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Sheriff Donnie Craig speaks as Superintendent Dr. Carlton Wilson looks on. 

Tate Town Hall addressed school safety concerns

By Cynthia Smith. Photos by Cynthia Smith.

The Pickens County Sheriff’s Office and Pickens County Schools co-hosted a town hall meeting on Thursday, March 28 to address school safety. The meeting was prompted by a sex offender entering Tate Elementary School the previous week.

Sheriff Donnie Craig and Superintendent Carlton Wilson spent two hours speaking to a gathering of more than 100 citizens in the Tate Elementary auditorium. Attendees were greeted by sheriff’s deputies at the entrance of the school.

Wilson opened the meeting with a prayer and praised what he called “a wonderful relationship” between the sheriff’s office and the county schools. Craig then outlined the events of March 22.

An unwelcome visitor

Just past 9 a.m., according to Craig, 57-year-old Bruce Lee Daniell came to Tate Elementary and tried the front door but found it locked. He then walked around the building and found a cafeteria door that was not completely closed. He entered the building, walked down a long hallway and stood just inside the entrance of a restroom.

When Daniell exited the restroom, he was stopped by an employee and escorted to the main office. Daniell said he was looking for a janitorial job. His driver’s license information was taken by the school resource officer and Daniell was escorted to his vehicle. As soon as he left, the resource officer checked Daniell’s information with a law enforcement database and discovered the man was a convicted sex offender.

A crisis averted

At this point, area schools and local law enforcement officials were notified of the incident and the process to find and arrest Daniell was begun. He was taken into custody a short time later.

While Daniell was in the boys’ restroom, four students came and went. Craig explained that hallway video cameras show Daniell had no contact with students.

Craig praised the school employee who detained Daniell and the resource officer for following up on the incident. “Their diligent work,” he said, “kept our children safe and put a predator behind bars.” Craig also commented that he is “thankful that we have a board of education that takes security seriously.”

As for the unlatched door, Craig said that video footage shows a piece of bark was accidentally kicked into the door casing, preventing it from fully closing.

Working to improve security

Wilson outlined safety procedures that are already in place and discussed plans for future improvements. The county, he said, has recently invested in improved cameras, handheld radios, and relocating high school classes that were formerly held outside the main building.

One area of concern noted by Wilson is that Tate Elementary and Harmony Elementary share a resource officer who, luckily, was on the Tate campus the morning of the incident. This issue, Wilson promised, will be addressed as soon as possible with the intention of having an officer at each school.

Better fencing is another goal and Wilson said there are discussions underway to consider improvements such as “safety vestibules” where a person could come into the school but not enter the main building until credentials are approved. “We will continue to make changes to keep our schools secure,” Wilson said.

Question and answer session

One of the first questions from the audience involved the delay in getting information out to the public. Craig said his office is looking carefully at how this event was handled but explained that law enforcement has to balance the public’s need to know with security obligations during an ongoing investigation. “We can’t give information that might prevent us from finding the perpetrator,” he said.

A parent asked why the man was allowed to leave the campus. Craig explained that the safety of children was the immediate goal. Daniell was escorted away from the area and arrested a short time later.

The mother of one of the boys who entered the restroom while Daniell stood in the doorway expressed disappointment that she was not notified of the incident before her son was questioned. For this, Wilson apologized and said the incident was an important learning experience for the district.

Why, a parent asked, was the school not on lockdown immediately following the episode? Wilson explained that the schools are always on “soft lockdown” which means classroom doors are locked while children are in attendance. It was determined this was appropriate because the man was off campus and soon under arrest.

The gym doors are “wide open” in the morning, said a concerned parent, and there is no protocol to check all doors after students have arrived for the day. Craig replied, “I’ve got a feeling that’s about to change” and Wilson agreed, “Absolutely.”

When asked why camera feeds are not constantly watched and hallways not consistently monitored, Wilson said this is a matter of manpower and invited members of the community to assist in these and other areas. “Volunteering in your child’s school,” said Wilson, “makes our schools better and sends a powerful message to your kids.”

Community support

Many audience members expressed support and praise for the way the events of March 22 were handled by school personnel and the sheriff’s department. One mother, who had come through Tate Elementary as a student, talked about positive security changes she has witnessed through the years. “I used to be able to walk right in,” she said, “but things are different now. The people who work here are my friends and go to my church but I still have to sign in and get a badge every single time.”

An audience member who had previously been upset told Wilson he hoped the superintendent didn’t feel “crucified.” Wilson said he is never offended by parents who are concerned and that his door is open to members of the community. “The parents I never hear from,” Wilson said, “are the ones who upset me the most.”

Craig added, “We care about your children. That’s why we’re here. This superintendent, these deputies, we all want to be here and we appreciate the opportunity to work with your children.”

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Sheriff Craig answers questions from the audience

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Superintendent Wilson listens to parent concerns

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