December 19, 2012

‘Watching over the little ones’

Whitfield Sheriff’s Office increase patrols to help ‘traumatized’ students feel safer

By Christopher Smith

— As Shawn Giles, a deputy with the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, walked the halls of Antioch Elementary School Tuesday morning, 6-year-old Mason Redwine extended a trusting hand.

“I want to hold your hand,” Mason said.

“I’d love to hold your hand,” Giles responded, walking Mason to Iris Galloway’s kindergarten classroom where he smiled, waved goodbye to the officer, and entered the classroom.

Although most kids like Mason might not fully understand Friday morning’s shooting spree in Connecticut, brief exposure to the news could make school feel unsafe for a while, law enforcement officials said. The gunman responsible for the massacre killed 26 people, including 20 students who were attending Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

 The “incident that has traumatized the public” is why county police officials like Giles will be patrolling local schools to make teachers, students and parents feel safer, said Capt. Rick Swiney.

“We want kids to see the police and feel at ease,” Swiney said. “Many of our officers have elementary-aged children — we’re parents too — and to hear about the violence in Connecticut has impacted us all. Our local officers need to have a strong presence this week, especially for the kids. We’ve always paid special attention to schools, but entering them and interacting with teachers and students on a regular basis is a practice I want to continue.”

Galloway, Mason’s teacher, said she is “really glad for the extra eyes that are watching over the little ones.”

“We’re all very sad right now,” Galloway said. “What happened in Connecticut was like losing kindred spirits in education. We have a lot of people praying for schools to be safer, so we’re just trying to focus on how we can carry on and conduct ourselves around students. We’re just trying to move forward.”

Giles said entering schools has happened before the massacre, but was “very sporadic and very infrequent.”

“I think kids and families really need the reassurance right now,” he added. “They smile a lot when we walk in and the teachers smile, too. They know we’re here to make everyone feel safe.”

Tuesday was the last day of class for several county schools, but Swiney said the increase presence of law enforcers at schools will continue next month when classes resume.

Whitfield County deputies aren’t the only ones reacting to the shooting with more in-school patrols. Several counties in the state are reviewing their emergency plans and increasing security.

“Officers will be assigned to every school within Gwinnett County police jurisdiction and these patrols will last for the next several days,” Edwin Ritter, a corporal with the Gwinnett County Police, told the Associated Press Tuesday.

Swiney said it will take time for people to “feel comfortable again.”

“We’re going to make sure people are reassured,” Swiney said. “We’ll be doing this until further notice.”