell County Schools Communications Director Jedd Flowers that the school had been placed on lockdown that day, clarifying that the lock-down was indeed real and that there had been police activity in the area. Two calls were sent to parents by Flowers that day, the second to clarify information from the first.
The county’s response
Cabell County Schools officials at the PTO meeting Thursday were Assistant Superintendent for District Support and Employee Relations Tim Hardesty, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Kim Cooper and Safety Manager Tim Stewart.
Parents at the meeting called for Cabell County Schools officials to examine school safety policies, which are largely, according to Stewart, individualized to each school.
Once it was made clear there was a lack of consistency in how these safety standards, which are supposed to be the same statewide, are carried out, Stewart said he would stop by Meadows in the next few days to go over them with staff.
Cooper added in an interview Friday that Campbell had requested additional safety training from the county, which the district provides to any school in the county. Campbell said at the meeting she has examined the front door procedures at the school and making sure they are more closely followed.
Like the other older elementary schools in the county, Meadows is one of the few schools that does not have a double-door “man-trap” at the main entrance. It does use the remotely-unlocked video doorbell installed at each school’s entrances.
Hardesty said Cabell County Schools has been looking into installing the man-trap doors at every school in the county but could not provide a timeline as to when that would be completed.
Newer elementary school buildings in Cabell County, which have one main entrance and main office as opposed to the high schools, now typically route visitors from the man-trap entrance directly into the office before entering the schools’ hallways. At Meadows, visitors must enter the main hallway first before checking into the office.
Meadows does use the remotely-unlocked video doorbell installed at each school’s entrances, though the man was allowed into the school after ringing the bell.
The incident does not, therefore, appear to be a lapse in the physical security of the building — rather a case of human error if eyewitness accounts are true.
Parents noted there had been a considerable turnover rate for secretaries at Meadows, and sometimes there was no one in the main office at all.
Flowers and Cooper did not comment on either of those contentions, citing both as private personnel matters.
Parents also pointed out that the lockdown was triggered by police activity outside the school when the man was arrested nearby. The actual entry into the school, however, did not trigger a similar ALICE drill, which is used when the threat is inside.
There was also concern at the meeting that Mize had called a “practice” lockdown drill, confusing teachers who say they had never heard that phrasing before, and did not know what to do.
Cabell County Schools did not comment on that phrasing, although Flowers did call parents a second time that day to reiterate the lockdown was in response to a real potential threat.
One of the ideas pitched by the PTO was the addition of a school resource officer at Meadows — a local police officer stationed daily inside the school. Currently, Cabell County has SROs at all the middle and high schools, as well as Village of Barboursville and Nichols elementary schools.
Cooper did note the short distance from Meadows to Huntington Middle School, meaning its SRO could respond quickly in case of an emergency.
Milton Police can likewise quickly be at nearby Milton Elementary, and Culloden Elementary is even served by nearby Hurricane Police across county lines.
“We’re looking at a lot of different options to keep our kids throughout the county safe, not just at one particular school but at every school we have,” Cooper said.
As for how the district moves forward on the concerns, Flowers said only the board and superintendent had received and will seriously consider the petition, without further comment.
The PTO plans to attend the Feb. 19 Cabell County Board of Education meeting to discuss school safety and their concerns with school personnel.
Reporter Megan Osborne contributed to this report.