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OPINION: “Grundy County: When Everybody Loses”

Dueling topics of the 2018 Grundy County High School valedictorian selection and subsequent arrest of Trevor Sanders have become issues of interest to the larger community surrounding your county.

I was made aware of these controversies by a Grundy County citizen last week, as they felt the need to reach out and seek assistance. After hearing of this story, I invited Trevor Sanders’ family to dinner on the night of April 7th. I previously had met no one involved.

My knowledge of and affection for Grundy County began in 1989. I had just graduated high school and made new friends who lived in Altamont. I remember driving by the old courthouse prior to its loss to arson, never thinking I would have occasion to visit the new one.

Having been raised on a Tennessee farm in a county smaller than Grundy, I am deeply accustomed to operational characteristics of a rural community. I have four grown children. I am familiar with virtually every possible interaction, good and not so terrific, with a public school system. At 46, from a public career and my own raising of many kids, I feel competent to review this situation with impartial eyes and ears.

At issue first is the situation with your 2018 valedictorian. Both candidates, the generally expected and more recently named, are accomplished, academic leaders deserving of every achievement. And this is part of the problem, having spoken to many Grundy County residents at this point. Not one person has said one unkind word about the individual selected as final valedictorian, a decision which came to the surprise of many.

Elevation of a junior to senior position competing for superlatives in the last semester of school is arduous for seniors-on-schedule to accept. It usurps the planning, talent, focus and performance of everyone who knew the general playing field of candidates throughout four years of high school. While early graduation is academically possible with effort and dual-enrollment credit options, it is a process which must be clearly defined for all students years prior – not one foisted upon them at the last minute. I am confused, however, as some GCHS students have reported to me the early graduation option for dual-enrollment was not universal. Anyone availed to choices not present for all others equally should not be granted such a lonely valedictory track. Essentially, that person would lead a class of one.  In parallel, any NASCAR fan would rip up their tickets if one driver could drop the restrictor plate on Mile 499 at Daytona or simply drive away champion at 375.  Mathematically, this is what has happened at Grundy County High School.

That students at Grundy County were shocked by this move is unsurprising. What followed was horrific.

Grundy County does not have clean hands in terms of keeping valedictorian selection from becoming a debacle. Therefore, the “where’d those checks go” school board should be doing everything possible to assure legitimacy and trust in the process is restored.  This is clearly not happening, but the impunity with which your administrators deliver their decisions is outrageous. This is not news in Grundy County, where even the illusion of propriety seems challenging for its leadership to muster.  The family of Trevor Sanders has been unable, as of this writing, to see the actual warrant. This is why I had to file open records requests to obtain same.  I believe if Grundy officials felt bright lights at every move, actions in cases such as this would be handled far more delicately.

I am gaining the haunting impression some of Grundy’s elected officials seem convinced the county is geographically and economically sequestered just enough to allow for a made-to-order form of jurisprudence. It is these situations where ambitious teens are arrested for speaking out and defendants are unable to rapidly receive copies of warrants. Since I became involved in this one matter, the number of unrelated inquiries I’ve been fielding from within Grundy County’s citizenry has been uncomfortable. What is undeniable is the stratum of Grundy Countians who are afraid of the hierarchy which serves them, feeling powerless to address it or participate. “Yeah, they hold your warrants as long as they can, so you can’t prepare,” claimed one man of his own recent matter, while another mused of the depth of Ramsey Lake.  “If we speak out, we get set up, so we don’t.” offered another. What?  This is the narrative of 19th century Wyoming before tracks came through bringing marshals and a court system, not the perceived regime under which any group of Americans should be living in 2018. If anything, Grundy County’s officials have home spun the most wickedly defective public relations I’ve witnessed in 28 years of broadcast work.  If any of these concerns are troublesome for public officials to read, it is their responsibility to operate better shops which hover somewhere above terrifying commentary.

Enter Trevor Sanders. Until the evening of April 7th, I had not met Trevor or any member of his family. From academic strength to political activism, Trevor appears to be every bit the future business and societal leader Grundy County desperately needs to foster and retain. Instead, Grundy County leadership is teaching Trevor just how insular and awful small-town politics can be with no sunshine and oversight.

Mr. Sanders’ insistence that the valedictorian selection process was wrong led to a recorded, now-publicized conversation including Mr. Sanders, GCHS Principal Deidre Helton and Assistant Principal Adam Floyd. As have thousands of others, I listened intently as the principal delivered her litany of threats against Mr. Sanders’ ideological position and freedom of speech. Every sentence Ms. Helton spoke made me more sad for the students of Grundy County High School, and I hope this is not the general approach which guides her hand as a touchstone leader for the next generation.

Instead of engaging Mr. Sanders’ intellect and opprobrium, which is where school administrators might display their mettle when it counts, Ms. Helton took a very low road paved with threats and guarantees of severe loss.  I truly hope, for the school and the county, Diedre Helton is more capable than this cartoonish display of ham-handed authoritarianism.

At dinner with Trevor’s family, I asked him point blank, “What if Ms. Helton told you to knock it off while inviting you to participate in an available forum including perhaps a school board meeting?”  “It would have been over.”

My line of questioning was simple. I communicate for a living, as do educators. To respect someone’s issues while channeling their energy, one must create options rather than roadblocks. Either reason, caring or skill set were missing here, and Ms. Helton’s professional behavior on that tape left me wanting for all three. This is a school system which performed complicated academic gymnastics to assure one student’s success while Trevor Sanders received the “Go Directly to ISS (then jail)” card for daring speak about it. Then I learned of a faculty member at Grundy County High School who is also part of the equation due to familial status. Did no one at GCHS see how treacherous this looks to students and others?

The community wasn’t done with Mr. Sanders quite yet. In parallel to Diedre Helton’s wonky conclusion that challenging a policy affecting only one person constitutes harassment, Grundy County’s legal apparatus doubled down. It was reported to me the parents of the late-named valedictorian candidate filed a harassment warrant which was accepted and executed, placing Trevor Sanders in jail overnight. I’m betting many with more difficult accusations have been released on small dollar or recognizance bonds, yet the alarming Grundy “my way or else” punishment culture made Trevor sit and stew.

To state this is all beyond absurd would only begin to qualify my studied opinion on the matter. Consequently, I have presented to your sheriff and county court clerk legally formed open records requests for Trevor Sanders’ arrest warrant and all related documents.

What has been accomplished can be stated with extreme clarity:

No one will be viewed as the legitimate valedictorian of the 2018 graduating class of Grundy County High School. Whoever gives the valedictory speech this season will be the 2000 Florida presidential election version of valedictorian. GCHS administration did this to itself and its student body with no foresight or expectation of consequence.

Being offended and harassed are not remotely synonymous, except in Grundy County where personal interest reigns dominant over the sacred public trust.  When politics and favoritism become issues of gamesmanship, it is consequence to all when everyone loses.

As it stands under current policy and precedent, Grundy County has relieved itself of ever being able to seat a remotely valid valedictorian. Custom made dual-enrollment curriculum available to “who knows” along with mystery points and the GCHS Friends and Family Plan have doomed the process. An actual senior may never speak at graduation again. The only person who has arrived at sensible options is Trevor Sanders. I suggest he run for school board as soon as his bogus arrest is vacated with prejudice.


Jason M. Kibby (Walker)
Chattanooga, Tennessee

*While I work in a broadcast position for Hits 96 (WDOD-FM) as I have for 20 years, this article is a personal open commentary rather than representative submission through my employer. I, alone, am responsible for its content. I am following this story closely and will update as necessary via my personal Facebook page. 


**The preceeding article was provided as an “Opinion” piece, or Letter to the Editor at MarionCountyMessenger.com. The views and opinions expressed within are not necessarily those of the staff, management, ownership, advertisers or affiliates of MarionCountyMessenger.com…

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