This is an opinion column.
By Gary Lloyd
TRUSSVILLE – All that was needed to avoid this citywide black eye was communication.
Just some good old-fashioned, transparent, direct, honest, decisive and timely talk. No sugarcoating. No assumptions. No spin. Just honesty.
If you live in Trussville and somehow haven’t seen it on the news or up and down your Facebook timelines, here’s the gist: A Hewitt-Trussville High School student was suspended in September after making terroristic threats Sept. 16, almost a year after he created a “death notebook” that contained the names of 37 classmates, a notebook that did not come to light to authorities until this September. Almost a year later, most parents found out that their children’s names were in this book.
Trussville City Schools Superintendent Pattie Neill released a statement Sept. 26 but did not speak publicly Sept. 27 at a morning press conference held by Mayor Buddy Choat or at the city council meeting that night.
“The student was brought to the counselor’s office and met with the principal and counselor,” Neill said in the statement. “The notebook was based on the Netflix series ‘Death Note’ where a person can imagine someone’s death and supernaturally make it happen – for example the person in the notebook might be eaten by ants, hit by a bus, hit by a ladder, drowning, etc. It was determined at that time by the principal and counselor and based on the information available that the notebook was fantasy and no further action was necessary other than confiscate the book and monitor the behavior of the student. The student completed the 2021-22 school year with no further disciplinary problems.”
That quote is part of a long explanation of the incident and subsequent response, but it widely misses the point. Why did it focus so much on the premise of a television show? Why did two people, without the input from proper authorities, deem it “fantasy”? If a notebook exists detailing the killing – fantasy or not – of real-life classmates, how in this day in age can that be passed off as “fantasy”? It can’t.
“In light of the events surrounding Uvalde and as part of our ongoing safety plans, [Hewitt-Trussville High School Principal Tim] Mr. Salem and our SRO team implemented numerous safety protocols for the 22-23 school year,” Neill said in the statement. “As such, when the events of last week came to light, the potential threat was acted upon immediately and the threat assessment protocol was fully implemented.”
The statement goes on to outline the subsequent meeting with Salem, where he “acknowledged this mistake and recognizes the error in not involving the SRO for threat assessment protocol in 2021.” It also states that, “in hindsight,” proper authorities should have been notified. Hindsight. That’s a tough word to see in a statement about a year-old “death notebook.”
Salem was placed on administrative leave Sept. 27. Neill was placed on a 60-day leave three days later at a special-called Trussville City Schools Board of Education meeting.
Choat, speaking the morning of Sept. 27 at a press conference in the interim city council chambers – formerly the Trussville City Schools Board of Education boardroom, which was somewhat ironic – discussed recent safety concerns within Trussville City Schools. To the credit of those who fielded questions – Choat, Police Chief Eric Rush, and City Council members Lisa Bright and Ben Short – it was encouraging to hear some tough questions answered. Encouraging, but embarrassing.
If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now that there are communication issues in Trussville. Board of Education Vice President Kim DeShazo used the word “communication” six times in a letter to parents Sept. 29.
“As to the complaints about communication: Parents, we hear you,” DeShazo wrote. “I have three kids in the Trussville school system, including one at the high school. I understand your frustration, disappointment, and fear. I am so grateful that we are discussing these issues today instead of after some tragic event. There is nothing we can do to change the events of October 2021 or since. What we can do is learn from the mistakes and prevent them from ever happening again. I am committed to that and will do everything I can to ensure that our kids remain safe in Trussville City Schools and our families are treated with honesty and respect.”
Fewer than 24 hours after that letter was sent, the Board heard from parents and students for more than two hours. A chief complaint not just now, but for years, has been that Board members do not have individual school system email addresses. There was long just a email@example.com email address. All five Board members now have individual email addresses.
At the Sept. 30 Board meeting, Board President Kathy Brown said a “complete overhaul” of the system’s communications plan was needed. Jason Gaston, who started as the system’s public relations supervisor Jan. 18, 2021, resigned to take a similar role at Alabaster City Schools in September, just days before the “death notebook” story broke. Before Gaston came to Trussville, the school system went several years without a defined public relations position.
Late Sept. 30, a school system update from Board of Education President Kathy Brown was sent to parents and the community advising of the creation of individual Board of Education email addresses. Just three days prior during Choat’s press conference, the mayor said Trussville will continue to support public safety and school safety as top priorities.
“We cannot do that without communication, and that’s where this occurred,” he said.
Later that night at the city council meeting, Councilwoman Jaime Melton Anderson said communication was “paramount” to her.
“The communication has got to be direct, has got to be immediate,” she said. “You do deserve to feel safe in this community.”
In August 2020, the Trussville City Council and Board of Education approved a memorandum of understanding outlining what should happen when any threatening incident happens on school property or at a school-sponsored event. In part, the MOU states that SROs “shall be responsible for carrying out all duties and responsibilities of a law enforcement officer and shall remain at all times under the control, through the chain of command, of TPD.” Rush said that MOU was supposed to be adhered to and was not. There are no repercussions for violating it.
“I think the violation in itself was bad enough,” he said. “It was there and it was known.”
The Board of Education will review the MOU and work to strengthen it with the police department.
Short, in my opinion the best communicator in terms of meeting people where they are – scrolling Facebook – answered one question at the Sept. 27 press conference.
“Improving our communication, I think, is key here,” Short said.
Since most every other Trussville resident has expressed their opinions this week, I guess this is where I express mine. I’ve covered this city and school system for more than a decade, both as a full-time journalist and part-time freelancer.
I’ll give the city this – it recently created an app to check the city calendar, submit tips to the police department, pay for car tags and more. It’s a step in the right direction, but like the improvement of infrastructure before the next big construction project, it’s a bit late. City council members and the mayor have Facebook pages, but they are underutilized, at least in my opinion. It’s a city of 26,123 people, and it warrants a lot of information. Of course, I post more about Trussville online than most anyone. The city, to inform its citizens and promote itself better, needs a more accessible online presence. Meet the people where they are.
The city website is another issue. I’ve seen numerous municipalities that post their public notices, meeting agendas and other upcoming events on their websites, and share it in a timely fashion across social media channels. Trussville still emails theirs out to folks who ask to be added to the email list. Just look back at the Great Trussville Pickleball Debate of 2022. The public agenda was emailed out to a longstanding email list prior to the council workshop June 9. At that time, the pickleball courts construction approval was not listed on the agenda. It was added after Milam and Company’s presentation to the council at workshop, but that agenda was apparently not emailed out to the longstanding email list prior to the June 14 council meeting, but it was listed on the consent agenda at the council meeting. Get all that? Printed agendas are readily available prior to meetings at Trussville City Hall. This could have contributed to residents feeling out of the loop on the project.
Simple updates such as those, I believe, go a long way in improving communication citywide. Little things make big things happen. In Trussville City Schools’ case, it’s going to take much bigger changes. Trust has been lost. Tough conversations have been needed and had.
This outcry from the public has been a long time coming, a slow boil, and that process unfortunately got kicked off this way, with one of the scariest possibilities imaginable leaving folks feeling as if it could have happened here. Poor communication from a principal or positive spin from a superintendent every now and then is one thing, but 11 months passing before all parents of Hewitt-Trussville High School students knew about a “death notebook”? That’s appalling.
It didn’t have to be this way, and the dam finally broke. The difficult stories and hurt feelings poured across Trussville last week, some constructive and some just old wounds being reopened. The rebuilding process has already started, and that immediacy, despite it being reactive, is ultimately a good sign.
“Listen to us,” one parent pleaded to the Board of Education on Sept. 30. “Take us seriously.”
Now, I believe they are.