Loudon school officials not indicted on safety charges

Unable to reach a consensus, grand jury advises no action

Hugh G. Willett

A Loudon County grand jury this week declined to indict school officials over safety issues at Loudon High School.

The investigation of Superintendent Edward Headlee and Maintenance Coordinator David Hemelright was initiated when Loudon resident Joe Webb went before the grand jury in August to accuse the two administrators of reckless endangerment.

At the time, Webb introduced testimony from several members of the state Fire Marshal's Office who claimed that school officials repeatedly ignored problems with the fire alarm and other safety issues at the high school.

"To say this case was difficult to decide would be a gross understatement," wrote grand jury foreman Mark Carpenter.

"After hearing approximately three days of various testimony, studying various documents and deliberating over three hours, we could not reach the required consensus needed to recommend indictment," he said. "Therefore, the grand jury recommends no action at this time."

After listening to reports from District Attorney General Russell Johnson and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jason Legg, 10 of the 12 grand jury members voted in favor of indictment, Carpenter said.

An indictment would have required the consensus of all 12 members of the grand jury, he added.

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

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 that required work to be done when the building was not occupied, he said.

Although Webb and Greenback school parent Lisa Russell were in attendance to provide additional information on issues, including allegations of falsifying compliance reports and safety issues at Greenback, the grand jury declined by another 10-2 vote to hear their complete testimony, Carpenter said.

Carpenter, who did hear the testimony of Webb and Russell but was only allowed to summarize the information for the rest of the grand jury, said he felt the grand jury as a whole should have heard the testimony.

"I feel it would have been beneficial to hear the testimony," he said.