Loudon school safety probed

Grand jury tours facility; wants investigation into 'noncompliant' items

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Loudon County grand jury wants to know if the fire safety problems that have plagued Loudon High School since 2005 are evidence of criminal negligence on the part of school administrators.

A grand jury report released Thursday recommended the district attorney general investigate “life safety” issues at the school and “response or lack thereof” of school administrators and officials.

The report follows testimony before the grand jury earlier this week by members of the school board, fire safety officials and others associated with work to bring the high school into safety compliance. The grand jury toured the high school Tuesday.

Loudon County resident Joe Webb also testified to the grand jury about fire safety problems the high school experienced starting in 2005 that continued through this summer, resulting in failed inspections that delayed the first day of school from Aug. 8 to Wednesday.

The school is awaiting an inspection set for early next week by the state Fire Marshal’s Office. If the school does not pass the inspection two licensed firefighters will have to be assigned to stand fire watch whenever the building is occupied.

The report, signed by grand jury foreman Mark Carpenter, asked the district attorney to “investigate the items listed by the fire marshal as non-compliant, their history, and to determine if satisfactory progress is being made to correct these long deficient items.”

Loudon County schools Superintendent Edward Headlee acknowledged that his office is the subject of the grand jury’s interest. Headlee said he is not concerned about the possibility of criminal charges being brought against himself or those in his office.

“I think its ridiculous,” Headlee said. “My understanding is that this is not a criminal issue.”

District Attorney Russell Johnson said he has read the report, listened to the testimony and toured the high school along with grand jury members, but his office has not yet decided how to proceed with the investigation.

“They have asked me to look into the issue so that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson said.

“The grand jury is supposed to look into criminal matters. We have not decided what the criminal issues are in this case,” he added.

Johnson said he plans to talk more with the grand jury foreman before conducting the investigation. The results of the investigation will be released to the grand jury when they meet again in December, he said.

Headlee defended the school department’s handling of the fire compliance issues and explained that the delays that have occurred over the past two years were the result of changing fire codes.

The plans proposed in 2005 involved compartmentalizing the school to prevent the spread of fire. It was later determined that the school would also need to install a sprinkler system, a project that was much more involved and which required work be done when the building was not occupied, he explained.

“I had two of my daughters go through that high school Headlee said. “I told the district attorney that I never would have allowed children in that building if I thought there was a serious fire safety issue.”