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Monday, May 2, 2016

Higher security is temporary fix

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Chris Stites of Safety Engineering and Claims Management makes a point concerning school security during a school safety meeting Tuesday morning.
(T-G photo by Jim Davis)
School system, county government, mental health, safety and emergency service personnel met Tuesday to discuss school safety issues.

The committee, created by the county commission earlier this month, was chaired by County Mayor Eugene Ray, and included interim school superintendent Mike Bone.

School system officials praised the commission's decision to place law enforcement officers at every school in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and a threat that same week at Thomas Magnet School.

Southside Elementary School Principal Reita Vaughn said her students, after no doubt hearing of the Connecticut shootings, were visibly relieved to see an officer at Southside, as were parents. Vaughn told the story of one first grader, a model student, who didn't want to come back to school on the first day after Sandy Hook.

The county already had specially-trained School Resource Officers (SROs) at all of the public high schools and at Harris Middle School.

The newly-placed law enforcement officers, who are only in the schools on a 40-day interim basis while security issues are investigated further, are not trained as SROs.

"We do not have trained SROs," said Ray. "We [have] policemen."

SROs sought

Tony Barrett, a county commission member as well as a sheriff's department captain, said the sheriff's department is seeking more trained SROs.

Vaughn said having officers in the schools also helps prevent some parents from becoming too belligerent in their dealings with school personnel.

But having an SRO on site is only one aspect of school security. Controlling access to a school facility is also important.

Access issues

Bone pointed out that Shelbyville Central High School has 64 exterior doors. The policy is that visitors are to enter through the front door, and other doors are supposed to be closed and secure, but Mark Bilyeu of Safety Engineering and Claims Management, the county's risk management consultants, noted that doors in situations tend to be chocked open for various reasons.

In the old days, a teacher might have stepped outside for a smoke; today, it might be a mobile telephone conversation. Bilyeu said that someone showing up at an exterior door wearing a suit and tie, or a tool belt, is likely to be let in.

Bone said teachers need to be reminded and re-reminded of proper security procedures.

Even so, Chris Stites of Safety Engineering noted that most schools shooters have come through the front door.

Design changes

The committee said changes may need to be looked at in the physical layout of some schools -- at one school, for example, a visitor walking through the front door passes two kindergarten classrooms before even getting to the office to sign in. The use of portable classrooms at some schools creates another security risk.

Bone said the school system has had preliminary conversations with an architect but has not yet formally hired anyone to review school facilities for such safety and access issues.

He said issues like electronically-controlled front entrances and the design of individual classroom door locks are being reviewed. The school system is also looking into panic button pendants which could be worn by principals, allowing them to immediately summon law enforcement in the case of an emergency.

No perfect plan

The schools built in the most recent wave of construction, such as Learning Way Elementary, Harris Middle School and Community High School, have offices located right at the front door, allowing better access control. Placement of hedges and fences can help ensure that people take the most direct route to the front entrance.

But it will take time to make physical improvements, and no form of access control is perfect.

"Guys, if somebody wants to come through the front door, they're coming," said Stites.

"Are we going to quit going out on the playground?" asked Bone. "Are we going to quit getting on and off buses?"

Camera views

County planning and zoning director Chris White, a former law enforcement officer who serves on the emergency communications district board, complained that the communications center still does not have emergency access to the school system's security cameras, as agreed to by the school board in May 2011. White said that a technology firm working with the school system has been putting the com center off.

Bone, who was not superintendent at the time of that agreement, said that access raises privacy-related legal concerns for the school system. White said that dispatchers would not have constant access to the video feed but would access it only in emergencies or for emergency response training.

Bone said that in an emergency, law enforcement officials could come to the school system's central office to view all of the available video feeds. But White said that would take time, and a school shooting might demand quicker response.

"We're talking about seconds," said White.

Mental health

Representatives of Centerstone discussed their role in providing mental health services to the school system.

"We're really lucky to have Centerstone here in Bedford County," said Ray.

Unfortunately, some services can only be offered to a student when there's someone to pay for them -- such as TennCare or an insurance company.

Ray thanked all of those in attendance and said it would be important to keep the lines of communication open. He said he had a memo from Bone on school security issues and that the school system was already looking at or working on many of the items that were discussed in the meeting.

Bilyeu said Bedford County has already done more in terms of school security than any other county with which he's worked on the issue.

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