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Union Academy students working to turn trauma into progress

Students at Union Academy were shaken by a presentation given by Macon County School Resource Officer Troy Burt last week that featured mugshots and other photos of friends, family, and former Union students. 

The presentation used the photos of former Union students, several of which have passed away, as an attempt to warn current students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. A copy of the presentation was requested from both the school system and the sheriff’s office, however one was not provided. According to students and parents of students who were in attendance, SRO Burt, who is the assigned SRO for South Macon Elementary, warned students during the presentation that the choices they make now could result in them following the path of former students — suggesting they would end up arrested or dead.  

Students left the presentation visibly distraught — but not from the shock of what Burt claimed their future would entail if they did not pick the right path — instead they were traumatized by seeing their friends and loved ones on a screen, with no prior warning. The event was triggering for many students whom continue to struggle with the loss of individuals pictured during the presentation. 

Macon County Sheriff Brent Holbrooks said while the specific contents of the presentation was not approved prior to the school assembly, the idea of the presentation was approved by the Sergeant over the agency’s School Resource Officers, Sgt. Greg Rogers, who works as the SRO at Franklin High School. 

“Due to the rising drug epidemic, the idea behind a presentation was to encourage students to make better choices,” said Sheriff Holbrooks. “The hope is to educate students, so that we can avoid unnecessary,  devastating community tragedies.”

Following the school assembly,  Sheriff Holbrooks said his office received complaints, questions, and concerns. “They have all been addressed and ended with a positive interaction (the majority) with the parents and/or guardians, and a better understanding of what the SRO was conveying to the students,” said Sheriff Holbrooks. 

According to Holbrooks, SRO Burt gave the presentation as he “has a passion for Union Academy; having served there as SRO for a number of years. He felt led to make a positive impact on the current student body that represents Union Academy,” said Sheriff Holbrooks. 

Similar events — commonly referred to as “scared straight” programs have taken place within schools for years. The program usually includes inmates who volunteer to tell their story to an assembly of students. The inmates, in handcuffs and shackles and clothed in the stereotypical orange jumpsuit, have a way to getting through to students and providing a visual representation of potential negative impacts of the choices people make. For those programs, the inmates used are volunteers and willing participants that are given a chance to tell their story. The slideshow presentation shown to Union Academy, according to students and concerned members of the community, featured mugshots or photos of people who have passed away and mischaracterized those individual’s circumstances or only provided partial parts of their “stories.” 

To avoid similar events from occurring in the future, Sheriff Holbrooks said future presentations had to receive approval from a supervisor as well as the entire content of the presentation having to be viewed and approved by him prior to being shown to students. 

Union Academy Principal Diane Cotton said school staff have worked hand in hand since the assembly to address issues and work toward a positive outcome. 

“The Sheriffs Department and Macon County Schools have worked diligently over the past week to provide comfort, calm and healing for our students,” said Cotton. “Rather than continuing the negative and risking more hurtful thoughts and diatribe the student leadership team has chosen to support each other and seek the positive.”

As a way to turn last week’s event into a positive interaction and to move forward, Cotton said students have elected to create a presentation of their own. 

“Students have chosen to prepare a presentation spotlighting the students who have worked hard to overcome their past traumas, poor choices and life circumstances,” said Cotton. “My students are using this presentation to overcome the trauma in their lives and present a positive light on their efforts to become successful citizens.”

Cotton encouraged the public to contribute by contacting Union Academy with success stories of past Union/Jones Ridge students to be used for the presentation. 

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