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Local schools analyze security

Sunday, December 16, 2012

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

The day after a gunman shot and killed 26 people — including 20 students — in a Connecticut school, school officials here are looking at their security procedures and making sure they are doing everything possible to protect their students and employees.

In the Martinsville schools, employees are “very vigilant and proactive, not only to maintain safety protocols but (they are) always looking for what” could be done better, Superintendent Pam Heath said Saturday.

Children, she said, “go to school to learn. But they can’t focus on that if they are afraid. It (safety) has got to be our No. 1 concern.”

Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton said it is a challenge to keep schools safe.

“When these things happen you’re heartbroken and discouraged by them,” he said of Friday’s shootings. “But, also, you think, ‘Could we have prevented something like this from happening?’

“As we learn more, we will take the information and adjust our practices. We want to do the best we can to have as many scenerios as possible” so the staff knows how to react if a problem arises, he added.

Patrick County School Superintendent Roger Morris said after local officials learned of Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., the division “went to a higher state of alert (with) more awareness of our surroundings” by double checking that entrances and exits were secure, visitors were checking in and out and other procedures were being followed.

“It (Friday’s shooting) reminds us how difficult keeping schools safe is,” he said, citing the challenges of buildings with many doors, volunteers and parents who frequently come and go, and the many activities held in the buildings.

“Schools are the centers of activities in the community; we want them to be,” Morris said. “There has to be a balance between community schools and keeping them as safe as possible.”

The three school systems have safety plans in place, and officials said they will be discussed and reviewed as a result of Friday’s tragedy in Connecticut.

All three superintendents mentioned that they have security measures in place such as limited access to buildings, video surveillance systems and drills for lockdowns.

Martinsville schools also continually seek grants and other ways to enhance security, Heath said, and employees attend training sessions to glean lessons from incidents such as Friday’s shooting.

The security measures are there for a good reason, she said.

“We have to remind parents that we know sometimes the procedures we have for coming in and out and picking up children may seem really inconvenient,” she said. But cases such as Friday’s shooting show “why we have those things in place.”

The city system also has a Safe Share program in which people can anonymously report any safety concerns. That program has “been very useful,” and other school systems have looked at copying it, she said.

“We follow up on every single possible threat or rumor, anything that could impact the safety of students or staff, even if we’re positive it is not a real threat,” Heath said. Sometimes that followup is not visible to students or the community, but “we always have backup things in place,” she added.

Cotton said the Henry County schools have a system-wide safety committee, and a grant that has helped them improve security. This year, the system implemented mandatory lockdown drills, he said, adding that Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry and his officers have attended the drills and given insightful feedback.

Table-top drills often include surprises so the staff learns problem-solving, Cotton said.

“We spend a lot of time teaching about guidelines and procedures. In reality, things don’t always happen in the way we practice,” he said. For instance, the plan may call for students to stay in a classroom in case of a problem, but sometimes it may be better to go to a safer location, he said.

“We want to empower the staff to make good decisions,” Cotton said.

Visitors cannot enter the county schools without a badge, he said. If someone does not have a badge, his or her driver’s license is scanned for a criminal background check and then a badge is printed to give the person access to the school, he added.

The division is looking to upgrade its video surveillance systems, Cotton said. Also, students are encouraged to report any rumors or problems to adults.

“The most important thing is raising the level of attention to it (security),” he said. “We’ve really been pushing safety drills and run-throughs” and when students ask why they are needed, “This is why,” he said of Friday’s shooting.

He called that incident “a chilling reminder of how important” safety is to the schools. “Safety is our No. 1 concern,” he added.

The Patrick County School System also received a grant about five years ago that enabled it to make its safety plans comply with nationally accepted standards, Morris said, adding those plans are reviewed annually.

School renovation projects done in recent years were designed to make entrances more secure, he said. Lighting is being improved outside some schools, and the division will continue to do such things as monitoring the doors to make sure they are locked and not propped open, Morris said.

The three superintendents said they work well with local law enforcement agencies on security.

The city schools will have guidance counselors and psychologists available Monday to talk with students and parents if needed.

“We try to be proactive in reassure them that we’re going to do everything we can think of and more. That’s always our intent and our goal,” Heath said of security. “As a parent, I always look at it and think what would I want for my own child. That’s how I look at it and how the staff looks at it.”

Cotton said the county schools want to reassure parents that the schools are safe, with excellent security systems in place. They also emphasize that safety is everyone’s responsibility, including students, he said.

Morris said the school system does not expect security problems, but it has to be prepared for them.

“In the society we’re in — America is a free society — no building is 100 percent safe,” he said. “The Pentagon was attacked in 2001, and that’s one of the safest buildings in the world. All we can do is make sure our buildings are as safe as possible given the resources we have.”

Morris has declared that a moment of silence on Monday will be dedicated to the memory of Friday’s shooting victims, and he asked students, staff and Patrick residents to pray for Newtown’s residents and school district.

“I hate to say it, but it is an opportunity to talk to kids, to remind them that tragic things happen. Sometimes we don’t understand the reason things happen,” and sometimes there is no reason, he said. “It’s a tough discussion for kids; it’s a tough discussion for adults.

“There are people in this world who are evil; there is a lot of hatred. We have to turn that into helping students understand they are loved and cared for by their parents and teachers,” he said, adding that such discussions are good. “You can’t just bury it.”


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