Emotions were raw at a public meeting on safety at Henry Clay High School Wednesday night, nearly a week after a loaded gun and other incidents caused fear and panic on the campus.
Parents who said their children were safe at Henry Clay, one of Lexington's highest performing schools, raised their voices in disagreement with parents who questioned communication and security measures at the school on Thursday, March 1.
“The system worked,” some parents said. Others in the room simultaneously yelled, “The system didn’t work.”
Most parents who spoke during the meeting did not identify themselves when they expressed concerns.
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One mother told principal Paul Little that she would have preferred to hear about the incident from him first, rather than on the news. One man asked why, if Rupp Arena officials could check crowds at University of Kentucky basketball games with metal detectors in 30 minutes, couldn’t schools do the same. One student said Henry Clay needed more emergency drills.
But several people defended school administrators and one man blamed the news media for making things worse by what he thought was premature reporting.
“People have a difference of opinion on what school safety is all about, but the one thing we know is that everybody loves their children and want them to be safe,” Little said after the meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes and drew several dozen people including parents, students, staff, community members and local officials. “We’ve got to find what we think is going to work best for our school and our whole district. We’re open to everybody’s opinions and ideas. It is their school. It’s their children’s school and we are here to serve them. That’s why we had this forum.”
Little said at least four incidents occurred March 1, igniting rumors among students who, in some cases, spread erroneous information on their cell phones:
First thing that morning, school officials began looking for a student they heard had a loaded gun.
In an unrelated incident, two girls jumped another girl in a fight. Then, before the first bell rang, the student with a loaded gun was found and removed from the building, Little said. Several students were interviewed to make sure it was the only gun in the building.
Next, a mother of one of the girls in the fight came to school and became disorderly, Little said.
Additionally, a female student alleged that she had ingested some drugs but then said she didn’t. That caused emergency medical technicians to be called to the school.
“Kids kind of blended things together that (were) completely separate incidents. It made the perfect storm as far as chaos,” Little said in an interview.
Many students left campus during the school day on Thursday. That night, upset parents and students vented at a district safety council meeting because officials didn't initially discuss the day’s events. The next day, a Friday, fewer than 4O percent of Henry Clay's students attended school. Absences were excused both days.
Some parents failed to get emails on March 1from school administration that explained what had happened, leading Superintendent Manny Caulk to promise improved communications and Little to schedule Wednesday night’s meeting in the school cafeteria.
At the meeting, Little told parents about new safety measures: A staff person has been hired to monitor the front door. Students who are excessively late for school, who are in areas where they shouldn’t be and who are acting suspiciously could be subject to a metal detector wand search by administrators, not law enforcement. Random metal detector checks are not planned at this point.
Every door is more secure. School officials have requested more fencing for the campus. An app has been added to communicate more effectively with faculty. Students are being educated to “say something if they see something” that appears threatening and to use a tipline that protects their identity.
Randy Peffer, district chief of high schools, said Fayette County is implementing a new communication system to reach families more quickly.
Peffer noted that every high school has four armed law enforcement officers. He said most information about safety threats came from students. Peffer asked parents to monitor their children’s social media sites.
“We’re living in different times,” said Peffer.
School officials gave reasons why it would be logistically difficult to move all students through metal detectors, after several parents questioned why metal detectors weren’t being widely used. But Little said parent ideas were being considered.
“Your children’s safety is my number one priority and it always will be,” Little said. “That’s an ongoing process. It’s not a done deal. We’re going to keep looking, we are going to try to learn from other districts, other schools, and we’re going to keep growing our school safety plan to make it the best place we can.”
Henry Clay PTA President Sandra Palmer said school officials “had done a great job.”
“I just think people need to be more thoughtful and our job as parents is to calm our kids down and not feed the fire,” she said.
Pat Hill, a retired Henry Clay teacher who now serves as a substitute at the school, said she would not work there if she felt unsafe. She also said she observed students who were well trained in what to do in the case of a lockdown.
“My child does feel safe,” parent Amy Jennings said, “She came to school last Friday. It was her decision. Principal Little has students’ best interest at heart. He wants them to feel safe. I know they are working on this. As long as you have support and you have parent involvement, things can happen. But it also costs money. And if you don’t go to Frankfort and tell the governor and the legislature, ‘Hey we need some money,’ its not going to happen.”
Fayette Board member Stephanie Spires said funding was key: “We aren’t going to be able to provide the services we need if we get cut in Frankfort.”
Student Layla Callahan said she went to the meeting to support her peers.
“There are always people who agree to disagree,” Layla said. “In the end I think there's going to be a lot more improvements and it's going to be a lot safer but it’s going to take time to get there.”