Six students interviewed along East Center Street, all freshmen, said they disregarded a warning from the principal Tuesday morning. They said they wanted to bring attention to what they called safety and security problems at the 2,200-student school in light of last week’s shooting, which killed 17 at a Florida high school of more than 3,000. That shooting, allegedly carried out by a former student, marked the 18th shooting at a U.S. school less than two months into 2018.
“They (school officials) told us we were being childish and to stop playing around,” Layla Santanello said, adding she wants to “make the government put metal detectors in our schools.”
Warren Cleveland said he simply wants school officials to take threats and security more seriously.
Layla and the other students, interviewed on a public right of way on the north side of East Center Street about 2:15 p.m., said they left during lunch at Tribe Time about 12:15 p.m. and did not re-enter the building. They said D-B administrators later told them to leave school grounds, which is when they went on the sides of Center on the D-B side and the Indian Highland Park side.
A Kingsport police officer westbound on East Center Street later stopped to tell them not to jaywalk across the busy thoroughfare between two main gathering points as school buses, a tractor trailer and other vehicles passed.
Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said walkout punishment would be the purview of Principal Chris Hampton, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday. True also said the school system stands ready to facilitate meaningful discussions about school safety.
MORNING EVACUATION NOT WALKOUT
Not long after Hampton took to the school's intercom Tuesday around 9:30 a.m. to warn students not to participate in the walkout, smoke from construction in front of the school got sucked into the building and set off a smoke alarm. All students were evacuated about 9:50 a.m. but returned a short time later. True said the brief evacuation was in no way part of a walkout. Students, including those not involved in the walkout, said the protest had been planned and promoted for days, although national protest walkout days are set March 14 and April 20.
ALLEGED GUN THREAT CITED
“They (school administrators) didn’t do anything about it. They took it as a joke,” Cheyane Tittle said of social media allegations and threats of a gun being brought to school. Others who spoke to a reporter were Jeacey Wright, Emilee Hash Graham and Stephanie Ingram, indicating they would like to see such walkouts nationwide.
“We should not have to be unsafe in our own school,” Stephanie said.
Cheyane said administrators told the walkout students not to go back on school grounds Tuesday.
The students said they thought they might be suspended, and they said the school system contacted their parents Tuesday afternoon. However, many said they told their parents of the walkout plans before Tuesday, and some said they had parental support. The interviewed students said the walkout was supposed to have more than 100 participants but that upperclassmen opted out. Of the 23, they said some simply went home early, and 16 or 17 remained shortly before school was dismissed.
“We’ll continue to work with our students and our community to always emphasize safety and allow them (the students) to feel safe in schools,” True said.
He said if students have concerns or issues, they can share those, anonymously if they wish, through the online Quicktip system that has posters with QR codes throughout the building. True said they also can share concerns with teachers and administrators.
“I’m confident that any and all threats are investigated thoroughly,” True said, adding that such investigations and their outcomes are often not obvious to students. “It’s (student safety) going to be an issue that’s going to take priority with us.”
Dobyns-Bennett has swipe cards with magnetic strips that let students in secure entrances during the school day, although the walkout students said some entrances are left open or accessible throughout the school day and later. D-B has two school resources officers (SRO) assigned to it, and the two middle schools nearby have one SRO each, not counting walk-throughs by other officers. Visitors must be buzzed in through magnetically locked doors.