“We at the Georgia Department of Education grieve with the victims and families of the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut,” State Superintendent John Barge said in a press release. “Generally speaking, schools are safe places for students, but these kinds of incidents remind us to always keep school safety at the forefront. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Sandy Hook Elementary School community.”
Cartersville Assistant Superintendent Ken Clouse issued the following statement this week regarding the system’s focus on keeping schools safe: “Student security and safety are always at the forefront of our services in the school district. The school system has an extensive Emergency Operation Plan, which outlines procedures for most any situation from natural disaster to manmade crisis. The plan is specific by school and identifies various personnel to carry out specific responsibilities if and when those situations occur.
“We also have a system Safety Committee, which meets at least twice a year to receive updates about our protocol. This committee has representatives from each of the schools and the major operational departments in the system. The superintendent, assistant superintendent and director of transportation/facilities serve as our Crisis Management Team Emergency Coordinators.
“We review and update our plan at least annually, but when something like the tragedy in Connecticut happens we take that opportunity to make necessary improvements in our plan and procedures. There is always room for improvement in any process and we take it very seriously. We coordinate our plans with emergency responders.
“Our procedures include appropriate plans for evacuation, family reunification sites, communication links, lockdowns, dismissal plans, fire drills, weather-related protocols and other emergencies. Obviously, you can’t cover every minute possibility, but our plan is pretty comprehensive. We coordinate with the Cartersville City Police Department and, when necessary, the Bartow County Sheriff’s Department, EMS services, Bartow County Health Department, Cartersville Fire Department, Cartersville Medical Center and other emergency management agencies.
“Each school has an electronic visitor identification system whereby visitors swipe their drivers’ license. This system is connected to law enforcement data bases so that we can especially be on the lookout for those who have a record of child abuse, molestation and other serious crimes. At [Cartersville Primary School], [Cartersville Elementary School] and [Cartersville Middle School] all outside entrances are to be locked during the day except for the main entrance where visitor to the campus are funneled. Because of the campus arrangement at Cartersville High School this is not possible to have all exterior doors locked and why we placed fencing around the campus a few years ago to lessen the chance of unnecessary foot traffic across the campus.
“We have a system of codes and alarms in the plan to be utilized during a lockdown situation.
“The situation in Connecticut recently reminds us all how important it is to review our plans and have a focus on safety and security. Unfortunately, if someone wants to do harm there is usually a way to do it. It appears the particular school in Connecticut had taken all precaution, more than the typical school in this country and yet it did not deter one person who, regardless of his mental state, was set out to do harm. We continually try to review our plans to lessen the chance of something like this happening, but we will never be able to totally remove all possibility. We don’t want our schools to have to become prisons.”
Cartersville City Police Department’s Capt. Mark Camp said the department plays a role in student safety any time a violent crime is committed in the vicinity of a school.
“We notify the school board and the principal and then let them make the decision to go on with what procedures the school system has,” Camp said. “Even if it’s not a violent crime but we’re chasing somebody and they run toward the direction of a school, we notify the school system somebody is possibly in the area and let them go from there, and we respond as necessary to a situation as we have student resource officers in the schools.”
He explained the role of an SRO is to maintain order within the schools, investigate any crimes that occur on school property and provide a level of protection for the school.
“[SROs] also act as a liaison with the police department, so if more police resources are needed, they can contact us and let us know what we need to do when we get there,” Camp said.
In the event of a violent crime occurring on a city school campus, Camp said the department is prepared to address the situation.
“We provide training for active-shooter situations, whether it be at a school or a business, so our officers are trained in how to handle that type of situation and also our officers carry a variety of weapons to deal with situations from guns to less-than-lethal weapons like pepperball guns, beanbag shotguns, things like that, so we can respond with the appropriate force as necessary,” Camp said.
Bartow County School also released a statement to parents regarding student safety, stating an increased police presence at elementary schools this week.
Bartow County Superintendent John Harper told The Daily Tribune News, “Keeping our students and staff safe as they attend our schools each day is a top priority for us. Bartow County Schools have worked very hard to put together a safety plans for our schools and school system. We routinely review and practice the procedures outlined in that plan.
“All of our staffs are trained in dealing with people on our campuses and in our schools. We have also done response training in all of our schools with local law enforcement and we have practiced quick response. Our principals care dearly for their students and know how to respond and get support to their schools.
“I appreciate the outpouring of support from the community for our school system.”
Bartow County schools abide by the same state safety standards as Cartersville City, requiring visitors to sign in and sign out at the front office of the school with some schools featuring a device to take a visitor’s picture and scan his driver’s license.
County SRO Dan Knowles explained safety measures as well as his role in keeping schools safe.
“Each of our schools have safety plans that are updated each school year and updated again as necessary,” Knowles said. “These plans cover events such as lockdown, intruder, evacuations, weather, etc.
“Any staff member can initiate a lockdown instead of waiting for approval from the administrative staff. They may have instant knowledge or witness an event that would affect student safety and they have the authority to take immediate action.”
He added, “I do have the authority to make that call as to whether a school is evacuated or locked down. But our administrative staff, as well as the superintendent, also has that authority.
“We are all a team, and I can say we do work well together. We all have the same goal of ensuring our children’s safety and well-being.”
In an email sent to school staff, Knowles encouraged schools to re-examine their safety measures and alert him with any suggestions or weaknesses, stating, “check around your buildings and let us know what can be improved upon to enhance the physical security of the school. You are there every day and can truly evaluate what those needs are. Things to consider: doors that may not secure well, access control in areas, radio or intercom communication, and any other item that could affect safety.”
He echoed Camp’s statements about the role of an SRO in the city system.
“My role would initially be to stop the threat, whether it be inside or outside the school,” Knowles said. “This would be done in coordination with other law enforcement agencies as well as other emergency responders. “After the threat is eliminated, the determination would be made as to whether to stay in place or evacuate.”
Pine Log Elementary School counselor Francie Livingston also steps in when a national tragedy is on the minds of students and parents.
“In the first place, we just try to keep the day going as scheduled and as regular as normal,” Livingston said. “That usually provides a lot more security for the kids [to] just go along with the day doing what they’re used to and expecting, then we look out for any questions the kids have and address those honestly, but trying to provide them with a sense of security while they are at school because, for a lot of our kids, school is the safest place they know.
“We look for signs of kids who are not quite being themselves, they may seem more afraid than normal, they may start having complaints of medical issues, things like headaches and tummy aches, and we’ll address them. Unless a class has a lot of questions, we try to avoid making a big deal about it.”
She added, “At an elementary school, some of these kids may not even know anything has happened because their parents have shielded them from it and we don’t want to put fear in kids that wasn’t already there.”
As national media saturates news reports with information and images about the Newtown shooting and its aftermath, Livingston said she also has addressed concerns from parents.
“A lot of parents have called and asked for some recommendations on how to handle [national tragedies] and things I have told the parents [are] first for the parents not to panic in front of the kids because the kids are going to act the way they see their parents acting to the situation, then try to minimize what the kids are watching on TV because, especially with our younger kids, if they see a news report of it five times, they may think the event happened five different times,” Livingston said. “Also, allow the children to ask questions and answer them calmly and just make sure to explain it in words kids understand, not to use a lot of jargon.
“Just explain it in kids’ terms that [in Newtown] somebody made a bad decision and other kids were hurt because of that decision.”
In an email Monday to school superintendents across Georgia, state Associate Superintendent Garry McGiboney said state officials can conduct on-site safety assessments for schools with help from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Within a couple of hours of sending the email, McGiboney began getting feedback, and heard from one small Georgia system that wants state officials to visits its schools and review its safety measures.
State school officials have done 55 such assessments at Georgia schools during the past two years, McGiboney said.
“We go through every part of the school, we go into every classroom, we go on the roof,” he said. The review even includes the surrounding neighborhood, adding safety issues requiring immediate attention are shared with school officials right away, and a detailed report is compiled later.
McGiboney said the agency has no legal authority to force changes after such a review, “but it’s been our experience that they’re very diligent in following up on the recommendations.”
State officials also are sharing other resources with Georgia schools, including guidance on how to talk to students about tragedies.
Statewide, school systems are taking varying approaches to security since the Friday shootings in Newtown.
In Atlanta’s northeastern suburbs, police officers are being assigned to schools “to help prevent any type of copy cat or similar incident” after the Connecticut shooting, Gwinnett County police said.
The county school system has more than 100 schools, and Gwinnett County police say they’re working with the school system’s own police force to assign officers to every school. Police say the effort will last for the next several days.
In nearby Cherokee County, a heightened police presence is planned at every school throughout the week, and uniformed officers will be present as students arrive and depart the schools, Cherokee Sheriff’s Lt. Jay Baker said.
In DeKalb County school system, all school administrators have been asked to review their “safe school” and emergency plans, system officials said.
In the Augusta area, the Richmond and Columbia County school systems are on higher alert this week, but neither system is adding or changing security as a result of the mass shooting, the Augusta Chronicle reported.
Other states, including Texas, Oregon and Oklahoma, are addressing school safety in light of the shooting with some legislators and representatives advocating the arming teachers and administrators. Texas Gov. Rick Perry indicated Monday that he supported allowing teachers and administrators to carry concealed handguns, but said local school districts should decide their own policies.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.