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Never again

Robert Bryan

Conversations about school safety in Wilson County continued on Monday night as events continue to unfold in the wake of the Covenant School shooting.

Six lives were lost last Monday, including three 9-year old students. Since that time, students around the state have staged walk-outs and protested outside the state Capitol calling for change.

Threats of violence have been called into schools around the country, including Lebanon High School.

Approximately 200 students left their classrooms at Green Hill High School on Monday to show their support for the students protesting in Nashville.

“It was a peaceful exit,” Wilson County Schools Public Information officer Bart Barker said. “The students at Green Hill were very orderly in exercising their rights and their voice for the movement.”

Barker was on-site at GHHS during the walk-out and talked with students.

“I talked to one senior who’s very active in the school,” Barker said. “He was not going to the Capitol, but he said, ‘I’m doing this for the movement, and it’s what I believe. I’m hoping that lawmakers will work on gun reform.’ He’s hoping for change to better schools. He was just like, ‘I hope this movement is a wake-up call for state lawmakers to keep students in mind in their decisions.’ That’s what he told me.”

While the threat against LHS was found to be unsubstantiated, there was an increased law enforcement presence on campus on Friday. There were also additional absences as a result of Thursday evening’s threat.

“In a week that was so emotional and so difficult for so many, between the devastating tragedy, heightened awarenesses, more talk about safety, what was produced was unwarranted fear,” Barker said.

Barker was the first point of contact from a parent who had seen a message on social media that had been sent to her son.

Barker immediately made the director of schools and the principal aware of the threat.

“Once I received word of her concern from her student, that’s when I made our folks aware,” Barker said. “From there, that’s when the sheriff’s office gets involved, and a multi-agency investigation starts into what exactly was happening and where the message possibly originated from.”

From what Barker has heard, the same message went to other districts with schools that have the initials LHS.

“I believe it’s being investigated as some kind of cyber hoax,” Barker said. “You’re careful to use that word, because every incident is taken very seriously.”

Amid everything that’s been happening in the days following the Covenant School tragedy, Gov. Bill Lee and other legislative leadership announced additional safety measures to be put in place across all Tennessee public and private schools.

A governor’s office press release shared that the measures will include legislation and funding to place an armed security guard in every school, boosting physical security and providing new mental health resources for Tennesseans.

In Wilson County, the district is already taking steps to improve safety. Schools will be performing drills to ensure that students, teachers and administrators are prepared for the worst. Law enforcement will also be evaluating the drills to see where schools can improve.

“There has been a lot of emotion,” Luttrell said. “There is a lot of emotion, and there will be a lot of emotion. There’s a fear that’s real amongst students, teachers and parents. Anybody that looks around, you can recognize that.”

Almost immediately after the shooting at Covenant School, Luttrell began reaching out to school resource officers and the Wilson County Sheriff’s office to take a look at school safety.

“There’s kids that lost their lives just going to school, and that’s sad,” Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan said. “It’s teachers that have lost their lives. I couldn’t sleep that night, and I’ve had trouble sleeping ever since. I go to bed at night worried about school safety.”

Bryan advised the board against making any hasty decisions in the wake of what happened at the Covenant School.

“You learn from it,” Bryan said. “You study it. You put plans in place to prevent what happened (from happening) ever again. This should never happen again. I hope and pray this never happens again.”

Bryan feels that Wilson County schools are safe.

“Wilson County is in better shape than most counties in the state, because of the actions of this board and because of the actions of the county commission,” Bryan said. “Who would have ever thought that we’d have to put an SRO (school resource officer) in an elementary school? Who would have ever thought it? It’s sad what this world is coming to.”

Discussions on improving communication between schools and law enforcement, increasing the number of SROs in the district, and adding another layer of protection in schools have already begun.

“I know we can agree on school safety and that all of our children are valuable,” Luttrell said. “There’s nothing more stressful on an administrator or a teacher to think about losing one of their children.”

More than just a store

The city of Lebanon will soon be home to Goodwill facilities for the first time since 2018.

Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee broke ground last week at 1414 West Main St. in Lebanon, where a new Goodwill retail store, Donation Express Center and in-store Career Solutions Center is being built. The facility will 20,000-square-feet and will sit on a 3.5 acre property.

The new facility is expected to employ approximately 20 individuals.

Kirby Wiley, the public relations and communications manager for Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, said that the hope is that the facility will be ready by late 2023.

“We are eager to once again be able to offer a wide selection of high-quality clothing and home goods at affordable prices to Lebanon,” Wiley said. “We are also excited to offer local employment opportunities and provide easy access to numerous free career services through our non-profit mission of changing lives through education, training and employment.”

With construction underway at the West Main Street location, the donation trailer that has resided there has been moved to 102 Rocky Road in Lebanon until construction on the permanent donation express center is complete.

“Through the years, Lebanon’s residents have been extremely supportive of Goodwill and its non-profit mission of changing lives through education, training and employment,” Wiley said. “We have been actively searching for a suitable building site since our previous Lebanon store at 1031 West Main St. closed in 2018.”

The old facility had been open since May 2004 before it closed when the lease on the building was up.

“It’s something that’s really been missed in our community,” Lebanon Mayor Rick Bell said. “People ask me all the time, ‘When are we getting Goodwill again?’ To see that work going on over there is a great thing, because it’s a big vacant lot. To have Goodwill there is going to be a plus for everybody.”

The people who have expressed interest to Bell have conveyed their fondness of Goodwill.

“It’s a place where a lot of people go to get really good items and get it at a reasonable cost,” Bell said. “It’s somewhere where a lot of people like to shop, so we’re glad it’s back. When we heard they were coming back the city, I was thrilled, and I think that they’ll do very well there.”

The Goodwill Career Solutions Center will also benefit the community, in addition to bringing more shopping options to the city.

“Any time you have a career center, a place you can help place people in jobs, anything like that is great,” Bell said. “Goodwill is more than just a store. It’s an organization that helps people, and that’s an added benefit to the entire community.”

Returning to Lebanon was always in Goodwill’s plan, according to Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee President and CEO Matthew Bourlakas.

“Through the years, Lebanon residents have been extremely supportive of Goodwill and its non-profit mission of changing lives through education, training and employment,” Bourlakas said in a press release. “It was always our intent to reopen a store in the city, and we are tremendously excited that we will once again be able to offer quality merchandise at affordable prices, as well as numerous free career services in Lebanon.”

Project to provide high-speed internet to 11,000 homes

Broadband internet access is coming to the rural parts of Wilson County.

Project Unite is a partnership between Middle Tennessee Electric and United Communications with a goal of bringing high-speed internet access to under-connected areas across Middle Tennessee. The $13-million investment will bring access to fiber broadband to 11,000 homes this year.

“I really think it started with Middle Tennessee Electric,” William Bradford, the president and CEO of United Communications, said.

“They’ve been serving this area for 75 years. In the early days, what Middle Tennessee Electric was doing was bringing electric service to the areas that didn’t have it. It really started with a need assessment by Middle Tennessee Electric and their board. You wouldn’t think that so close to Nashville that there would be lots of areas that still lack access to broadband.”

With all the rural areas that Middle Tennessee Electric serves, president and chief executive officer Chris Jones knew that there would be a need for broadband even before the assessment began.

“We did surveys,” Jones said. “We gathered data so we had more specific knowledge about where the need was. There’s not a lot of dense areas that have a need, but there’s pockets that have the need. We’re focused on getting (broadband) everywhere.”

The partnership between electric and internet service providers is a key part of getting broadband internet access to the more rural areas of Wilson County.

“We know it is incredibly hard to build networks and make it very affordable in rural areas,” Bradford said. “That’s where partnerships come in. Middle Tennessee Electric and United have both served Middle Tennessee for 75 years and own a lot of infrastructure. We don’t want to build two networks in the rural areas. We want to build one smart network that’s going to bring broadband to our members and support smart grid infrastructure. If we can do all that at once, then, we can service everyone a lot faster.”

The fiber optics that will help provide broadband connectivity will also connect to the electric system.

“There’s a great electric benefit to having this one network,” Jones said. “It helps get broadband, and it helps us on the electric infrastructure side. Every dollar has a double return on investment.”

The project began a little more than two years ago with building fiber connections in the rural areas of Wilson County.

“We have to have the fiber highway system in the rural areas to serve the homes and the businesses, so Middle Tennessee Electric encouraged us to build this rural fiber backbone through the four corners of the county,” Bradford said.

Rockin' the runway

Many locals enjoyed a new experience on Saturday.

Other locals will benefit as a result of their efforts.

Joseph’s Storehouse Food Ministry held its largest fundraiser of the year at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday. With the help of volunteers and boutiques on the square, they provided a luncheon, prize raffle and fashion show for approximately 370 people.

Em + Kate, Dreams Boutique, Iddy & Oscar’s, Poppies, the Square Market, Urban Mills, the Wellness Barre, and Wilkie’s outfitted the models. Loosely themed “mother and daughter,” the catwalk featured family duos, friends, stand-alone men and a surprise appearance from Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto.

WANT FM radio personality M.J. Lucas welcomed each boutique’s spokesperson before its presentation.

Each shared details about prices, upcoming trends and possible occasions for every personalized look, with an emphasis on Easter Sunday.

Though hesitant at first, model Karla Thompson described the event as a good way to get out of her comfort zone, have fun and support a good cause.

Susie James, who modeled with her daughter for Iddy & Oscar’s, enjoyed being styled in items that were flattering and fun.

“We were familiar with Joseph’s Storehouse food ministry but gained a huge appreciation for their work after hearing so many details prior to the fashion show,” James said.

Joseph’s Storehouse Food Ministry, founded in 1999, is a faith-based non-profit that serves Wilson County and surrounding areas. They provide wheelbarrows of food and toiletries to approximately 600 families — which equates to approximately 2,000 individuals — monthly.

“The food program targets the elderly, low-income, disabled, single parents and the working-challenged,” Lucas said.

Being a ministry, the non-profit also offers prayer and spiritual counseling as a part of its contributions to the community.

“It is truly an honor and privilege for us as a ministry to serve those in need,” said Benny Nolen, the executive director and president of Joseph’s Storehouse, to those in attendance on Saturday. “To be here today, you continue to help us support this ministry, and we want to say thank you.”

The event united community members through food and fashion to support those in need. In an effort to give back, Iddy & Oscar’s donated 10% of its Saturday earnings to the ministry.

“I will have a special memory of sharing the morning together with old and new friends for a great cause while shopping local,” James said.