December 15, 2012

School resource officers at ‘the vast majority of schools’ locally

By Rachel Brown and Christopher Smith

— They hope such a situation will never happen here, but law enforcement officials in Whitfield and Murray counties say they train for scenarios like the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn., on Friday at least annually.

Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office Maj. John Gibson said officials even work to train teachers and other adults at schools how to react.

“Unfortunately, as in this case, once a suspect is on the school grounds obviously we’re playing catch-up at that point,” Gibson said.

News of the shootings spawned strong reactions from some parents locally. Several said they wanted to take their children out of public schools and home school them. Others said public schools are not the problem, but they wished they had more security. According to The Associated Press, the attack was the nation’s second-deadliest shooting next to the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead in 2007.

“This shooting has shaken me,” said Dana Sapp, a parent of a 6-year-old who attends New Hope Elementary. “I think we need someone of authority at every school — someone armed who kids can trust and who can protect them if something like this happens.”

Claude Craig, director of Whitfield County Emergency Management, said security is in place at most schools.

“That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen,” Craig said. “We train and train and train for this sort of thing. Still, you can never be prepared enough for an event like this. You just hope you are. The news of the shooting is overwhelming, and everyone is upset for very good reasons. I’m overwhelmed, too. I have kids I worry about. People need to remember that we have school resource officers at the vast majority of schools in the area.”

Most of them are not, however, at elementary schools. School resource officers are officers contracted through local law agencies to be stationed on campus or rotate among several campuses. Dalton Public Schools, Whitfield County Schools and Murray County Schools have school resource officers at most high schools and middle schools and in at least some cases rotating among the elementary schools.

Law enforcement and school officials have said having a school resource officer at every school is prohibitively expensive. Violence and incidents of weapons on campus locally have been minimal but not altogether absent.

At Murray County High School this year, a school went on lockdown when a 14-year-old male student allegedly threatened a 17-year-old female student with serrated steak knives. In the same month, Bagley Middle School was on lockdown when a 16-year-old Mountain Creek Academy student took a shotgun on a bus. No one was injured in either incident, but law enforcement officers said they train as if they are going to face something worse.

“It could happen,” said Ray Sitton, chief deputy of the Murray County Sheriff’s Office. “It seems like when you have one (shooting incident in the nation), you have two or three copycats.”

There’s no way to know when or where shootings will occur next, said Dalton Police Department spokesman Bruce Frazier.

“It brings it to the forefront of your mind when something like this happens, but really that’s the reality people in law enforcement face every day,” he said.

Jennifer King, public relations chair with the Whitfield Local Emergency Planning Committee, said parents can act to improve emergency response, too.

“The biggest and most important thing for emergency response is something a lot of people don’t think of,” King said. “Update your contact information. You’d be surprised by how many people change their number and don’t update it later down the road. In times like these, you want to make sure schools have correct contact information. Communication is absolutely vital.”

Communication with emergency responders is vital, too, Gibson said.

“Everybody needs to be vigilant about their own safety and their own surroundings,” he said. “The sooner we get alerted, the sooner we can respond. Officers are trained to respond to these incidents, but we can’t respond until we’ve been called.”