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Superintendent: Recent school vandalism incidents resulting from social media ‘challenge’

A “challenge” on the social media platform TikTok that awards students points for vandalism and other bad behavior is behind a recent string of incidents that resulted in property damage at several Barrow County schools, superintendent Chris McMichael told the board of education last week.

School districts in the area and around the state and country have reported incidents connected with the online challenges where students are credited with “devious licks” for their acts. During the school board’s Sept. 28 meeting, McMichael said there had been 31 incidents in September as of Sept. 22 that were confirmed to be part of or were believed to be connected to the challenge. Most of the incidents, he said, involved damage done in restrooms, including graffiti tags, soap dispensers being stolen or taken off walls, and toilets being damaged. Most of the incidents have occurred at the district’s high schools, though two middle schools have also been impacted, McMichael said.

The total cost of the damage through Sept. 22 was estimated to be a little over $13,000, said Joe Perno, assistant superintendent for system operations.

McMichael said a handful of students — seven or eight — have been identified as responsible for a significant portion of the incidents, and disciplinary consequences have ranged from legal actions to alternative schooling and a plan for the responsible parties or their parents to pay back the money for the damage. He said no expulsions had been handed down as of last week.

“They’re destroying school property, and that’s totally unacceptable,” board member Lynn Stevens said. “We need to send a message that we’re not going to tolerate this.”

McMichael told the board that TikTok has monthly “challenges,” including a recent one, which is to “smack” a teacher or staff member. He said there had been no known incidents of that as of last week, but that such an incident would automatically result in expulsion and likely stiffer legal consequences.

“Let that be a warning to anyone thinking of attempting that,” McMichael said.


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Not 'just part of the job’

Walking into a patient room isn’t the same as it used to be for health-care workers. More and more often the visit could turn violent.

Abuse against health-care workers — though not a new problem — is on the rise. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration study found that health-care workers represent approximately 50% of all victims of workplace violence.

And the mounting number of incidents is taking a toll on those in the profession, according to one local health-care worker.

“It’s very stressful,” said Tara Jernigan, chief nursing executive at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton. “It causes you to really be thoughtful when you enter a room to be thinking about what could happen. It makes some of them wonder are they in the right profession, did they make the right choice?”

An incident, which occurred locally, has served to shed light on the problem.

A Braselton nurse sustained multiple injuries from a vicious attack that took five nurses and three security guards to stop. The nurse, identifying herself as only Destiny, recently testified about the experience in front of a state Senate study committee commissioned to investigate the problem.

Jernigan, a nurse for nearly 30 years, called the attack “probably the worst that I have personally witnessed in my career.” She explained the effect these incidents of violence have on health-care workers whom often enter the profession to help others but are feeling overwhelmed by enduring these abuses.

“And when people are not only not grateful, but attacking for what you’re trying to do to help them, it does kind of give you a feeling of doubt, that maybe you’re not doing the right thing,” she said. “ … When your employees feel that way, they have more of a tendency to call in or perhaps leave the profession in general.”

The pandemic has only served to exacerbate these occurrences of violence in health-care settings. Patients are said to be increasingly confused and upset and lashing out. Verbal assaults are quickly turning physical.

Dr. Mohak Davé, Northeast Georgia Health System chief of emergency medicine, remembers the wave of support hospital workers received at the start of the coronavirus pandemic 18 months ago. But he feels that’s largely been lost as health-care workers increasingly come into harm’s way.

“The commitment that health-care workers have is stronger than ever, but people are also drained,” said Davé, who serves on the senate committee studying violence against health-care workers. “We’ve lost staff because of the pandemic, and they may never come back into health care, so our resources are even more taxed than where we were when we started this.”

Deborah Bailey, executive director of government affairs for Northeast Georgia Health System, said health-care workers have largely accepted abuses, in their various forms, as part of the job. But the problem has grown to the point where enough is enough, she said.

“These are kind, compassionate people … we have allowed this to continue to escalate to the point that we realize we can’t do this anymore,” said Bailey, who also testified in front of the Senate committee. “We have to find a way to help our staff recognize this is not acceptable, and it can’t keep occurring.”

OLD PROBLEM TAKES NEW ROOTS WITH PANDEMIC

While abuse against health-care workers isn’t a new problem, there’s been an increase in this violence last few years, according to NGHS officials interviewed. The abuses are verbal, physical and sexual, and happen across all areas of heath care, not just the emergency room.

The pandemic has fueled an uptick in cases as people are becoming more easily agitated.

Increased wait times, inability to get testing, conflicts regarding vaccinations and mask-wearing and misinformation on social media have all contributed to patients lashing out more frequently at health-care workers.

“There’s a lot of angst around the different requirements that are related to managing the pandemic,” Davé said.

One of the more alarming trends is how quickly these incidents turn violent.

“Those verbal altercations are escalating faster into physical (altercations), and the data suggests that our de-escalation tactics are required now at a higher degree than they have been in the past,” said Kevin Matson, NGHS vice president of facilities and support services who oversees the security staff.

Meanwhile, health-care workers are largely reluctant to report abuses. According to Bailey, 75% of instances of violence against health-care workers go unreported.

Jernigan said health care workers have largely viewed the abuse they suffer as a job hazard of dealing with patients who are often confused or perhaps unaware of their actions.

“We just kind of felt that just came with the territory, which I think goes to why so many of these things are underreported,” she said. “Because where do you draw the line with intent? It’s still the same act whether someone pinches you or yells at you, whether they’re confused or not, it’s the same act.”

Jernigan said often times employees leave health-care jobs for reasons unknown. These departures could be related to those unvoiced experiences of abuse.

“You may never know if they were victimized,” she said. “You just don’t know because they don’t share that and they don’t report it.”

Jernigan said she’s been subjected to verbal abuse throughout her career and some physical abuse, too, “but not to the extent of what happened on the Braselton campus.”

Bailey no longer works as a nurse but said she certainly experienced abuse earlier in her career when she functioned in that role. She remembers not reporting those incidents, too.

“And that’s something that I would change, too, today,” she said.

Davé, too, said he’s experienced both verbal and physical attacks but makes an important distinction: the vast majority of health care workers are female. Women are being subjected to violence in health-care settings much more often than men.

“So, I’m well-aware of numerous instances of physicians, nurses and others that are female that it’s impacted greater than males,” Davé said.

DE-ESCALATING CONFLICTS

With the rise in violence, Northeast Georgia Health System has sought to equip its employees with skills to help counter it.

Classes that teach self-defense and verbal de-escalation tactics are available and encouraged. These classes have been offered for years but are now offered more frequently given the violent trends in health-care settings.

Using a tug-of-war analogy, Maston said one of the major de-escalation tactics preached is “don’t pick up the rope.”

“We want to avoid that,” he said. “As the patient or visitor challenges us, we want to find a way not to challenge them back, but talk them down.”

‘I THINK PEOPLE ARE SHOCKED TO HEAR THIS’

Northeast Georgia Health System officials applauded the formation of a Senate study group on health-care violence as a positive step to address a long-standing problem and to inform the public.

Davé said it’s not enough to have penalties for violence committed. The root of the issue must be explored to explain the disparities in health care driving this increase.

“This is a symptom of a disease, and I think the committee has heard a lot of information thus far to look at how we can treat this condition which is putting health care workers and patients at risk,” he said.

The process will also educate the public, which is largely unaware of the problem, Jernigan said. The longtime nurse said she’s encouraged that the word about health-care worker abuse is “finally getting out there.”

“I think people are shocked to hear this,” she said. “I think they don’t really realize how prevalent it is.”

Bailey said informing the public is a big first step in addressing the problem. Coupled with a focus on health-care workers reporting all instances of violence, the hope is a strong no-tolerance message is being sent.

“We’re going to support them and encourage them in every way,” Bailey said, “and it’s not going to be acceptable for our public to come in and do this to our staff.”


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WBCT to premier 'Miss Magnolia Senior Citizen Beauty Pageant' play this weekend

Winder-Barrow Community Theatre is bringing “live” theater back to Winder and the surrounding areas this weekend.

“The Miss Magnolia Senior Citizen Beauty Pageant” will premier on Friday, Oct. 8, and run for three weekends until Oct. 24. Friday and Saturday night shows start at 7:30 p.m., and the Sunday matinees will start at 3 p.m. All performances will be at the Colleen O. Williams Theatre/Winder Cultural Arts Center, 105 East Athens St. 

Tickets are available online at www.winderbarrowtheatre.org by clicking on the red ticket found on the home page. Click for online sales, choose the date you wish to attend, and complete your order. Your ticket will be at will call at the theater when you arrive for the show, leaders said.

The play is written by Leslie Kimbell, a Statham resident. She is the author of the “Four Old Broads” series, and the new play is the third in the series. WBCT has performed the world premier of each of the shows. Léland Karas will be directing with Kim Jones as assistant director.

There will be social distancing in the theater with limited seating and everybody wearing masks to enter the building.

"WBCT and the City of Winder have done everything they can to keep everybody safe and well while attending the show," leaders said.

For more information, go to the organization's website.


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Winder council candidate withdraws from race for family reasons

A Winder City Council candidate has taken her name out of the running for personal reasons.

Beth Speights, one of three candidates who qualified this summer to challenge incumbent councilman Chris Akins for the at-large council seat that is on the Nov. 2 election ballot, told the Barrow News-Journal Thursday, Sept. 30, that she was withdrawing from the race due to a family health matter that recently arose. 

That leaves two challengers to the first-term councilman Akins — Stephanie Britt and Jerry Martin. Ward 1 incumbent Sonny Morris is opposed by Matthew Redfern, Melissa Baughcum and Yvonne Greenway, while Ward 3 incumbent Jimmy Terrell is facing opposition from Danny Darby. 

In-person advance voting for the city election begins Oct. 12, and absentee ballot applications are currently being accepted by the Barrow County elections office. 


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Statham set to hold public hearings on proposed millage-rate increase

The City of Statham appears poised to raise its millage rate next month in a move city officials say is necessary to fully fund the fiscal year 2022 budget that the city council approved this summer and to pay for larger upcoming infrastructure projects.

The city council at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7, will hold the first of three required public hearings on a proposed millage increase from 4.003 mills to 4.345 mills, which would mean a 16.6% increase over the state’s proposed “roll back” rate of 3.725 mills. Additional public hearings are scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 19 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at city hall, 327 Jefferson St., with a final vote slated to take place during the council’s Nov. 16 voting session.

The approved FY22 budget for the city includes an anticipated $1.79 million in General Fund revenue, $295,000 of which would come from property taxes. That, according to a report from the city’s finance department, would put the city well below the state average for municipalities in terms percentage of General Fund revenues coming from property taxes — just under 16.5% as opposed to the state average of 27%.

Because of an increase in home-building in the city, the state formula for millage rate calculation recommends the millage rate be rolled back to 3.725, Mayor Joe Piper told the council during a Sept. 9 work session. But, he said, the formula doesn’t take into account that the city is still getting caught up on its financial audits, a long-running lapse that has rendered it ineligible for state grants for capital projects.

And while the city has faced some pushback from residents on social media about the proposed hike, the mayor and other officials have pointed to larger projects in the budget that the additional revenue would be necessary to fund. That includes a well development project aimed at making the city more water-independent long-term and reducing the costs of purchasing water from Winder and Barrow County. Additional water, stormwater and sewer infrastructure projects are included in the FY22 budget, as are larger investments in the police and public works departments.

By comparing the state-recommended rollback rate and the city-proposed increase, “it looks like the city is trying to gouge the taxpayers, but we know what we need to make the bills,” Piper said. “The numbers given make it look worse than reality.”

If there isn’t support on the council for bumping the rate to 4.345 mills, the council could instead opt to keep it at 4.003 or roll back to 3.725. Rolling back, Piper said, could mean “pretty severe cuts” to the budget. That could open up old wounds over a contentious budget approval process in June, where the council’s initially-approved budget was vetoed by Piper over his concerns that it jeopardized public safety by taking money out of the proposed police budget. The council eventually approved a budget that restored that money and was closer to the mayor’s original proposal.

While there did not appear to be any groundswell of opposition to a millage rate increase on the council at its September work session, councilman Dwight McCormic said he was concerned about the proposed increase and that the city should be taking a closer, “objective” look at where it spends money and needs it the most.


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Advance voting begins Oct. 12

Advance voting for the Nov. 2 municipal elections in Barrow County and the countywide SPLOST 2023 referendum will begin Tuesday, Oct. 12.

All advance voting for the Auburn, Statham and Winder city council elections and the referendum will take place at the county elections office, 233 East Broad St., Winder. Dates and times are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 12-16, Oct. 18-23 and Oct. 25-29.

Absentee ballot applications are now being accepted through 4 p.m. Oct. 22. You can contact the county elections office at 770-307-3110 to obtain an application. Ballots must be returned to the elections office no later than 7 p.m. on Nov. 2.

Election day polling hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Auburn voters will vote at Hmong New Hope Alliance Church, 1622 Union Grove Church Rd. Statham voters will vote at Barrow County Emergency Services Fire Station 1, 1625 Bethlehem Rd. Winder voters and all others will vote at their county precinct. Your precinct location can be found on the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov.


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