Fayette County parents and students showed up at a safety meeting Thursday night demanding answers after a student carried a gun into Henry Clay High School in an incident that created panic and frustration.
The meeting began on a planned agenda, but was quickly disrupted when the day’s events were not discussed.
“Superintendent Caulk you know better,” said Henry Clay student Zach Sippy, who had earlier Thursday criticized communication from school officials when a student was charged with carrying a loaded gun to Henry Clay. Rampant rumors erupted afterward and many fearful students left the school.
“We can do a better job,” said Fayette Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk said at the inaugural meeting of the Fayette District Safety Advisory Council.
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“I made my girls come here because they were scared,” said parent and attendee Alexandra Pallos. She said students needed to hear from Caulk because they were scared to go to school.
“The fact they didn’t address something that was so critical that happened today at school was mind-boggling to me,” Pallos said.
“I just feel it was an error that they didn’t acknowledge what had happened today,” said parent Marian Silman. “I understand there was a format for the meeting. I think that given what happen today they should have acknowledged the immediate experience of people and made clear they were paying attention to it and dealing with it especially so that people felt comfortable going back to school tomorrow.”
Caulk confirmed after the meeting that some parents weren’t notified quickly enough or didn’t get an email the school sent to all families.
And Caulk said law enforcement officials were investigating an additional threat circulating on social media that warned students not to go to Henry Clay Friday because a gang planned to shoot up the school. Lexington Police sent tweets after the meeting saying that “at this time we DO NOT believe the information being spread is credible.”
The principal said several hours earlier that student absences Thursday and Friday would be excused.
“We will have extra law enforcement at Henry Clay. We want to make sure that students feel safe,” said Caulk.
Caulk said the district would start using a new mobile app within a week and other methods to improve communication. The app will allow the schools and district to communicate quickly and frequently with parents and students when incidents occur and when they are resolved. More details could be shared efficiently.
“We haven’t been great communicating with families as these incidents arise.”
Caulk also said if parents wanted, he would hold another meeting at Henry Clay with all students, families and staff to make sure all voices were heard.
The student found with the gun at Henry Clay was carrying it for protection over issues in his neighborhood, not to harm others at school, the principal said.
Caulk in an interview before the meeting said the district’s school safety system worked at Henry Clay on Thursday, in part because of a monitored tip line.
“Our students at Henry Clay are fantastic,” Caulk told the Herald-Leader. “If they see something, they say something.”
He said students were courageous to speak up and the tip line is part of the district’s preventative measures. He said school law enforcement and school administration appropriately followed up to resolve the situation.
He said high schools in Fayette were safe because they had between three and four law enforcement officers.
The Advisory Council, created by Caulk following fatal shootings in Western Kentucky and Florida, will examine best practices in school safety and develop specific recommendations to ensure all Fayette County Public Schools are safe places to learn and work. It’s comprised of students, parents; principals; district officials; city representatives; and community, business and faith leaders. Officials said the meeting was not designed as a town hall format.
Nevertheless, people posed sharp questions to council members on a screen through an electronic system.
“What are your thoughts about metal detectors being installed?
“Do we have a student led group to address school-place violence at each school?”
“Please tell me you will not allow or expect your teachers to conceal and carry as Pike County has.”
“Why aren’t there more teachers on the council?”
Caulk said the Henry Clay incident “also underscores for us that we need to have public education fully funded and additional resources for school safety and mental health services.”
He said he was encouraged this week by state lawmakers who want to restore proposed budget cuts and make other efforts to increase school safety.
“I’m encouraged because they are showing leadership,” Caulk said.
Caulk said every student should learn in a safe environment and that Henry Clay is safe and should not be painted with a broad brush because of what happened Thursday. He said its one of the top performing schools in the state and some of its students are among the top in the nation.
William Modzeleski, a national school safety consultant and Jon Akers, Executive Director for the Kentucky Center for School Safety, spoke at the first meeting Thursday night. They reiterated what they said earlier Thursday at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committee on school safety that building trust and appreciation between students and the adults at a school was one of the most important things they could do and that teachers should not be armed at schools.
At the Fayette advisory meeting, Modzeleski said that not all measures that schools take work. But he said Fayette’s new advisory council that includes members of the community is a step in the right direction. The experts said any extra money should go for more counselors in schools to listen to students.
Akers said students should be trained on what to do during a lockdown and how to react when a fire alarm is pulled.