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March 15, 2012

Parents upset about gang label

Abbeville — During the Tuesday meeting of the Wilcox Board of Education, several parents and a representative of the NAACP questioned the school system’s handling of a recent incident that caused the high school basketball team to have to forfeit a state playoff game.

“I don’t believe we have a gang problem, but now we have that label,” said one parent.

Larry NeSmith, representing the NAACP, accused Superintendent Steve Smith and other administrators of jeopardizing the education of students because of an assumption. “You assumed something based on false information,” NeSmith said, “and we will carry this further.”

Superintendent Smith said his office had received word following an off-campus fight directly involving one ball player and eight others who were at the scene of the fight and representing their “gangs,” that there would be a melee at school the next day.

He said he, the high school principal and basketball coach met and discussed the situation at length. For the safety of the other students, he explained, they decided that the best solution would be to send the nine players home that day.

Since only three team members were at school the day of the game, “we had no choice but to forfeit the game,” Smith said.

He made it clear that the students were not suspended. They did not receive zeroes for missed work that day. In fact, they were allowed to make up anything they missed.

One mother said some of the young men broke down and cried when they learned that they would not be able to play their playoff game. “Does that sound like something a gang member would do?” she asked.

Board member William Dozier said he does not think Wilcox County actually has gangs, but some of the students have been flashing signs, wearing colors and doing research on Crips and Bloods online. “We want to stop the ‘wannabes’ before we do have gangs in the community.”

“If kids are wearing the same colors everyday and flashing gang signs, then we can assume they’re in a gang,” Smith said. “We made our decision based on the best information we had. In hindsight, I think I would still make the same decision under the same circumstances,” the superintendent indicated.

As the discussion escalated into an argument, BOE Chairman Jill McDuffie announced that the board had other business, and they would not continue listening to comments on the subject.

Smith discussed financial challenges for fiscal year 2013. “We already know,” he said, “that three positions will be shifting from federal to state/local at a cost of $120,000.”

Reduction in student hours will result in a loss of $220,000, and health insurance for classified employees (parapros, lunchroom workers, bus drivers, clerical personnel, etc.) will increase by $144,000.

Unknowns, he continued, include salary increases, equalization funding, diesel fuel costs, energy costs, repairs and maintenance and emergencies.

He estimates that the county will face increased costs and reductions in revenue totaling  more than $500,000.

So far, this year, however, the system has been able to meet its obligations. “We continue to be blessed,” Smith said. “We’re doing more with less,” he added.

At 66.7% of the fiscal year, expenditures are at 61.6%, and 83% of local ad valorem taxes has been collected.

One of the board’s greatest concerns seems to be providing health insurance for classified employees. BOE members know the cost is going to increase significantly, but they feel like they should keep providing coverage at the same level.

“These are the lowest paid personnel, and many of them are working for the insurance,” says Smith.

“If we cut their coverage, we probably will lose employees,” BOE member Ken Arant said.

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