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What’s Next for School Safety

Update: Listen to my interview with Dr. Bill Heath, the director of county schools, and Carman Smith, the school safety director, to find out what steps our county schools are taking. That interview is here.

After any school shooting, we immediately think about how or own school system prepares for these situations. From topics at the dinner table to messages on social media, we all participate in a community conversation on what options to consider, what actions to take. It’s our own piece of the puzzle to ensure a Parkland-type shooting never happen in our schools.

Over the past few weeks, options like metal detectors, bag checks, school resource officers, arming teachers, and red flag laws all made their way into the discussion. After sitting down with school administrators from both the Lincoln County school system and the Fayetteville city school system, here’s a few things that we as a community should consider.

School Safety Policies

Every school has a detailed plan in place for both school safety and threat assessment. Those plans are continually revisited and updated, especially after events like Parkland and Sandy Hook. Both of our local school systems had meetings this week to work through those plans and look for areas to improve. Programs like the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools help provide resources that are using in this planning.

“I don’t want parents to think we’re not sharing things. We’ve got a plan for everything. And we’ve got to continually practice these plans. We’re going to take care of these children as if they were our own.” – Dr. Bill Heath, Director of Lincoln County Schools

With the plans, it’s important to remember those may not be shared in full publicly. For security, safety plans are often limited to school board members as well as school staff.

School Building Security

Building security can be challenging with older schools. Carman Smith, Supervisor of Coordinated School Health for the county school system, pointed out, “When these buildings were built, the focus was on making these buildings inviting and open to our community. Now it’s the total opposite.”

As part of the safety planning updates, county and city school officials are looking at the physical security of each school. Unity recently saw building updates to it’s entrances. The county school system plans to use what worked there and expand it out to the other schools.

Defensive tools are also on the table. Door-locking devices like JustinKase can be used to  bar individual classroom doors. More extensive measures like more security cameras, fencing in school property, and staff emergency FOBs are up for consideration as well.

The primary consideration for these upgrades will be money. The city and county school boards can ask for these upgrades. But it’s up to us as taxpayers to fund them. In a recent report on a high school in Indiana, building upgrades like bullet-resistant doors, security cameras, and real-time tracking of intruders comes at a cost of $400,000 per school. With ten schools, that’s a $4,000,000 price tag for us locally.

Could this mitigate or minimize a Parkland-style shooting at one of our schools? Maybe. We can look toward airports and the TSA for an idea of what enhanced security measures can do. On the surface, TSA looks effective. There’s been no hijacked planes in the U.S. since 2001. However, even with body scanners, bag checks, metal detectors, and armed agents, the TSA fails to detect weapons more than 70% of the time. With tight local budgets, that’s a staggering amount of money spent for such a high mistake rate.

Another element to consider here is that this only applies to school building security. Looking into safety measures for students outside of the school building presents it’s own set of challenges. Sporting events, graduation, school buses – these are all places that would need to be looked at.

Armed Teachers and Guards

After the high school parking lot shooting in 1998, our county school board decided to add a school resource officer (SRO) to the high school. Since then, the county schools have expanded to three SROs. One covers the high school and Ninth Grade Academy. The other two rotate between the other five schools. On the city school side, SROs haven’t been utilized but city police officers include the schools on their patrols.

Should we bring in more SROs? To hire more SROs, the school system needs to find individuals who have completed both their basic Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) training as well as the additional 40 hours of specific school safety training. Similar to building security, more SROs require more money in the school budget. The county school system covers two-thirds of an officer’s salary, with the sheriff’s office covering the remaining third as well as providing a police vehicle and equipment. Increasing our schools budget here seems like money well spent.

You’ve probably heard military veterans or national guard soldiers mentioned as an option for building guards. Tennessee state law prohibits that and only allows for SROs in this type of position. The law could be changed of course. But that’s not going to happen at our local level, where our community has the most impact.

One other alternative to more SROs is to train and arm individual teachers in our schools. It’s been heavily discussed in national politics. However, local administrators and teachers point to the myriad of problems with the approach.

“If you talk to law enforcement, when they come in and you’re the one with a gun, even if you’re a staff member, they don’t know that. There would have to be a lot of training and information sharing before that could ever happen.” – Carman Smith, Supervisor of Coordinated School Health

Even if the training was worked out, there’s still budget and liability concerns. Firearms, gun safety vaults, training costs, increased salaries for teachers – it’s all coming from the same school budget that books and pencils are.

The National Association of School Resource Officers also rules out this approach:

“We think that teachers should be in the school to teach kids and not have to worry about the responsibilities and the liabilities of carrying a gun and being expected to use it in that situation.” – Mac Hardy, Director of Operations

We want our teachers to be teachers so it’s safe to say arming teachers isn’t the best route forward.

Red Flag Laws

These options go by a few different names – Red Flag / Gun-violence Restraining Order / Emergency Risk Protection Order – but it comes down to a simple idea.

If an immediate family member or law enforcement believe a person is an imminent risk to themselves or others, they can petition a judge to remove temporarily the person’s firearms as well as their ability to purchase a firearm.

“What if, however, there was an evidence-based process for temporarily denying a troubled person access to guns? What if this process empowered family members and others close to a potential shooter, allowing them to “do something” after they “see something” and “say something”? I’ve written that the best line of defense against mass shootings is an empowered, vigilant citizenry. There is a method that has the potential to empower citizens even more, when it’s carefully and properly implemented.” – David French

When community members notice warning signs, we can inform the school administration and/or law enforcement. With red flag laws in place at our state level, those officials can then take action to remove guns from potentially dangerous situations. Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Sandy Hook, Charleston, and other mass shootings could be mitigated through these laws.

These laws would be especially effective in our local school system. At a 15:1 student-teacher ratio, our school teachers and staff know their students well.

“The best thing we have going for us is that we know each student personally. We truly care about that close personal relationship with the students. If we see signs of a problem, we react immediately. We give them guidance and support and try to give them all the help we can when they have problems.” – Dr. Janine Wilson, Director of Fayetteville City Schools

What’s Next?

With all this in mind, what does our community do next? There’s several places to start.

  • Trust our school administrators when it comes to school safety procedures. They’re constantly updating our school safety plans.
  • Show up to the city and county school  board meetings to show your support for our teachers and staff. You can find a schedule of upcoming ones on our calendar here.
  • Call your city alderman or county commissioner and encourage them to fund the school budgets. You can find contact info for your alderman or commissioner here.
  • Call your Tennessee state representatives and advocate for Red Flag Laws at our state level.

It’s not going to be one silver bullet answer for any of this. It’s going to be a multitude of changes – both through legislation and through the community watching out for itself – that helps bring an end to these tragic mass shootings.

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