Students housed in hazardous Old School

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Despite an insurance company’s advice to keep children out of the Old School on Main Street, the Demopolis City Council has voted to allow a middle school’s in-school suspension to be held at the dilapidated building.

Three years ago, an insurance company advised the city of Demopolis that electrical problems at the Old School were an imminent danger. In a letter to the city, the insurer encouraged officials to keep young people out of the building. No action was taken to repair the electrical system, and three months ago, an electrical fire began at the building, prompting Mayor Austin Caldwell and the city council to stop all but one of the activities at the Old School. (The Girl Scouts still maintain an office there.)

Though an insurance company believes the building is a safety hazard, council voted 4-1 on Thursday to allow Demopolis Middle School to hold its in-school suspension program at the Old School.

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Caldwell, Ronnie O’Neal, Mike Baker and Woody Collins voted to allow the program to continue at the Old School. Willard Williams voted against the idea, and Thomas Moore abstained.

In making his recommendation to allow DMS to hold in-school suspension at the Old School, Caldwell asked Fire Chief George Davenport if he felt the school was safe for the dozen or so young people who normally find themselves suspended.

Davenport assured Caldwell and the council that his department would take all steps to make the building safe. Along with installing smoke detectors in the rooms, Davenport also said the fire department would be available to hold frequent fire drills for the students.

An inspection report from the fire department also said the building is safe for people.

Along with that correction, Caldwell said five or six smoke detectors &045;&045; all connected together &045;&045; will be installed to ensure student safety.

Despite have the assurances of the fire department, every member of the city council was hesitant to allow students in the dangerous building. When Caldwell asked for a motion to approve his recommendation, no council member dared make the motion, which left Caldwell to make his own motion.

Moore, the most out-spoken against the idea, questioned why the council voted three months ago to have all programs out of the building.

Reluctantly, the council eventually passed Caldwell’s recommendation, but Collins was quick to add an amendment to the motion.

In May, when some of the old wiring in the building caught fire, Demopolis Police Chief Charles Avery said the city has been "lucky" there haven’t been serious safety problems at the school.

At that time, when the council decided to remove all programs from the school, Williams suggested that the city declare the electrical problem at the Old School an emergency. At Thursday’s meeting, council members refused to declare an emergency. Rather, Randy Barton has been hired to draw out the exact needs for the building. At that point, the city will take bids for work that would correct all of the wiring problems at the Old School.

Dr. Wesley Hill, superintendent of the Demopolis City Schools, said he hasn’t been part of the discussion on allowing in-school suspension students to attend class at the Old School.

Along with the suspension program and Girl Scouts, the Old School also has been used for the Canebrake Players and numerous community events like concerts and the Junior Miss Pageant.