Smith’s conflict with district overshadows school board race

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

In a conflict dating back to September, Terry Smith – now a candidate for Liberty Hill ISD School Board – has been seeking change in how the district manages security, its accountability for students and how it adheres to its own policies.

It is not unusual for a candidate to file for election with an agenda for change, but Smith’s fight with the school district includes a pair of official grievances, an angry episode and a criminal trespass order that prohibits him from being on campus at Bill Burden Elementary.

The issue originated Sept. 14, 2018, when Smith arrived to pick up his son at Bill Burden and the kindergarten student could not be located.

Eventually that afternoon his son was located on a school bus and returned to the family unharmed, but not before tensions boiled over.

The school district has declined comment on the specifics of the incident or Smith’s grievances in response to an official request for information from The Independent, citing privacy laws.

“The other information that would be responsive to your request (statements related to a student incident and records of a student/parent grievance) is not subject to public release as it would tend to reveal confidential information related to individual students’ educational program, which is not subject to public release pursuant to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law.”

Superintendent Steve Snell did say, however, that based on his knowledge of the incident, which occurred three months prior to his employment, he believed district and campus personnel handled the difficult situation properly.

Smith disagrees, and while he is still not allowed on the campus, the incident was a big factor in his decision to run for school board.

“It’s more yes than no, I guess,” Smith said. “It has had an influence on it. When I picked up the packet on Jan. 15 from the district, I threw it in the trash, got it out of the trash, threw it in my shred box, took it out of the shred box, and waited for the last day of filing. As more and more situations keep coming up at the school with the dismissal process I just felt I needed to actually make a run at it.”

What happened?
Smith went to pick up his children on Sept. 14, but only his daughter was waiting for him. When he asked about where his son was, the staff began checking different areas and groups, but could not immediately locate him.

“I started getting a little irritated,” Smith said. “In stressful situations, I usually leave. I can’t leave in that situation. What I usually do, because of my past experiences with stressful situations in the military, I usually leave because of my medical condition. But I can’t leave because I am missing my child.”

Smith’s account of what came next generally mirrors the account of one parent volunteer who witnessed the incident on campus that afternoon.

“I started saying things, probably started cussing a bunch of people out,” he said. “Then they were like ‘You need to calm down or I’ll call the Sheriff’s Office.’ I was like ‘I’m already on the phone with 911’ because I called 911.”

The volunteer, who asked not to be identified, said Smith was very angry and yelling obscenities.

“He walked in from the pick up line, the walker line, into the office and was already irate,” she said. “He got in people’s faces, he was cussing with children around. When they moved him to the conference room he started tearing that up. He was just not calm at all.”

The volunteer said she saw a Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer outside and went to bring him in and that’s when Smith was escorted to a conference room by the DPS officer.

“When I got there, that’s where he was, in the conference room by himself,” said Lauren Smith, Terry’s wife, who had been called to the school from work. “They ushered me to him, but they didn’t tell me anything either. This was 20 to 30 minutes after dismissal time and they still didn’t have any idea where he was.”

After a few minutes it was suggested Lauren go check at home for her son.

“The Sheriff’s deputy actually asked me to go to my house to look,” she said. “So I had to leave (Terry), because he wasn’t going to go with me, and go look at my house. I was pretty certain he wasn’t there because he had never walked home by himself before.”

Lauren said as she asked neighbors they also began searching the neighborhood, and she soon saw staff members from the school also wandering the neighborhood looking.

After a search of the school and surrounding neighborhood, word came that the Smith’s son had been found on a bus and was being returned to the campus.

“They found him about 45 minutes after dismissal, and we didn’t get him back for another 45 minutes after that,” Lauren said. “So basically an hour and a half had passed from the time we were supposed to have had him in our possession to the time we actually got him.”

The school district defends its procedures and the actions taken by staff that led to the child’s safe return.

“Once we found out a child was on the wrong bus we took immediate action, located him and we got him back and reunited with his parents as soon as possible without harm,” Snell said. “There’s some things about the incident obviously that I can’t tell you, but I can tell you once it happened and he got on a bus that his parents didn’t know he was getting on, we found him and we took action.”

The trespass order
The same day his son went missing for about an hour after dismissal, Smith’s actions and words concerned campus officials enough to request a criminal trespass order, which was issued by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office that same day. It bars Smith from being on campus even today.

“They issued that before we got our son back,” Lauren said. “Ms. Chambers had talked to the Sheriff’s Deputy in private and after that (Terry) had to go and wait at the street and we hadn’t even gotten our son back.”

The criminal trespass warning says it was issued at 10 p.m. the evening of Sept. 14 and was issued verbally to Smith by Sheriff’s deputies.

Smith has acknowledged that he was very angry, but denies he threatened anyone.

“(Upon returning to the campus) I walked in to the front office and that’s when I said ‘You were the head of the dragon and now it’s time to cut off the head of the dragon,’” Smith recounted. “Like, you’re in charge, if I take you out, as far as if I report you to get you removed from your position, everybody else falls in line.”

School officials and Smith disagreed on whether that was a threat. A few days later in a meeting with Principal Terrie Chambers, Smith said she accused him of threatening her.

“She came back and her response was, ‘You said you were going to kill me’,” he said.

“‘No, I didn’t say I was going to kill you,’ I never said that,” he responded.

The volunteer parent on campus that day alleges he did make threats against specific individuals at the school during the incident, getting in their faces, creating what she said was a threatening and dangerous situation.

“I was at the point where I thought if this man had a gun he would probably be using it right now,” the witness said. “He was that intimidating. I understand being upset, this was more than upset. He really hindered the process of trying to figure out what happened.”

Smith’s wife was not on campus during his initial outburst, but said based on his military mentality and deployment experiences she could see how it might disturb some people.

“I wasn’t there at the beginning, so I don’t know what he said, but if he was in that mode I’m sure he used a lot of vulgar language,” she said. “If they’ve never experienced dealing with someone of this nature or in this type of situation, I’m sure it was scary.

“I don’t think he’s ever been that scared except for possibly his combat tours,” she said of her husband’s reaction. “We’ve never experienced such fear before.”

But she defends him and feels like now the entire issue is focused on his actions and not the incident at the school.

“I was told his behavior was unacceptable and he’s an adult,” Lauren said of her discussion with school officials. “At that point I walked out, because at that point the conversation was no longer about the safety of my kids but just him.”

Smith doesn’t believe it was reasonable for staff of the school to construe his reaction and his words as threatening.

“We likened it to when you are in the middle of battle,” Lauren said. “He is a combat veteran who did six tours. So when you’re in the middle of battle and there’s mission that has to happen it is like, you figure out who needs to go where, do this and do that. So basically he started barking orders at people.

“At the same time, they told him to calm down, and just being a parent, not being in combat, how receptive is a parent to calming down when you can’t find your kid? They didn’t tell me to calm down, but I don’t know what I would have done if they told me to calm down. I probably would have gone off on them, too.”

When asked whether he had any regrets in hindsight over his reaction or the things he said that day, after a long pause he said he wished some things could have gone differently.

“It’s a yes and no thing,” he said. “Could there have been things done differently? Yes. Can I go back and change what I said? No. Do I regret what I said? Possibly. Maybe just slightly, hindsight being 20/20.

“If I could have left that situation I would have left that situation. I’ve walked out of arguments with (Lauren), I’ve walked out of arguments with my parents, I’ve walked out of class. I’ve walked out of several situations where I felt like I was going to lose my stuff. The problem was, I didn’t know where my son was so I could not leave that situation.”

He disputes allegations that he flipped tables and chairs or destroyed any property.

“I could have flipped a bunch of tables and chairs and I could have destroyed their little Keurig coffee machine and all the little coffee mugs that are around in their conference room, but I didn’t do that either,” Smith said.

The Smiths believe that issues with the district are being overlooked as everyone focuses on Terry’s outburst.

“I get that he reacted and that’s scary, but we can still do something for the kids,” Lauren said. “He’s already being punished, honestly, with his no trespass warning. That’s going to stick. He’s already been slapped on the hand multiple times so now let’s move on. Let’s do something differently.”

“I really wish the school would focus on what happened and how to correct the problem rather than my reaction to the situation,” Terry added.

The grievances
Smith filed a pair of grievances following the incident, focused on both what happened that day and his dissatisfaction with how the district handled the process in the aftermath.

He said what he would have liked to have heard was an apology and better communication.

“Mr. Smith, we’re really sorry this happened,” he said, referring to the response he hoped for. “We will make changes for this not to happen again. We understand that you were mad and we understand you were freaked out.”

Instead, he claims he was met with silence and a confusing process.

“In the following days we got no response from anybody,” Lauren said. “We tried (the next Monday) to get more information. Monday morning they wouldn’t even allow me to walk my son to class. I was terrified to take him back to the school.”

Later that same day Smith requested a meeting with school administrators.

“I just wanted to find out what was being done different, what things were being put in place, what exactly happened, things like that,” she said. “She made it very clear that her priority was not about changing dismissal procedures at that time, she told me things like ‘He was never unsupervised’ and ‘We don’t independently walk each child’ which made me super nervous because if that’s the response, then that’s not a response that changes anything.”

Then-Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle also responded to calls from the Smiths that Monday afternoon, but they still were not satisfied with the reaction from the school district.

“It was a phone conversation and he said they would have to look into it and then we heard nothing for multiple days, and that’s really what propelled the grievance process because we felt like the urgency, even if they didn’t have answers, could have been like, ‘Hey, we’re looking into this, give us a couple of days and we’ll get back to you,’” she said. “We were feeling like we were getting nothing from the school and were getting nothing from the district, so where do we go now?”

The final decision in the grievance process came on March 12 when the Level III Grievance was heard by the school board. The Board chose to uphold the Level II decisions and dismissed the grievances.

Still angry at the March 12 hearing with the Board, Smith had trouble keeping his anger in check, calling out administrators in outbursts and storming out at the conclusion of the meeting.

Smith claims the district has changed nothing to address the problems that he alleges led to his son getting on a school bus that September afternoon, but Snell disagrees.

“The district has done a very good job in my opinion on not only responding to that incident, but moving forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Snell said. “Over the past few months, not only have we implemented training and awareness, but the district has spent a good amount of money on smart tag technology, which we’re going to pilot a little for the rest of this year, and will be in place at every school next year to where we know exactly what time a child got on the bus, are they on the right bus, because those younger children sometimes get lost in the shuffle. We never want that to happen.”

From revamping the entire radio system for the district, to launching the new smart tag technology, Snell believes improvements have been made that make a difference.

With the new technology, a tag is attached to a child’s backpack that will help track who gets on and off school buses.

“They walk on the bus and a censor picks it up automatically,” Snell said. “It will buzz if they get on the wrong bus, it will buzz if somebody walks by without a tag. Then it will tell you exactly where a kid got dropped off and at what time, too. It is just another level of safety, in this case using technology to our advantage.

“If there is a substitute driver or a substitute teacher, we want our procedures in place to be so lockstep that they are followed regardless of what personnel is there,” he said.

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