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School officials promise vigilance — Wesson school, cops hold town hall, but parents absent

Jason Bates got the message like everyone else — poorly.

It was Tuesday, Feb. 20, when word started spreading that “something happened” at Wesson Attendance Center. Students came home saying police and men in strange uniforms were at the school. The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, had happened less than a week before, and parents were afraid. They went online to vent, not always truthfully.

But the school said nothing. There was no statement, no letter home. It was another three days before the Wesson Police Department took to its own social media account to release a little information and calm folks down — a student had been charged with simple assault “with intent to create fear” and whisked away to youth court.

“At first I was angry I had not been notified, that I had to find out through Facebook,” said Bates, whose 6-year-old daughter, Haley, is a Wesson kindergartener. “That’s my child, and I should have been the one to make the decision on whether or not to send her to school those couple of days after.”

Bates was one of a handful of Wesson parents who attended a town hall-style meeting Thursday night at the Old School, organized by police and school officials in response to the February misunderstanding to soothe parents’ fears by explaining school security and notification plans.

Apparently, the rest of all those outraged Wesson parents got over their fears in the last four weeks — the meeting was terribly attended, with school, police and fire department officials making up the majority of the crowd.

Still, Wesson Attendance Center Principal Marilyn Phillips soldiered on, addressing several submitted questions with numerous references to pages and pages of school policy.

In the end, her address was more like a liturgical reading than an information session, as strict laws on student privacy and the inherent secrecy of school crisis response plans prevented her from releasing any real information.

“We had a disciplinary action at our school and we can’t share that information,” Phillips said. “There were some gaps that were filled in with, well, not the truth. I don’t even copy a recipe from Facebook, and that’s all I’m going to say about Facebook. I do see there’s a need to better inform parents, and we’re going to do a better job of putting that out there.”

Phillips addressed school security measures, highlighting school policies that require administrators to keep track of information such as duty rosters, visitor rosters, traffic plans, evacuation procedures, weather responses and other scenarios. The school even maintains a hazardous waste policy, due to its proximity to the railroad.

Cameras record throughout the school, and classroom doors are locked while class is in session, Phillips said. Administrators have duty posts in the event of a crisis. A new policy will see the school’s several entrances locked after 8 a.m., with the high school entrance serving as a single entry point, watched by the school resource officer.

The school resource officer — William Brown — is not packing.

“He has to go through a certain amount of training each year, and he does have access to a weapon on campus,” Phillips said. “It is on his body? No. But he does have access to one.”

Phillips said the Copiah County School District is considering placing armed school resource officers in its schools.

Wesson Police Chief Chad O’Quinn, who organized the town hall, said his officers patrol around the school regularly, and he would like to place a Wesson cop on duty in the school full time. Such a decision would have to come from the school board.

For now, the department concentrates on being able to respond, O’Quinn said.

“I’m not going to go into the policy, but if there was a shooting at the school, we’re going to go to where the threat is,” he said. “We’re not going to stand outside.”