Hamilton County school superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson is unhappy with recent Chattanooga newspaper headlines.  Dr. Johnson and schools spokesperson Tim Hensley released statements on Thursday to principals and the public that made reference to recent news coverage.  

In a message to principals, Hensley cited a recent news story in which board member Tiffanie Robinson was quoted as saying a recently adopted early retirement incentive was intended to “push older teachers” to retirement. Hensley wrote, "in actuality, we are implementing a strategy to free-up funds for investment in community priorities. We are in a day and age where headlines can sometimes lead to false conclusions by the general public."  Although Hensley is critical of the coverage, Robinson admitted to making the remark, and later apologized to school district employees.

On Thursday, Dr. Johnson told WRCB that "Headlines in Chattanooga media can be misinterpreted by the public, diverting them from good things that are happening inside the schools."  He specifically mentioned recent news coverage of the schools system's stance on upcoming student walkouts in protest of gun violence. A newspaper headline from March 1 reads, "Students will not be punished for walking out of class."  Hensley sent a statement on the previous day saying "Students that desire to participate in this walkout respectfully and responsibly should be allowed to participate." However, Dr. Johnson told WRCB that discussions are ongoing on the topic of walkouts.  

Also on Thursday Dr. Johnson issued a press release saying, "We are in a day and age where headlines can sometimes lead to false conclusions by the general public." He referred to a story in Thursday's Chattanooga Times Free Press, headlined "Hamilton County sheriff, superintendent consider arming teachers." In the article, he is reported to have said that school officials also are reviewing legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that would allow school districts to designate teachers trained by private firms to carry firearms. In his press release on Thursday, he said "I advised the media that since the tragedy in Florida, we have worked closely with local law enforcement officials to be sure we are prepared for any circumstance that would put our students and staff in harm’s way." He continued, "To be clear, we have not heard or agreed to any specific plan that increases armed personnel in our schools."  The newspaper story did not state that any such plan had been adopted.

(The Times Free Press issued this statement late Thursday: "The Chattanooga Times Free Press accurately reported Ms. Robinson’s comments and also published her statement in which she apologized to all Hamilton County staff and teachers. The paper also did not report that there is a specific plan to arm Hamilton County teachers. We reported that the possibility is being discussed with school leaders. That was confirmed by Hamilton County’s sheriff, the school board chairman and the superintendent. Hamilton County Schools have not asked the paper to correct any of our reporting, because our reporting is accurate.")

Dr. Johnson is making several appearances in the county to promote his plans for improving overall school performance, but the current debate over school safety has overshadowed that message.  At a "community listening and planning session" at Signal Mountain Middle High School on February 20, he was peppered with questions from parents concerned about the finding of ammunition in a school bathroom earlier that day.  Police reports later indicated the ammunition belonged to a school janitor who is no longer employed.

Here is the complete text of Dr. Johnson's statement on school safety:

"As a public school system, we are charged with preparing our students for post-secondary opportunities, which requires a relentless focus on teaching and learning. Yet, given recent events, we also understand the safety and well-being of students and staff is at the forefront for all school superintendents and boards of education. We are no different in Hamilton County.

Unfortunately, we are in a day and age where headlines can sometimes lead to false conclusions by the general public. On yesterday, I advised the media that since the tragedy in Florida, we have worked closely with local law enforcement officials to be sure we are prepared for any circumstance that would put our students and staff in harm’s way. We have heard many ideas from the community about ways to improve safety efforts – including calls to arm our teachers. However, it is incumbent on the school system to vet safety concepts, especially through detailed discussions with public safety partners in the community. Having those discussions is not an endorsement of a particular idea or concept; it is only an effort to complete our due diligence in determining the views of law enforcement on these issues.

To be clear, we have not heard or agreed to any specific plan that increases armed personnel in our schools. Moreover, we would absolutely consult teachers, administrators, and our school community – along with having to seek board approval – before any such plans were considered or implemented. 

We have also heard about the proposed legislation related to school safety, and we are in the process of reviewing this, just as we do with other proposed legislative items that have a potential impact on educational environments. Everyone is searching for solutions to what has become the vexing challenge of violence that targets our students and staff. Ultimately, we must all commit to working together to ensure our schools and our students are safe.

We agree with the recommendation of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) for the state legislature to approve a special allocation of state funds to every school district in Tennessee for the enhancement of their school safety plans. We further agree that local board members and superintendents should determine how these additional funds can be best used to increase safety measures in their specific districts. We believe an appropriation of state funds for school safety to all local education agencies (LEAs) is the best resolution. We can then make decisions in consultation with our broader community about the most effective way to increase school safety for all students and staff. This would more likely include additional school resource officers (SROs), increased video surveillance, adding mental health professionals and social workers, etc.

Like TOSS, we appreciate the interest and passion our elected officials are showing on the issue of school safety. But, we believe that at this point, the optimal scenario is for our district to receive a special allocation of funds from the state budget for school safety. In Hamilton County, this would allow us to improve and expand the work that we already have underway to add visitor management systems and controlled access doors to every school.

In the meantime, we have released a short survey to our staff to ask for direct feedback about what additional school safety measures they would support. We will share the results of that feedback with our broader school community.

We will continue to work with local law enforcement and all other stakeholders on this issue. We will also continue to gather feedback on safety during our remaining eight Community Listening and Planning Sessions."