According to state officials, representatives from 123 school districts in Tennessee were there. Athens. Meigs. Marion. Williamson. Metro Nashville. Knox. Shelby. Bradley. Pretty much everybody.
Leaning against the wall when all the tables got full. Taking notes from colleagues on best practices. Sipping coffee with security consultants from across the country. Shaking hands with anti-terrorism experts and law enforcement authorities and emergency management officials and the people who know all there is to know about Virginia Tech. Columbine. Paducah.
It was a packed house in Franklin, Tenn., for the governor's school safety summit. Even people waking up in California read about it, as an Associated Press report was quickly published in the online San Francisco Chronicle.
But Hamilton County?
No one, not a principal or administrator, attended the summit.
"We did not get an invitation," said Donna Horn, Hamilton County Board of Education member.
Oh no. Please don't say that.
"I would have gone," she said. "All of us are so concerned about safety. We would have gone."
I believe her. Trouble is, she wasn't -- officially -- the one invited.
According to multiple sources, school Superintendent Rick Smith's office received an initial email -- weeks ago -- announcing the summit. No specifics, just a heads-up. A save the date.
"That was the last thing he heard about it," said Horn, who spoke with Smith's office yesterday (he did not return multiple calls). "Nothing else was sent his way."
Out of 137 invited school districts, 123 of them managed to receive an email, read it and then send someone to the summit. But not us?
"Superintendents were emailed at least four times," said Kelli Gauthier, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education. "The first email went out on Dec. 21."
To another Rick Smith? To spam? To school junk mail? I just can't believe it. Not like this is some guy from Saudi Arabia promising $1,000,000 if you only send him your account number.
"This is one of our avenues of communications with them," Gauthier said.
To be (more than) fair, Smith
and administrators were meeting Tuesday, at work crafting a strategic vision for the schools.
Amazing. Outstanding. So-very-much-needed-and-important. Not like they were playing golf.
And there's a school board retreat coming up in February, and I've been told one of the big topics there will be school safety.
Good. Because at the December school board meeting, just days after the Connecticut school shootings, school safety wasn't on the agenda.
And last week, during the January school board meeting, it wasn't on the agenda either. (Agenda items are set by Smith and board Chairman Mike Evatt).
Exactly how important is school safety to this administration?
Maybe Smith is worked to the bone, missed a few emails and needs to hire an assistant. Maybe his email really was kerwhacked, and the governor's invitations are sitting there -- You've got mail! -- unread in some cyberspace wasteland.
(Makes you wonder what else the governor has sent us that we don't know about.)
So let's pretend all that is true. Still not the worst part of this embarrassing mess.
You remember that feeling back in middle school? When there was a big party coming up, and everybody was talking about it, and everybody was going?
Weren't you always looking for your invitation? Waiting to be asked? Hoping, begging, pleading -- wanting -- to go?
What bothers me so much is that this was a gathering of school officials from all over the state. All the big folks. And for whatever reason, our top administration -- in charge of one of the biggest school districts in the state -- knew nothing about it.
Are we that insular? Isolated?
How do we miss something like this?
The threats to our schools are supposed to come from outside the school system.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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