School district hosts group meeting, dinner to discuss school issues within community
By Stephan Drew, Editor
On January 30, 2023, the Darlington County School District Board of Education hosted a dinner and meeting with city, county, and state government officials, as well as business leaders and concerned citizens at Mayo High School for Math, Science and Technology, located at 405 Chestnut Street, in Darlington. This Community/Educational/Municipal/Legislative dinner was a regular occurrence before the pandemic prevented large group gatherings. This was also the first time Darlington County hosted the event in 6 years.
The purpose of these meetings is for people of all walks of life to come together and discuss pressing issues affecting our school system in hopes of coming up with workable solutions. Attendees were encouraged to break away from their groups and sit with others, meeting new people and listening to different ideas. Then, a person from each group spoke for a few minutes and shared what they learned during the discussions. The chief concern at all the tables was school safety.
Tyler Cook, History and Music teacher at Trinity Collegiate School, stressed interpersonal relationships between students, faculty, administration, parents and everyone in the community as a means to increase positive outcomes. Cook encouraged greater community involvement and increased student participation in class, such as helping to clean the classroom, which will give students, parents and citizens a sense of ownership and investment in the process. “In building your positive community and those positive expectations,” he said, “you start to build real positive relationships with your students and you can usually spot when something is wrong.” Speaking of armed School Resource Officers (SROs) in the schools, Cook said, “The #1 reason for an SRO is as a deterrent from someone coming in your building with guns to kill people. Your SRO is not there to scare kids in the hallways or make them behave. They have little interaction with the students unless they do something that rises to the level where they can get involved.”
On the subject of safety, Hartsville Mayor Casey Hancock also spoke of SROs. “Not all Resource Officers need to be Police Officers,” he said. Hancock went on to explain the difference in training for a behavioral specialist and a police officer. Behavioral Specialists are trained to calm a situation before it escalates too far. School Resource Officers are called upon when a matter has escalated into violence. “Someone without a badge and a gun needs a different skill set,” Hancock stated. He stressed the need for trust and transparency between all parties involved and also encouraged student involvement in these meetings in the future. Hancock, commented on the ages of all present and suggested members chosen from the student governments of each school be invited in the future, to also get the students’ perspectives on these issues.
Society Hill Mayor Dwayne Duke likewise spoke of trust and relationships between all parties. “We have to have trust between students, teachers and parents,” Duke stated. He also stressed discipline. “That’s what they need, for us to enforce discipline,” he said. Then, jokingly, Duke stated, “When I was going to school, they’d beat the hell out of you.” Duke described his experience as an educator. “I teach school, I’m a welding instructor,” he said, “I’m very strict on my students.” Addressing a climate of fear, Duke stated, “The teachers are so scared that you’re going to come down on them so, they don’t discipline the students.” Duke reminded attendees of the need for their participation and presence in the schools. “I go to my schools. Mayors, City Councils, go to your schools,” he said, “County Councils, go to your schools, parents, business leaders, go to your schools and meet people, talk to them and listen to their concerns.” In closing, Duke said, “Everything we’re talking about here tonight is our responsibility. Let’s make it happen.”
Darlington City Manager John Payne listed several items which are needed for a peaceful, safe and secure school environment. “Lack of fear from violence,” Payne stated, “When I went to school, I had no fear of being jumped when I went to the bathroom or water fountain. I’ve got children in school and they do fear that kind of stuff.” Payne continued, “Access to nutrition. If you go to school hungry, you’re not thinking about school. You get agitated and you may lash out at someone.” He also stressed structured relationships between parents, teachers and administrators. “My parents had a direct relationship with the principal, unfortunately for me,” Payne said, “My Dad told them, ‘If he acts up in school, you paddle him, send him home, tell me and he’ll get it again.’” He also described the assets of having local teachers. “We had relationships,” he stated, “You saw them in church and at the grocery store. There needs to be more of that.” He encouraged special training for SROs because of mental and behavioral issues which are more prevalent now than decades ago. “If you can deal with someone mentally, you might avoid some violent issues down the road.” Payne also discussed the need for communication and conflict resolution. “People don’t have dialogue, they don’t have civility anymore,” he said, “People have to learn to get along with each other, they have to respect each other and they have to come to agreement so that they don’t come to guns, knives and fists.”
Darlington County Sheriff James Hudson Jr. reiterated the need for discipline and role models in schools and the community in order to provide a safe and peaceful environment. “Teachers are there to teach and students are there to learn,” he said. Discussing discipline, Hudson recalled how his father corrected him as a child. “He would spank us,” Hudson said, “So, we knew not to get out in the community and do anything that was going to cause embarrassment or we would get it when we got home.” Speaking of class size, Hudson stated, “I think the teachers are overwhelmed. They’re on a strict timetable and may not have time to address each student’s particular need.” Continuing, Hudson described the effect of this on the community. “If learning or behavioral issues aren’t addressed,” he explained, “the student feels left behind and they act out. They may drop out of school completely and, then, that becomes the community’s problem.” In closing, Hudson reminded the crowd, “We all have an obligation to each other.”
Darlington County Councilmember Albert Davis III reminded the crowd how the community and educational system used to be. “Everybody knew everybody in the community,” he said, “I was scared to do anything, even outside the presence of my Mom and Dad. That community kept me from doing the things I wasn’t supposed to do.” He agreed that teachers were overwhelmed and felt that a better student/teacher ratio would help correct that situation. On the subject of trust between teachers and students, Davis stated, “We’ve got to show them we love them.”
Darlington County School Board Chairman Wanda Hassler spoke of safety and the measures already taken by the school system to increase security. “When children feel safe, they can learn,” she said, “We are putting up metal detectors. We are hiring SROs. But, these are all defensive actions. We need to be on the offensive.” She stressed pro-active measures to change the mindset and behavior, preventing bad activity and not just dealing with a situation after it has escalated. Stressing outside involvement, Hassler stated, “The way to get safety in schools is to have safety in our community.” She also agreed with Mayor Hancock’s suggestion to get students involved in these discussions. “They are the stakeholders in these issues,” she said, “They are the ones we’re trying to help.”
Darlington County School District Superintendent Dr. Tim Newman addressed the crowd. “This is what we talk about all the time,” he said, “At every meeting, these things are discussed. Our number one goal is safety and security.” Describing the his and the board’s desire for the school district, Newman said, “We want to get to that place where we feel safe and our kids feel safe.” Newman told of attending two student funerals this year, each one a 14-year-old. “I don’t want to have to go to anymore funerals for 14-year-olds,” he said. He then reminded those in attendance of their collective responsibility to eliminate student fear. “Until this group, in this room, with some of our peers, figure out how to help our communities not be as violent and dangerous as they are for our kids, then we’re going to be in that mode.” In closing, Newman told the group, “We need to walk out of this room with a gameplan to turn this around.” Before closing the meeting, he gave the group tasks before they could leave. Each group was required to designate one person to be on a task force. He also reminded them of the need for transparency and the inclusion of pastors, businesses and students in their next meeting. Future meetings will be announced by the Darlington County School District offices.