Charleston Middle School has implemented new policies, adopted procedural changes and beefed up adult supervision in the wake of what one official described as an "isolated incident" involving a "student-initiated fight" early Tuesday afternoon.
Two ambulances and about a dozen law enforcement vehicles representing multiple agencies within Tallahatchie County responded to the call of violence at CMS shortly before 1 p.m. on May 10.
Students were released to parents soon after the episode and an investigation by school leaders ensued, resulting in new measures that CMS Principal Yarkiema Doss and Assistant Principal Jasmine Roberson outlined during Thursday night's regular meeting of the East Tallahatchie School District Board of Trustees.
As part of a routine "school improvement update" segment, Roberson distributed packets of paperwork to seated board members while Doss spoke from a nearby lectern.
"What Mrs. Roberson is passing out is the revision that we have had to make due to a situation we had take place on Tuesday, which did involve several students getting into a physical altercation," Doss said.
The principal explained that among the actions taken was cutting down student transitions within the school so that they are in "pods."
CMS houses 307 students in grades 5-8, and one of the goals is to limit interaction between students of different grade levels.
"They are now moving four times, and they are only moving in their section. Each grade level has their own section," Doss noted.
She said the rotation schedule is "very simple" for students to follow, adding that "they move in a circle down the hall and around the hall."
Doss said when students exit the main school building to go to the adjacent cafeteria facility, they will have "extreme supervision of not only their teacher, but two additional support teachers from the classes that we did have to phase out to ensure the security and safety of our students."
Later, East Tallahatchie School District Superintendent Johnnie Vick told The Sun-Sentinel that Doss was referring to physical education (PE) and music electives when she mentioned the cancellation of two classes. "Students are now focusing on core subjects," Vick said.
To enhance supervision at CMS, Doss said "stations" have been set up in the hallways at which adults will be posted to monitor the movement of students.
A bathroom log also has been introduced, she added.
"This bathroom log travels with our students," Doss explained. "So teachers can see, from room to room, if little Sally went to the restroom last period, 10 minutes ago, should little Sally have to go [again] if they just walked in my room 3 minutes ago. ... And if they are, what are they doing. And so we have someone at each hallway to make sure that they're properly supervised, and in and out in a timely manner."
After Doss and Roberson had completed their presentation, Vick followed up by saying that the new schedule and procedures for CMS will be in effect through the last day of school for students on May 25.
"The most important thing [during] this last week-and-a-half is just safety," he said. "Tuesday evening, Ms. Doss and Ms. Roberson and myself discussed how we could make certain that the students were supervised from the time they got off the bus to the time they got back on the bus.
"So we then came up with a schedule for students to move in pods, where they're staggered, so that every moment of the day there is supervision on every student from the moment they get on campus until they get in their car or get on the school bus," Vick added.
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Tallahatchie County Sheriff Jimmy Fly said the school incident was reported to one of his radio dispatchers as a "possible riot." After arriving on the scene, Fly said he found that the "disturbance" involving "several students" was under control. The sheriff said he tried to call off approaching law enforcement units but they were en route and closing in.
Police came from Charleston, Sumner and Webb, a school safety officer traveled from the West Tallahatchie School District, and a posse of both on-duty and off-duty sheriff's office personnel answered the call.
At least one of the students reportedly caught up in the matter apparently began to experience seizures due to a preexisting medical condition, Fly noted.
The sheriff said it was due to the seizures that an ambulance was initially summoned.
At 1:10, a second ambulance was directed to the scene by an emergency medical dispatcher who radioed that updated information revealed there had been an "assault" at CMS and that the first ambulance crew reported needing "help transporting multiple patients."
Vick said the ambulance was called "as a precaution," but that, in the end, no one required medical transportation.
"Thankfully, nobody was seriously injured," he said Tuesday at the scene. "Nobody [went] to the hospital."
As of late Tuesday, Vick said he did not know the number of students involved or in what area of the school the incident occurred.
The superintendent noted that surveillance cameras scattered throughout the school property might have captured the fight.
He pledged a "thorough investigation" and said school officials would be "totally transparent" with their findings.
Vick declined to comment on a social media post by a person claiming to be a family member of one of the students involved in the incident that suggested Tuesday's violence resulted from bullying.
When contacted Friday afternoon, Vick offered no additional information.
"It was truly an isolated incident as I stated earlier this week," he wrote in a text message. "Students are being addressed according to district policy."
The ETSD student handbook features sections on student conduct and prescribes disciplinary procedures for stipulated violations sectioned off as "minor offenses," "serious offenses," "severe offenses" and "extremely severe offenses."
Fighting or provoking a fight is considered a severe offense, while engaging in a "gang fight involving more than two students" or a third offense of fighting within one year are labeled extremely severe.
Penalties for a first referral of a severe offense include placing in alternative school for at least 45 days, or three days of suspension. Repeated offenses may result in up to 10 days of suspension, placement in alternative school for the remainder of the school year or consigning the matter to the school board for action that could be as stiff as expulsion for one calendar year.
A student charged with an extremely severe offense prompts automatic first-time referral to the school board, suspension until the next regularly scheduled board meeting and potential board-imposed expulsion for up to one calendar year.