December 15, 2013

Newtown heightened awareness, but local schools were already prepping

Rachel Brown

— Many in the nation on Saturday commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six staff members. Locally, school officials say the tragic event heightened their awareness of the potential for a catastrophe at home.

Since the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings — which investigators have since said were committed by a lone gunman who also killed his mother and himself that day — debate on how to increase school safety and whether to tighten gun control restrictions or loosen them has been ongoing. Locally, law enforcement agencies and school leaders have focused less on lobbying for changes in law and more on plans for how they will react during an active shooter situation or something similar.

Dalton High School Principal Steve Bartoo said that school in November had an opportunity to put part of its plan into action when the school received an anonymous call about someone planning to go to the school to shoot people. While police never uncovered an actual threat, Bartoo said the incident gave everyone a chance to play out what they’d planned for and practiced earlier.

Teachers and administrators scuttled students into classrooms and away from windows, officials began notifying parents through social media and an automated phone call system of what was happening, and the school went into lockdown. Had there been an active or possible threat on the campus, Bartoo said school officials would have added more precautions such as turning off lights and halting classes until the threat was cleared.

Dalton Police Department Chief Jason Parker said the department has more detailed plans on how to react during a threat, but those plans are protected from public release to give law officers an edge. School district leaders, he said, maintain a good safety plan, and officers coordinate with them periodically to revise it.

“We have conducted scenario training for faculty and staff at every Dalton school campus, and at Christian Heritage, during this year,” Parker said. “In addition, all officers have received active shooter training at Dalton school facilities this past summer and fall.”

Department spokesman Bruce Frazier said the police department’s policies and practices haven’t been significantly beefed up since the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and that’s because they were already working with local schools to prepare for such events years before the Sandy Hook shootings happened.

Bartoo said one significant thing that has changed is that school personnel received some training in what to expect during an active shooter scenario, thanks to a partnership with the police department. The training doesn’t include teachers or students being asked to in any way confront an offender, but Bartoo said he has no doubt school staff will do whatever they can to protect those in their care.

School resource officers (SROs) are stationed at Dalton High School, Morris Innovative High School and Dalton Middle School. They also make periodic visits to the elementary schools.

In the Murray County Schools system, officials have tightened security since Newtown and since a local student took a shotgun to school on Sept. 11, 2012. No one was hurt, and the now-expelled student was arrested on a bus outside of Bagley Middle School.

Several new policies, including an anonymous hotline and additional school resource officers, were put in place this school year to prevent another Newtown, Murray County officials said.

Last year, the school system spent $124,489 on four officers. This year, it’s spending $181,511 on 13 officers. This year, the system is paying officers part time on an hourly basis. Four full-time officers are still under the 75/25 plan where the school system pays most of the cost with the sheriff’s office covering the rest. The other nine officers are part time but provide full-time coverage for the middle schools, high schools and Mountain Creek Academy with half-time coverage for elementary schools.

School system administrative services director Mike Tuck said school officials talked about adding bulletproof glass and metal detectors (which are in place at Mountain Creek but not other schools), but further security plans are on hold for now.

Whitfield County Schools officials coordinate with the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, which periodically conducts training on school grounds to prepare for possible scenarios. In March, sheriff’s officers used the now-demolished old Eastbrook Middle School building to train officers to find the “shooter” and stop him. The scenario included gunfire sounds and fake hostages who the shooter planned to kill.

“The definition of an active shooter ... is an individual actively engaging in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area,” Lt. Phillip Herren said at the time. “The Sandy Hook shooting kind of brought it back to the public’s view. One of the things you’ll see in every article about an active shooting ... people say, ‘We never thought it would happen here in a hometown where everyone knows everyone.’ That’s not the case. No one thought someone would blow up a lawyer’s office in Dalton (in October 2008), but it’s been done.”

Relationships help, Bartoo said, and that’s why SROs and other adults in the schools spend so much time working to build trust with students. That trust often results in students tipping someone off to a potentially dangerous situation before something bad happens.

“I think it’s important to have SROs in school,” Bartoo said. “They are an important part of our faculty. Having a trained police officer gives the school a sense of being safe. I think it gives our school community a sense that you’ve got somebody there ... keeping things safe, and it gives you another adult in there who can establish really good relationships.”