Since Linda Thomson took over as the principal of Nease High School this summer, she's taken a hard line on enforcing the school's security policy.
From moving the homecoming dance to a more secure location this October to hiring someone to check the parking lot for unregistered cars and tracking and catching an employee who was stealing from the school, Thomson is making sure that the school rules are followed.
"No. 1 on every principal's list is that the students have a safe and secure place to learn," Thomson said. "If you're not a safe campus, then it's hard to do anything else."
It started this past summer when a Bose stereo system was missing from the Nease band room, then it was cash. Then a hidden camera caught a custodian stealing from the school on tape in mid-October. Several days later, Labarren Wright admitted to stealing goods worth about $2,300 from the school over several months, Thomson said. An Oct. 11 St. Johns County Sheriff's Office report lists him as the suspect in a grand theft case.
Thomson initially heard about the thefts when she became principal in July. She said she thought it could be a student, but based on the times and locations of where things were stolen from, she soon suspected that it was a staff member.
Because it started in the summer when students aren't at school, "that was a red flag," Thomson said.
Thomson, working with youth resource officer and St. Johns County deputy Jeremy Huddleston and maintenance coordinator Jody Hunter, set up the hidden camera at the school and caught Wright in the act on the first night of taping. When they called him in, Thomson said, Wright admitted he had been stealing.
"He's resigned of course, but that's the least of his problems," Thomson said.
Investigators later found the pawn shop where Wright had been taking some of the items. The shop had an 11-page record of items that Wright had sold there, Thomson said.
Huddleston said that at least three thefts are linked to Wright, who has been charged with three counts of grand theft: including the $1,000 Bose stereo system, and about $1,300 in cash, taken on two separate occasions. For example, according to the police report, on Oct. 11, $500 was taken from a safe in Athletic Director Teddy Barbato's office.
Huddleston said he and another deputy set up the hidden camera one afternoon and, after catching Wright on tape, questioned him.
Because Nease has an open campus, Thomson said it's challenging to keep track of who's on campus and when and why students are leaving the campus.
"This campus is architecturally beautiful. . . . However, safety is more of a challenge here than in more traditional buildings," Thomson said.
To deal with this problem, Thomson said the school has hired someone to spend four to five hours each day patrolling the campus.
He will be responsible for checking cars for Nease decals, which the students purchase for $25. If a car doesn't have the decal and isn't identified as that of a parent, guardian or substitute, then the school has two car boots to use, Thomson said. These boots can also be used on students' cars that are parked in the wrong location. Having the boots removed costs $25.
The security officer will also ensure that students who leave the campus during the day have permission to do so, Thomson said.