Schools upping safety measures

Published 5:21 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2018

In the wake of the deadly school shooting in Florida last month, school staff here began talking about safety issues.

Superintendent Dr. Darrin Hartness decided to put together a group to review safety plans, and just one day after reaching out to members of local law enforcement, emergency personnel, maintenance, administrators, parents, and others, a 21-member task force called the Safe Schools Task Force was formed.

During a three-hour meeting described as “intense” by board member Barbara Owens, recommendations for new safety procedures were developed.

The school board, at a special called meeting last week, discussed and accepted the recommendations of the task force, which include buzz-in equipment at all the schools, allowing exterior doors to remain locked at all times, and changes to the way some of the schools are entered to funnel visitors through the front office.

Visitor identification processes are being modified, and the board has applied for a grant for two additional school resource officers, increasing the number from five to seven for the system.

The called meeting was held Feb. 26 at William Ellis Middle School, 90 minutes before a meeting with Cornatzer’s Parent Advisory Council.

Tracy McGinnis and Angela Harris, members of the PAC and parents of children at Cornatzer, told Hartness they were concerned about safety, asking for a buzzer system and even offering to hold a fundraiser to get one at their school.

“People can just walk in because of where the office is (at Cornatzer),” McGinnis said.

Harris noted even a “piddly” system like Alleghany has a buzzer system, adding she is “all for” teachers carrying concealed weapons, and would like to see quarterly drills that teach the children safety when outdoors, activities that promote bonding, and the identification of children at high risk for mental health issues.

After listening to their concerns, Hartness told them the board had just wrapped up a meeting addressing safety issues and outlined the new measures that will be taken.

“You’re going to see some changes that will be inconvenient for some people and be a little different,” but will be necessary to protect those inside the schools, he said.

Harris said, “It’ll be like the TSA, and that’s ok.”

Harris asked Hartness if he could make sure school resource officers wouldn’t hesitate to go into a school where gunfire was occurring, and Hartness responded: “My heart sank to learn the SRO didn’t go in (in the Florida incident).”

He said he felt confidence in the county’s resource officers, and the school system has a strong partnership with law enforcement and first responders.

In a newsletter that went out the day after the meeting, Hartness said staff has been instructed to seek out students who seem to be disconnected, and students should feel free to let teachers or counselors know if one of their peers is having issues at school or at home. An anonymous hotline is in place to report instances of alcohol use, bullying, cheating, child abuse, drug abuse, fighting, gang activity, theft, vandalism, and threats of violence.

The school system, in partnership with the Dragonfly House and other agencies, will implement new strategies to deal with children who have been affected by trauma, either by witnessing it or being a victim.

Board chair Clint Junker asked, “What is enough? You just don’t know, but you just want to close the gaps as much as you can.”