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Security after Sandy Hook
Schools take steps to make buildings safer
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T.J. Slaughter, director of school safety and emergency management for Martinsville City Public Schools, shows how to use his employee access card to get into Martinsville Middle School. Visitors must press the buzz-in button and tell who they are before someone in the school office will open the door. (Bulletin photo by Paul Collins)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

T.J. Slaughter remembers well Dec. 14, 2012, when reports started coming in about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20-first-graders and six adults were killed.

Slaughter, director of school safety and emergency management for Martinsville City Public Schools, was at the Martinsville Middle School.

“My first thought was, ‘Here we go again — another school shooting,’” he recalled. But it seemed to him that it had been a while since children that young were targeted.

“ ... My youngest daughter (being) that age, it really hit home: We really do need to do all we can to protect our children,” he said. His daughter, Kylie, was in the first grade at Mount Olivet Elementary at the time.

A lot of security improvements have been made in the city schools in the last year, but only some of them as a direct result of Sandy Hook, Slaughter said. Others involved improvements that already were planned or in the process as a result of a federal grant, and some resulted from the school division’s ongoing efforts to improve security and safety, he said.

Are school children and employees safer today in the city schools than a year ago? “Without a doubt,” Slaughter said.

The General Assembly established a School Security Equipment Grant program earlier this year, and the Martinsville school division was awarded $79,408 to install emergency notification equipment at Martinsville High School, Martinsville Middle School and Patrick Henry and Albert Harris elementary schools, according to a release from the governor’s office.

Slaughter said he hopes equipment being purchased with those funds will be installed by January.

According to Slaughter and a previous report from Superintendent Pam Heath, the equipment includes:

• Upgraded radios with keypads that school officials and student resource officers can use to make emergency announcements from anywhere on the campuses, including outside buildings,

• Wireless public address speakers with radio receivers that will be placed throughout schools so emergency announcements can be heard,

• Repeaters to amplify the radio signals and remove “dead spots” — places where signals cannot reach — in schools,

• Equipment to receive severe weather alerts, and

• A telephone interconnect so an emergency phone number at each school can be dialed from any phone directly into that school’s radio system. That should enable mass emergency notifications to go out quickly, as well as allow all radios to monitor the announcements.

With the additional radios funded by the grant, existing two-way radios at schools can be distributed to more teachers, which will improve coverage in the schools.

Electronic access control systems were added at all schools through a federal grant, Slaughter said. Panic alarms to notify the city police department in severe emergencies, such as an intruder in the building, were added with school division funds, he added.

As a result of the Governor’s’ Taskforce on School and Campus Safety, the Martinsville schools received a grant to add a school resource officer at Albert Harris Elementary, Slaughter said. The division now has three such officers.

A number of security improvements were made as part of the high school renovation, including installing an IP (Internet protocol) security camera system and closing in breezeways, he said. A breezeway also was closed in at the middle school.

In early 2014 the school division hopes to install a check-in system at the high school that checks visitors’ driver’s licenses, Slaughter said.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done in a short period of time,” he said.

On a state level, a lot of “good, common-sense legislation” relating to school security has been passed since Sandy Hook, Slaughter said. Lock-down drills now are required twice a year, school divisions have to designate someone in charge of emergency management to work as liaison with public safety agencies and school divisions must conduct school safety audits, he said.

In the Henry County Public Schools, “We already had a lot of safety improvements and procedures in place prior to Sandy Hook,” said Keith Scott, supervisor of facilities.

As a continuation of those efforts, the school division has made parent and visitor check-in stations more secure at seven schools. It also has enhanced floor plans to school facilities for first responders (law enforcement and public safety), which are ready for release, he said.

“One of the biggest things we try to stress is practicing our drills, (as well as) having an awareness of who is in the facility, who is outside the facility and your general surroundings, and being prepared,” he said.

“After Sandy Hook, we came together and said, ‘What lessons can be learned?’” Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton said.

One lesson learned was, “You have to look at many scenarios any time we do any of our drills and throw in some unexpected twists,” he said.

Among the safety improvements the school division made before Sandy Hook were installing card readers at a number of school buildings to limit access and instituting safety audits, Cotton said.

“We were already doing lock-down drills in all our schools” before the state requirement to do so, he added.

Students and staff “definitely” are safer now than a year ago, Cotton said. But, he added, “We’re constantly assessing safety.”

In September, Patrick County Schools was awarded a state grant of $92,668 for improvements planned at Patrick County High School, Hardin Reynolds Memorial School and Stuart and Woolwine elementary schools, according to a state news release.

Dean Gilbert, assistant superintendent of the Patrick County Schools, said the grant money is being used to make public address system improvements and install surveillance equipment and systems that require people going through doors to be “buzzed in” by school personnel.

He said the county also provided funding four additional school resource officers, so that now there is an SRO at each of the seven schools in the division.

Gilbert said he thinks the division’s schools are safer now than a year ago.


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