Brainerd principal on leave pending investigation of alleged assault on student by security officer

FILE - Staff Photo by Robin Rudd /  Brainerd High School Executive Principal Dr. Crystal Sorrells speaks with students in the High-Jackson gymnasium on August 10, 2022.
FILE - Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Brainerd High School Executive Principal Dr. Crystal Sorrells speaks with students in the High-Jackson gymnasium on August 10, 2022.

Brainerd High School Principal Crystal Sorrells was placed on leave as officials investigate an alleged assault on a student by a third-party security officer while on campus Jan. 5.

The investigation is being conducted by the Department of Children's Services, Hamilton County Schools spokesman Steve Doremus said in a news release.

"It is standard protocol for Hamilton County Schools to place an employee on leave until external investigations are concluded," Doremus said. "As this is an ongoing investigation, HCS will have no further comment on this matter."

Sorrells was placed on leave Monday.

Officials from the state Department of Children's Services confirmed in an email that an investigation has been launched but said state and federal law prohibit release of any specifics of the case.

(READ MORE: How this Chattanooga school left the state's list of worst-performing schools after five consecutive years)

The student involved in the alleged assault said he was punched in the face by a security guard because he wouldn't take his hoodie off as he was entering the school campus. He said he was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office patrol car for three hours.

District officials said the security officer, Josephus "Joe" Reed, the owner of Bigfoot Private Enforcement, had been hired without proper authorization.

(READ MORE: Community weighs in on Brainerd and East Ridge school rezoning proposal)

"HCS administration does not employ and has not authorized the use of third-party security at any of its schools," Doremus said.

Reed previously told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that while the incident did not occur as the student depicted, he could not provide further comment because he is cooperating with an investigation conducted by the Sheriff's Office.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokesman J. Matt Lea said in an email the investigation remains open and is separate from the investigation being conducted by the Department of Children's Services.

In the days leading up to the incident, emails obtained by the Times Free Press show Sorrells asking administrators to hire additional security.

On Jan. 3, she wrote Community Superintendent Watechia Lawless Mitchell for her thoughts about safety at the school, referencing security at the recent Chattanooga Times Free Press Best of Preps tournament.

"I've spent this break contemplating how we can keep our campus safe, peaceful and secure," Sorrells said. "I would like to request an enhanced security team for morning arrival at BHS. I have spoken with Joe Reed, the team who secured Best of Preps, and he is more than willing to support this effort. Considering the cost of vape detectors and Yonder pouches, I would feel more protected and comfortable with investing in this team rather than other deterrents that do not address our most pressing issues."

She said Reed's services would cost roughly $1,500 a week.

On Jan. 4, Sorrells emailed Risk Manager Randy Poland asking what documents are required to contract a private security team.

Poland said that to start the hiring process, Sorrells would need to provide the following:

-- A vendor packet from the applicant.

-- Proof of the vendor's certificate of insurance.

-- A quote for services.

-- A date range for services.

  photo  Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Brainerd High School Executive Principal Dr. Crystal Sorrells laughs with alumni, Shawanna Kendrick, left, and Chattanooga Police Department Lieutenant Jerrie Sutton. Elected officials, law enforcement officers, community leaders and alumni gathered at Brainerd High School to welcome back students on the first day of school, on August 10, 2022.
 
 

The incident with the student occurred the next day. It is unclear how Reed was paid, but Doremus said the district has no record of payment to Reed or Bigfoot Security going back to the last school year.

LaDarius Price, a community activist and youth mentor at Brainerd High, said Sorrells was trying to protect students and staff.

"I know what goes on a day-to-day basis in the school, and it's not a safe situation," Price said in a phone call. "It's not an inviting situation. It's not a situation that's conducive for a child to be educated in."

He said the number of times weapons have been found at Brainerd High has been underreported.

The Times Free Press requested from officials a by-school breakdown of incidents involving weapons in November, but district officials have yet to provide the information.

However, the school has drawn attention from law enforcement on at least three occasions within the past six months.

On Oct. 7, a Brainerd student was arrested after allegedly telling a teacher of plans to shoot up the school. On Dec. 11, Chattanooga police were investigating a shots-fired call near the campus shortly before 7 p.m. Responding officers found evidence of gunfire at the school's parking lot that damaged several vehicles. On Dec. 12, another Brainerd student was arrested after allegedly bringing a loaded gun and marijuana to campus.

Though Brainerd High has three school resource officers, Price said it's not enough to keep everyone safe.

"(The situation) is extremely hard," Price said. "More difficult than you could probably imagine. More difficult than most people could imagine because they don't come over to the school. They don't spend time in the school. They don't understand the landscape of the communities in which the students come from and parents, or lack of parent involvement, as well."

Montrell Besley, whose son attends Brainerd High, said many of the children feel unsafe.

"I think the majority of the kids feel that way with all that goes on at Brainerd," Besley said in a phone call. "I think Crystal did the best she could with what she had. If I was in her shoes, I would have tried to provide extra safety."

Price agreed.

"I appreciate Principal Sorrells for making an attempt to keep the students of her school safe," Price said, "because if somebody got shot or killed, then we would be having a totally different conversation. So, in my eyes, she actually sacrificed her profession and career to ensure the safety of her students. That's how I look at it."

He added that keeping children safe at school is a community effort.

"We need to collectively, and I want it in emphasis, figure this thing out," Price said, "this thing where kids can't come to school in a safe environment so they can become educated. We need to figure this thing out."

Sorrells has spent 20 years as an educator. She joined the Hamilton County school district in 2009 as an assistant principal at Brainerd High. Her later assignments included principal of Orchard Knob Middle School, principal of Tyner Middle Academy and principal of East Ridge High School. She returned to Brainerd as principal in July 2021, and under her leadership, Brainerd High left the state's priority schools list -- which identifies the worst performing schools -- for the first time in five years.

Assistant Principal Sharon Morgan will serve as Brainerd's interim principal during Sorrells' leave.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.