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Wilson County addresses charter schools

Jeff Luttrell

Earlier this year, Tennessee sought to redesign the application process for charter schools looking to set up shop in the state.

Charter schools are not new to Tennessee, but the change does represent a shift away from local school district autonomy to a state-controlled commission in Nashville.

New language regarding the application of charter schools alters the ultimate deciding party, because if an applicant is denied at the local level by a county school district, they now have a fallback, an appeal to Tennessee Charter School Commission (TCSC), which is the body that reviews appeals if the initial application is denied.

Wilson County does not currently have any charter schools. However, during a meeting on Thursday, the Wilson County Schools Policy Advisory Committee laid out a path for handling the requests of potential charter-school applicants.

“There are many charter schools that have been coming to the state,” said Lauren Bush, WCS deputy director of policy and student services. “We have not had a charter-school request in our district, but we do need to establish a policy for approving charter schools.”

Any move will still require the final approval from the Wilson County School Board’s approval, but the committee was able to reach an agreement about establishing policies for the possibility of charter-school applications in the future.

WCS Director of Schools Jeff Luttrell indicated that given the language in the state law about charter schools, he was unsure of what kind of enforceability a local-level denial to a charter school might have.

Similarly, Bush explained that in nearby Rutherford County, a charter school was ultimately approved by the TCSC. The committee was not dismissive of charter-school applicants but rather explored how best to work within the confines of policy to implement them.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, charter schools are public schools operated by independent, non-profit, governing bodies. In Tennessee, public charter school students are measured against the same academic standards as students in other public schools.

Local boards of education ensure that only those charter schools open and remain open that are meeting the needs of their students. Local boards do this through rigorous authorization processes, ongoing monitoring of the academic and financial performance of charter schools, and, when necessary, through the revocation or non-renewal of charters.

The policy manual that WCS reviewed on Thursday would establish a review team that would be responsible for making a recommendation to the school board.

“The director of schools shall develop an orientation for the team to ensure consistent evaluation standards,” reads the policy.

The review team would be responsible for making recommendations to the school board about charter schools’ application, progress and any contracts with WCS.

There are oversight measures included in the policy that would allow the school board to oversee and annually evaluate charter schools to ensure that they meet performance standards and targets set forth in the charter-school agreement. The charter schools would also be subject to at least one annual visit, where data will be collected along with other qualitative information. The director of schools would be responsible for coordinating and conducting that visit.

In the event that the charter schools violate any part of the agreement or performance deficiencies are observed, intervention from the county school district would be the next step, with revocation a possibility if violations persist.

Grappling with despair

An inmate at the Wilson County Jail attempted to take their own life last Sunday. While incidents like that are difficult to predict, jail officials have several steps in place aimed to prevent and to react to suicide attempts.

The Wilson County Sheriff’s Office oversees the county jail. Correctional officers monitor up to 450 inmates housed anywhere from weekenders to felons. Even with those numbers, Major David Bennett, the lead jail administrator, indicated that the frequency for suicide attempts is anything but consistent.

“You may go six months and never have a suicide or suicide attempt,” Bennett said. “Then, in one week, we may have multiple suicide attempts. You do the best you can and work to keep everyone safe.”

Throughout the inmate’s unsuccessful attempt last weekend, Bennett mentioned that the inmate never lost consciousness but was still transferred for medical examination.

“His cellmate yelled at a correctional officer and told them he had tied himself up,” Bennett said. “When they got to him, he was breathing on his own, so no life-saving treatment was required.”

That time, the result was positive, but the jail administrator acknowledged that it’s not if, but when, it will happen again, even with parameters in place designed to prevent it.

“Every (inmate) who comes in gets a screening,” Bennett said. “When we book them in, we ask if they have ever been locked up before. We ask for their general health history.”

Once that line of questioning is complete, Bennett indicated that they get into inquiries about the inmate’s mental health.

“Some of those questions can be, ‘Do you have a drug addiction,’ ” Bennett said. “We ask them point blank, ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ We also ask if they have ever attempted to do something like that.”

The direct questioning doesn’t always yield accurate responses, but Bennett said that trying to determine that is not a luxury they have.

“Pretty much every week, when someone comes in and is asked that question, we have a lot of them say they might hurt themselves,” Bennett said. “If someone comes in and they are impaired, they might not mean it, but you still have to take it seriously.”

Additionally, the examination explores family history.

“We ask if they have lost a family member to suicide,” Bennett said. “Some of these questions, if they answer yes to, it triggers us to contact our medical provider.”

The jail has a full-time psychiatric nurse on staff, and a psychiatric doctor that can be called in for situations that are deemed sufficient to warrant a visit.

“You have some people that may be on psych meds for their nerves or something like that,” Bennett said. “We’re fortunate that with our medical provider, we can address if someone may just need their medication.”

Every inmate, whether on watch or not, is still checked on hourly. It’s called a life-safety check.

“As a correctional officer, your number one job is making life-safety checks,” Bennett said. “Everything else takes a back seat to that.”

The jail establishes a more frequent basis for checks if the inmate is on any kind of medical watch. If the inmate has attempted suicide before, Bennett indicated that they may be placed under constant supervision.

So what is causing inmates to attempt to take their own life? Bennett said that its usually the same kind of pressures that cause someone on the outside to attempt suicide.

“The inside of a jail is like a society,” Bennett said. “The same thing that triggers an inmate inside here could be the same that triggers it outside. Like getting divorce papers, or a cancer diagnosis ... those kinds of things trigger people.”

Oftentimes, when an inmate is pushed over the edge, it’s other inmates who report them.

“Nobody wants to see that or be involved in that,” Bennett said of suicide. “Inmates will come to the aid. We’ve had them notify us. You may want to check on the guy in cell one ... he’s not acting right. Whenever they notify us, it becomes an emergency call. Most people are good people and will try to help somebody if they see it. They’ll sound the alarm.”

Every inmate receives the hourly life-safety checks, but Bennett said that the types of convictions facing inmates can have a lot to do with how the jail monitors them.

“If somebody gets a very lengthy sentence, we watch them closely,” Bennett said. “Anything life-changing for them, like a serious conviction, you want to take their needs into consideration.”

Bennett lamented over the fact that suicide attempts are a reality inside the jail.

“I have always said that (suicide) is the last thing you ever want to have someone to do,” Bennett said. “No matter what they may have done, someone out there loves them.”

By the numbers

According to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1,000 inmates die in custody in the United States each year. Nearly one-third of those are suicides.

A corrections expert from Rikers Island in New York City, Steve J. Martin, indicated in a report to National Public Radio that inmates in local jails are more likely to attempt to take their own life than a counterpart in a prison facility.

Martin attributes that phenomenon to what he calls the “shock of confinement.”

In fact, according to those Bureau of Justice statistics, an inmate in jail is almost three times as likely to attempt suicide as someone in prison.

Much like what Bennett reported, those in jail could be facing legal trouble for the very first time.

“Someone that comes to jail that has never been to jail though, their whole world is crashing around them,” Bennett said. “They feel like they don’t have anywhere to go.”

A thief in the night

Authorities are searching for an unidentified male following a break-in at Geri’s Market in Lebanon. The store sits on the southeast corner of the intersection between Castle Heights Avenue and Leeville Pike.

According to a report from the Lebanon Police Department, the individual suspected for the break-in arrived at the store on Thursday around 3 a.m.

The report indicated that the suspected individual “broke through the glass door,” which is at the front of the store. Once inside, the individual can be seen removing the ATM from the business.

Based on video surveillance obtained by the Lebanon Police Department, the individual is believed to be a white male.

The suspect was driving a black, Dodge Ram single-cab truck. The report described the truck as having chrome features. Additionally, the words “Harley Davidson” can be seen on the windshield of the truck.

There was also a Harley Davidson logo sticker on the rear window.

Anyone with information on the identity of the pictured suspect, vehicle, or burglary is asked to contact Det. Justin Sandefur with the Lebanon Police Department at 615-453-4322 or

Old Friends still on hold

The Mt. Juliet Planning Commission once again deferred any decision on the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary’s future property during Thursday evening’s meeting.

They deferred on rezoning Old Friends’ new administrative offices on Nonaville Road until their next monthly meeting.

Old Friends’ new offices would be rezoned into an office/professional service district (OPS).

The non-profit’s future property will be located in a log house on the east side of Nonaville Road, further north from Pawvilions, Old Friends’ 18,700-square-foot facility.

Old Friends’ log house measures more than 3,600 square feet on almost five acres.

The planning commission previously deferred on the rezoning two months ago.

During that same meeting, Old Friends Executive Director Zina Goodwin said that they want to move their marketing and fundraising staff to their new offices.

Goodwin estimated that five to seven people would work in Old Friends’ log house.

However, city officials were concerned that the non-profit’s future property would not work well in residential areas like Nonaville Road.

During Thursday’s meeting, both Mt. Juliet Planning Director Jennifer Hamblen and Mt. Juliet Planning Commission Chairman Luke Winchester disapproved of the rezoning due to concerns of having commercial property there.

Hamblen said that she cannot support the amendment due to safety concerns surrounding the streets near Old Friends’ log house, such as Nonaville Road and Spring Hill Road.

“I think it’s a bad direction when you’re putting in commercial zoning in between two houses,” said Winchester.

Five residents also voiced their disapproval of Old Friends’ future property during the meeting.

Area resident Janice Von Allmen said that the rezoning is not in agreement with the general plan to not have commercial properties in residential areas. She believes that it will affect the 11 residential properties that are near Old Friends’ log house on Nonaville Road.

“I am not a realtor, but I do not think having a commercial office space surrounded by residential homes would be a benefit to those homeowners or those homes in the immediate area,” said Von Allmen.

Von Allmen said that it doesn’t make sense to have commercial property that would only be used for a few people.

She added that there are five properties for sale in less than a five-mile radius of Old Friends’ Pawvilions. Von Allmen said that those properties are already zoned or close to zone to commercial.

“I live in a quiet, residential area near the property, and I want to keep it this way,” said Von Allmen.

Jessica Gore, principal of Para Design LLC (a local engineer group and developer for Old Friends’ future property), said that the non-profit is not planning to have any dog boarding into the rezoning. In the rezoning, a preliminary master development plan prohibits dog boarding in Old Friends’ new offices.

Gore said they are keeping the existing structure for the rezoning and will only include accessible parking space in the property.

She requested that the planning commission make a one-month deferral.

Gore said that Para Design will further discuss the new offices with Old Friends.