Alcoa High School Assistant Principal Tony Spears shows confiscated vaping devices

In this photo from December 2019, Alcoa High School Assistant Principal Tony Spears shows some of the vaping devices the school had confiscated, which may look like pens, flash drives or key fobs. A new policy that includes required education, community service and more has reduced the number of vaping reports on campus.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation publishes an annual statewide school crime study based on reports law enforcement agencies are required to submit. This is the final article in a three-part series based on data The Daily Times requested specific to Blount County. Sunday’s article focused on Blount County and Monday’s on Maryville. This one is on Alcoa schools.

For students to learn, first they need to feel safe, comfortable and confident.

“We can’t have good academics if we don’t have good safety,” said Tony Spears, assistant principal at Alcoa High School and safety coordinator for Alcoa City Schools.

“They shouldn’t have to worry about being bullied. They shouldn’t have to worry about being made fun of because of any difference that they have. They shouldn’t have to worry about somebody having a weapon. They shouldn’t have to worry about being faced with drugs,” Spears said. “They need a positive place to learn.”

The district is upgrading its check-in system, looking at new cameras and vape detectors, and trying to ensure students are comfortable speaking up about concerns.

“We are doing everything within our power to make Alcoa City Schools the safest place that they can possibly be,” Spears said.

The numbers

The Alcoa Police Department reported 32 school crimes in 2019, a dozen at the high school, 14 at the middle school, five at the intermediate school and one at the elementary school.

That was up from 14 in 2018. During 2020, when students often were off campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, APD reported seven school crimes.

The 2019 reports included 15 incidents of simple assault and five of intimidation, up from two assaults and six cases of intimidation the year before.

One case of kidnapping/abduction involved a noncustodial parent who took a child, and the child was returned in two hours, according to APD.

“We’re just constantly trying to make sure that we’re more secure in, one, identifying who is coming into our building, and identifying who has the right to see a kid or check a kid out,” Spears said, describing a new system Alcoa is implementing that will check visitors for any criminal charges and print their driver’s license photo on their pass.

That’s in addition to the staff members who are on alert.

“We have dedicated ladies at these front desks who look at (students) like they’re their own children, and they want to make sure that if someone’s going to be in contact with them it needs to be the right people.”

It’s important for families to ensure every year they update contact information and other details with the schools, such as court orders, Spears said. “All of that now can be done online.”

In 2019, four of the offenders Alcoa police listed in the reports were younger than 10. The offenses involved assaults and carrying a knife on the school bus, which was reported as a weapons violation.

Spears said he wasn’t sure what the 2019 case was, but he has seen incidents in his career when students realized they still had a knife in a backpack they took on a weekend camping trip, and instead of immediately telling an adult they tell their friends, which leads to rumors.

“In today’s world you take any threat seriously,” Spears said.

Alcoa police said the reports of intimidation included a “hit list” and a threat to bring a gun to school.

Spears said once a student posted song lyrics on social media that sounded like a threat. “Nobody knew it was a song lyric so it had to be investigated as a threat to the school,” he said.

‘Fondling’

Alcoa police reported two incidents of “forcible fondling” in school crime reports in 2018 and six in 2019. The number of cases don’t reveal whether the actions happened during the school day or even if they involved students or staff.

“When I saw that number it surprised me a little bit,” Spears said, explaining that he didn’t know the range of actions that might be included in that category.

In response to Daily Times questions, Alcoa Police said one incident involved a 43-year-old. Four 16-year-olds reported inappropriate touching and one said her breast was touched. A 17-year-old said her hand was placed on an erect penis.

“We try to make sure that students know you have a right to privacy, and you have the right for somebody not to make you feel uncomfortable,” Spears said. “We talk and teach that all the way up.”

Alcoa also wants to ensure students have positive relationships with adults in the schools, so they are more likely to speak up quickly and bring things to their attention.

This year Alcoa High School has carved out a 30-minute advisory period in the schedule during which staff can address a range of issues, as well as offer counseling on topics such as ACT exam preparation for juniors and filling out college financial aid forms for seniors.

Alcoa Police said a 2018 pornography/obscene material report came from a juvenile sending pictures of his penis via phone.

Spears said in the past five years the laws have been catching up to technology, so a student who shows bad judgment by snapping and sharing a nude photo might face only a misdemeanor charge. However if the image involves a sex act, Spears said that can be a felony.

As soon as school officials realize an incident may involve a crime, the Alcoa Police officers who serve as school resources officers take over and school officials pause their actions until the investigation is complete, Spears explained.

Alcoa Police reported only two drug/narcotics offenses on school property in 2019 and one in 2018. “We’re reaching a punishment level now that it’s not worth it for a student to bring it to school,” Spears said.

At least once a semester Alcoa Police will bring drug-sniffing dogs to campus. “We’ve had as many as three or four dogs on campus at one time,” Spears said. Students are removed from the classroom while the dogs sniff their backpacks and jackets. “We can also use them in parking lots,” he said.

In the four years he has been at AHS, Spears said the dogs have alerted maybe twice, both for small bits of marijuana residue called “shake.”

Education Reporter

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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