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Safety measures a priority before, since the tragedy

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Several higher education and governmental officials cited improvements or efforts to improve security or public safety and increased vigilance and awareness since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy — but not all stemming from Sandy Hook.

Saturday was the first anniversary of the day when 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down by Adam Lanza with more than 150 rounds from an AR-15 style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Jim Tobin, executive director of Piedmont Community Services, said he can’t address the issue of school safety. But generally, and not a direct result of Sandy Hook, “Our effort has been to improve front-line mental health services across the board ... (for) children, young adults and people generally.”

A Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and a Crisis Intervention Team Assessment Center have been initiatives related to public safety, he said.

The CIT, established more than a year ago, was formed to provide training for law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s offices of Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties and Martinsville, and the Martinsville and Ferrum College police departments, Tobin said in a previous interview. Officers receive 40 hours of training on best practices on how to recognize and interact with people they encounter with mental health issues, and how to get them services they need if appropriate, rather than just taking them to jail, according to Tobin.

The assessment center, which opened Sept. 30 at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville, is a place where law enforcement officers can take people in a mental health crisis for evaluation and, if appropriate, referral to services, such as community mental health services or hospitalization.

The assessment center is staffed with a mental health professional and law enforcement officer.

One of the center’s advantages is that an on-duty law enforcement officer can transfer custody of a person with mental health issues to the off-duty officer at the assessment center, and the on-duty officer can get back on the road to his or her other duties, Tobin has said.

Both the CIT and the assessment center programs share common goals of increasing access to mental health services and diverting people with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system if appropriate, Tobin said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing more than $38 million in state funding over the next two-year cycle for critical mental health services and is creating a task force to look at ways to head off mental health crises, The Associated Press reported.

According to Tobin and a governor’s office news release, $3.5 million in fiscal year 2015 and $4 million in fiscal year 2016 are proposed for mental health services for older teens and young adults transitioning from school, college or early in their adulthood when most serious mental illnesses first make their onset and engagement in treatment is imperative. This item was recommended by the Governor’s Task Force on School and Campus Safety.

Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said his office, working with the county schools, has continued its vigilance on school safety. For example, sheriff’s officers are present for school lock-down drills, and they make sure proper procedures are followed and corrections are made, he said.

Martinsville Interim Police Chief Eddie Cassady could not be reached for comment. “As always, incidents like Sandy Hook cause all of us connected to education to raise our awareness concerning safety,” said Gary Dove, police chief at Patrick Henry Community College. “We already had programs that we were working on and improving within the last year or so. We have improved our Threat Assessment Team, and I participated in DCJS’s (Department of Criminal Justice Services) Virginia Campus threat Assessment Team Train the Trainer school.”

“In September we participated with the Department of Corrections, the Henry County Sheriff’s Department, Martinsville Police Department, Henry County Public Safety, Henry County Fire and Rescue and the 911 Center on an Active Shooter Tabletop Exercise dealing with a shooter on our campus. We also participated in an emergency preparedness training and tabletop exercise put on by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in Roanoke dealing with response to, and the handling of, emergency situations,” Dove said.

He added he advises students if they see unusual behaviors to notify faculty or the police department. “You never know what’s going through someone’s mind. ... When you bring it to someone’s attention, it may save lives.”

Leanna Blevins, associate director and chief academic officer at New College Institute, said no safety or security improvements have been made at NCI directly as a result of Sandy Hook.

However, she said, “That (the incident) just elevated the consciousness that we keep our students safe.”

Starting in the fall semester 2013, a faculty or staff member has been on hand when high school dual enrollment students enter and exit NCI facilities, Blevins said.

Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said the Sandy Hook tragedy “certainly reinforces it can happen anywhere at any time. That requires all of us to be more vigilant. ...”

After Sandy Hook, the Henry County and Martinsville Ministerial Association sponsored a number of forums and meetings on the issue of safety. The Rev. Stephen A. Garner, who was president of the ministerial association at the time, said last week he believes community awareness increased as a result.

 

 
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