Frustration grows

Sequoyah High School seniors Haley Lee, Chancy Welshan, Dallas Kirkland, Shane Moore and Kelsey Smart voice their frustration to television reporters following the Monroe County School Board meeting on Thursday. All five of the students are currently banned from attending any school sanctioned graduation activities. Welshan, Moore and Smart are all honor students and Kirkland is one of the school’s valedictorians. 

MADISONVILLE-The Monroe County School Board backed Director of Schools Tim Blankenship at its meeting on Thursday. It will not intervene in Blankenship’s decision to ban those Sequoyah High School students involved in the April 29 “school-prank-turned-vandalism” incident from all school-sanctioned graduation activities leading up to and including the actual graduation ceremony.

Only Board Member Jo Cagle voiced her disagreement, saying, “We all make mistakes.”

“Social media has bashed these kids to death… What is wrong with people?” she exclaimed. She went on to say she felt the punishment was too harsh for some students and she thought the board should review all of the surveillance footage.

Half of the crowd in attendance clapped and cheered when she finished speaking but both her words and their applause fell on deaf ears.

Board Member Dr. Bob Lovingood also spoke on the matter. His opinion seemed to reflect the thoughts of most of the board and the other half of the room.

“The bottom line is there has to be consequences for behavior like this,” he said. “We must allow our director to be the director.”

The other half of the audience applauded when Lovingood finished speaking.

Following the two board members, Blankenship briefly addressed the matter at the beginning of his Director of Schools report.

“This was not a two-minute decision,” he began. “Doing the right thing is not always the popular thing.” Then he concluded, saying he had prayed about it and that was all he was going to say about it. 

As he began talking about the next topic in his report, half the audience got up and left the meeting. 

Blankenship kept talking as people left the room. When he finished his report, someone in the remaining audience shouted, “Thank you Mr. Blankenship!” and those who remained applauded. 

To further clarify the support Blankenship was receiving, School Board Chairman Larry Stein asked for a committee to consider offering Blankenship his own contract. Blankenship has been working as director for a year and a half under former Director Mike Lowry’s contract. Lowry died unexpectedly leaving the remainder of his term unfulfilled. Although one year still remains on Lowry’s contract, Stein, Janie Harrill and Steve Rogers agreed to meet and work on a new contract to offer Blankenship exclusively.

“With the job he’s done, I think he should have his own contract,” said Stein. The contract could be ready by the beginning of the fiscal year in July. 

While there is usually a crowd at Monroe County School Board meetings, there was an unusually large crowd at this week’s meeting. There was also a large police presence. In fact, Blankenship was escorted by three officers through a side door and out of the building soon after the meeting ended.

While it was clear there were several disgruntled people in attendance, the crowd dispersed peacefully and did not cause any trouble. Board Member Jo Cagle, a few parents and some students spoke on camera to various Knoxville television stations.

Cagle told one Knoxville television reporter, “There was kids that walked in the building and left. There were kids that did a lot of stuff. And I don’t feel like they should all be punished the same.”

“I guess we are getting punished as a group,” said Shane Moore, a Sequoyah High School senior and honor student who was at the school the night of the vandalism. “This isn’t who we are,” he added.

Sequoyah High School senior and valedictorian Dallas Kirkland was also at the school the night of the incident. “When I saw they had crickets… I walked out,” she said. 

Shannon Lankford, a parent of one of the banned seniors, said she wanted to see the surveillance video to see what exactly her daughter did that night. “If she was the one who did the bad stuff, then yes, I want her punished,” she said. She also did not think it was fair that all students received the same punishment.

One educator in attendance said she could see how it might be hard to determine individual punishments for such a large group. “Where do you draw the line?” she questioned.

In a statement, Blankenship said he was told on April 29 that some students might be planning a prank. He said he told administration at Sequoyah High School to make an announcement letting students know not to attempt to enter the building that night. He also told Principal Gary Cole to have School Resource Officer James Fischer report to the school that night to stop any students who showed up.

On the morning of April 30, Blankenship was prepared to postpone the Senior Drive-Thru event held at the school and make students do one day of community service. However, Blankenship said after viewing the surveillance video it became clear that the damage was extensive and that it could have harmed teachers and students. He called the behavior “irresponsible” and the act “reprehensible.”

According to Monroe County Sheriff Tommy Jones II, video showed Fischer letting students into the building after hours. It has been reported that Fischer said he did so on Cole’s authority. Cole denies any wrong doing. Fischer has since been terminated from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and Cole has been suspended without pay.

District Attorney General Steve Crump said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is not investigating any of the students involved in the vandalism that has made news around the nation and even in at least one British newspaper.

“I view that as a local prerogative,” Crump said of whether students should be prosecuted.

Crump confirmed what the TBI said earlier in the week and that is that the state investigative agency was asked to probe the incident because a Sheriff’s Office school resource officer was involved.

“That is the only reason I contacted TBI,” he said.

Crump said he contacted the TBI at the request of Sheriff Jones, but would have anyway once an officer was suspected of having some involvement in incident.

There has been some speculation about the banned students holding their own graduation ceremonies at area churches. A spokesman for First Baptist Church in Madisonville said the church had no intention of holding a graduation ceremony.

“When all this happened, we just thought about parents and grandparents coming in from out of town,” he said. “The only thing we were ever interested in doing was ministering to these parents and grandparents.”

The spokesman did say the church’s facilities have been made available to families who wish to celebrate their loved ones’ accomplishments.

Neither staff at Sequoyah High School nor Blankenship would confirm the exact number of students who are banned from graduation. Before he was suspended, Principal Cole said the number of students banned was “north of 80.” Based on information in the Advocate and Democrat’s graduation section, there are 212 students in Sequoyah’s 2015 graduating class.

The April 29 incident will not prevent any student from graduating. It only affects those students’ attendance at graduation events, including Scholarship Night and graduation. 

Editor Tommy Millsaps contributed to this report.

Melissa Kinton may be reached for comment at melissagkinton@gmail.com.

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