Lockdown: School Security Needs Fortification, Not Recrimination

Recent revelations of security system deficiencies at two Knox County schools need to be put in the rear view mirror, and the school system needs to move ahead with doing exactly what Superintendent Jim McIntyre called for in his Feb. 5 State of the Schools address.

"I believe we must invest in having a more intensive and robust level of safety resources at each of our schools," he stated. "At a minimum, we must have current-generation video monitoring systems... camera-buzzer systems, keyless entry and/or secure entrance vestibules at each of our facilities to enhance school access control; and yes, I believe we should have an armed, uniformed school resource officer or school security at each and every one of our schools."

If the recent revelations had been indicative of serious failings on the part of McIntyre and his administration, then further probing would clearly be called for. But this is not the case. By the time the installation deficiencies at newly built Hardin Valley Academy and renovated Powell Middle School were documented in June 2011, the security system's contractor responsible, a small local firm, had already been replaced. Its successor on a system-wide basis, coming out of a competitive selection process conducted by the Knox County Purchasing Department, is a nationally prominent firm, SimplexGrinnell.

McIntyre then directed SimplexGrinnell to conduct a thorough assessment of security systems at all other schools. And the firm reported back that it had "tested the functionality of each of the security systems in each of the Knox County schools. During the inspection process, SimplexGrinnell documented any deficiencies and, after receiving approval from KCS, repaired the deficiencies. To date, SimplexGrinnell is not aware of any existing issues with the security systems in any of the schools."

McIntyre insists that any deficiencies at other schools were "minor" compared to Hardin Valley and Powell Middle but will not say what they were or how much it cost to repair them, invoking "sensitivity." He also says he advised school board members of the major deficiencies at the two schools, but he did not share the scathing report of the Nashville firm that documented them, though "in hindsight, I probably should have."

Perhaps the most damning revelation from the school system's standpoint was that its chief security officer, Steve Griffin, admitted he had accepted a free ticket to a NASCAR race and also went on an overnight hunting trip with the owner of the since-replaced security contractor, Professional Security Consultants and Design. Griffin had urged the Public Building Authority, which oversaw the Hardin Valley and Powell construction projects, to use PSCD without bidding the work on grounds that the installations needed to be "compatible" with the rest of the school system's security apparatus. Upon learning of Griffin's transgressions, McIntyre placed him on administrative leave and retained a lawyer to "fully investigate the matter."

At a school board discussion of the entire matter, PBA CEO Dale Smith told board members that "compatibility issues can be legitimate concerns that if computer systems at one school won't talk to your broader system then there can be real problems."

The person who seems most intent on making McIntyre a scapegoat, or worse, is County Mayor Tim Burchett. In the immediate aftermath of the News Sentinel's account of the Hardin Valley and Powell deficiencies, Burchett fired off a cluster of poorly informed shots at the superintendent, capped off by a call for making the post an elected one rather than appointed.

Of the roughly 15,000 school districts in this country, fewer than 1 percent have elected superintendents. More than 20 years ago, then-Gov. Ned McWherter's landmark Education Improvement Act made appointed superintendents mandatory in Tennessee in the name of getting full-time professionals in the post, with accountability to elected school boards.

Just why Burchett has it in for McIntyre is a matter for conjecture. Plainly, the superintendent—and his board—alienated the mayor last year with a call for a $35 million school budget increase. This would have necessitated a property tax increase that Burchett vehemently and successfully opposed. But I believe the mayor's animosity runs deeper and relates to temperamental differences between the two men. McIntyre is a bit of an egghead, a Boston-bred Ph.D. who is lofty in his thinking and his speech whereas Burchett is an earthy East Tennessean who sounds at times like a throwback to a bygone era.

In my view, McIntyre's performance since he assumed the post in 2008 has been exemplary. His five-year strategic plan is a comprehensive template for achieving its goal of "Excellence For All Children." He's championed a more rigorous curriculum, with many more interventions for students who are struggling, and the more stringent teacher evaluation rubric that's now in place statewide originated in Knox County. The high school graduation rate has gone from 79 percent to over 90 percent on McIntyre's watch. But he's the first to recognize that the school system is challenged to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students.

Recognition of McIntyre's accomplishments is reflected in his selection as the state's superintendent of the year for three years running (2009-11) by the Tennessee PTA. And in 2012 he received an Excellence in Educational Leadership award from the University Council for Education Administration, a consortium of more than 100 universities.

In addition to school security investments, McIntyre's State of the Schools address also identified two other priorities that call for budget increases in the year ahead: 1.) raising teacher pay to lift Knox County schools from 37th place in the state in average teacher salary; and 2.) investing more in instructional technology.

Where security system investments are concerned, McIntyre's Chief of Staff Russ Oaks relates that "the video technology you can get today is leaps and bounds ahead of what it was 10 years ago." But it's understood that the systems now in place at many schools is at best that old. Oaks says, "We need to establish what is a current appropriate level of functionality and then work to bring all of our schools to that same level."

One can question why McIntyre is only now getting around to addressing upgrades. But in the wake of last December's terrible tragedy in Newtown, every school district in the country is, or should be, doing so.

On March 5, McIntyre is co-hosting (with Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones and Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch) a community forum on student safety and school security. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at Amherst Elementary School (5101 Schaad Road). I'd hope that Burchett would attend and make a constructive contribution.