Officials address school safety following DeKalb shooting
by Mark Andrews
Aug 25, 2013 | 2369 views | 0 0 comments | 62 62 recommendations | email to a friend | print
School Safety
Cartersville Police Department School Resource Officer Dan Veiga can monitor much of the Cartersville High School grounds and building from the computer in his office that is located at the school’s entrance. He spends much of his time walking the hallways and traveling on the grounds and the perimeter of the school in a cart. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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The shootings and victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School were still in the minds and hearts of Georgia parents Tuesday when a 20-year-old male exchanged gunfire with officers at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, a DeKalb County elementary school. As outside and internal threats to students continue to make headlines, The Daily Tribune News spoke with both city and county school officials to learn what local systems are doing to help prevent such incidents and to keep students and faculty safe.

“We’ve done all that I really know to do to be able to do to get our schools safe and secure for our children. We have safety buzzers on our doors; we have emergency switches in our offices; we have cameras all around; we have locked exterior doors; we have devices on our exterior doors that allow our teachers to go in and out of them,” Bartow County Superintendent John Harper said.

The offices feature what are called 911 buttons that when pressed not only call emergency management, but also send a message from the principal out to the student body and staff with specific instructions on what to do. He said the system is in the process of inspecting such measures.

Harper said each elementary school requires guests to be “buzzed in” to locked doors that enter the school building beyond the office. Although all middle and high school buildings do not have this feature, the school system does have school resource officers, available for contact via email by visiting www.bartow.k12.ga.us/.

He said while the system is taking precautions, he said he doubts there is a foolproof plan to make schools 100 percent safe.

“The two situations in [DeKalb and Sandy Hook] as well as others that will come with someone who is not mentally right ... or has an ulterior motive and a high-powered rifle, I really don’t know how you keep them out of the building; they’re going to get in if they want to,” Harper said. “The gentleman who shot up the movie theater, he planned all that and obviously he had some mental issues.”

He said he does have faith in the system’s precautions and plans if such an event were to occur on campus.

“We’ve got our SROs, our emergency plans; we practice lockdowns; we practice fire drills; we communicate well with our staff; I sent a message out to [administrators] in light of DeKalb [telling them] make sure your staff is fully aware of what they’re supposed to do and when they’re supposed to do it,” Harper said.

He cited the relationship between the system and the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office as well as SRO Dan Knowles.

“The sheriff’s department works closely with us and I’m so thankful for all the work they do for us,” Harper said. “Sheriff [Clark] Millsap is very quick to respond and work with us. He has the same goal that we have, that we keep our kids and our residents as safe as we can and unfortunately ... more people think they need to go shoot up somebody.”

While the response time by the sheriff’s department varies and largely is dependent on patrols in the area, Harper said the target time to have an additional police presence on campus is within five minutes.

“[The BCSO has] been sending out extra patrols this week,” White Elementary School Principal Amy Heater said in the wake of the week’s shooting. “I had one [the other day] who happened to be one of our dads and he walked around the perimeter of the school and that felt great.”

Harper said he appreciates the work of his faculty throughout the various training processes throughout the year. He praised the efforts of Antoinette Tuff, an office employee at the DeKalb school who helped thwart the gunman actions.

“DeKalb is very fortunate they had the lady in the office they did and boy, she needs a crown,” Harper said. “I don’t know of anybody who would be as calm as she was with somebody sitting in her office with an AK-47 in their hand — that’s a scary weapon.

“Every day you just get up and pray your kids are going to be safe and that some person who is not mentally 100 percent cause some problems whether it be at an event or at school ...”

While student-led shootings are less prevalent, they still remain a concern.

“Fortunately, one of the things that we still have a lot of cooperation with our students is to make administration aware. If they see something they think is suspicious, particularly as far as a weapon is concerned, they alert administration and they do the appropriate things to get to the bottom of it and they do that very quickly,” Harper said. “That’s ... priority 1. If a student says to [faculty] somebody has a weapon, they stop what they are doing and get involved with that.”

Cartersville City Assistant Superintendent Ken Clouse echoed Harper’s statements that while schools can prepare and take precautions to better ensure safety, it is difficult, if not impossible, to completely prevent a tragedy.

“Safety is a priority with the school system, but it is always going to be a matter of perception as to how safe. No school, or any entity, can totally escape the possibility of something bad happening whether it be of a natural or man-made cause,” Clouse said. “We continually review our safety plans, our facilities, and our procedures to be prepared given any crisis situation.

“Most recently we have added a resource officer to share between the Primary and Elementary schools. Additionally, we have added technology at each of the schools to assist in contacting more readily emergency responders.”

He continued, “On the one hand schools are expected to be open to parents and the community while equally secure for students and staffs. Obviously, prevention is a top priority. If someone wants to do harm, no technology or safety issue is totally without its drawbacks. We review our procedures regularly to be able to provide expected access while at the same time providing a safe and secure environment. Each school has particular procedures regarding visitors. We ask our parents and community to be mindful while visiting our schools that while they may see certain procedures as unnecessary and time consuming, everything we do is for the safety of everyone inside our buildings.”

Although Clouse said the system has not had any problems with police response when needed, the system this year has increased its police presence with an SRO rotating at Cartersville Elementary School and Cartersville Primary School. The system also has an SRO at Cartersville High School.

“In general everyone seems very pleased with the addition of the resource officer shared between the Primary and Elementary schools. I know that the traffic situation alone has improved greatly both in the mornings and afternoons. There is always going to be some issues, however, when you have that much traffic volume in and around those schools. We are pleased we were able to work out an agreement with the city to make this strategy work this year.”

Clouse also said he appreciates the efforts of school faculty and staff when working through new procedures and practices.

“... I am aware of certain situations that could have escalated if our school administrators and office staff had not been alert and on top of things,” Clouse said.

He said safety is an overall element in the system’s goal to educate children.

“Again, safety is a priority with us but it must be balanced with reasonableness, resources and in the scope of our purpose of educating children,” Clouse said. “We fully understand that the safety of our children is the first priority of our parents. We continually review our processes and procedures to the best of our ability.”

About McNair:

According to The Associated Press, before going to the school Tuesday, investigators say that suspect Brandon Michael Hill took a photo of himself with an assault rifle and packed up nearly 500 rounds of ammunition — enough to shoot more than half of the school’s students.

Police said Hill got the gun from an acquaintance, but it’s not clear if he stole it or had permission to take it.

Although no one was injured, the suspect exchanged gunfire with police who surrounded Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, located a few miles east of Atlanta, in DeKalb County. The school has 870 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.