By Christopher Smith
CHATSWORTH — It’s been a little over a year since a Mountain Creek Academy student took a shotgun to school on Sept. 11, but broaching the subject still results in uncomfortable faces on some Murray County Schools students.
North Murray High School student A.J. Sampson said he still wonders what would have happened if that student, now expelled, hadn’t been arrested on a bus outside of Bagley Middle school.
“Who knows?” Sampson said. “If it hadn’t been handled quickly, you could have had Columbine, Newtown and Chatsworth on all the same level. No one ever thinks a shooting will happen to them.”
The Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings in December 2012, in which 20 students and six staff members were killed, is precisely why Murray County school officials are “beefing up” security, said Administrative Services Director Mike Tuck.
Several new policies, including an anonymous hotline, and new school resource officers, or SROs, were put in place at the start of the school year.
“When the events happened in Connecticut during December of last year school leaders got together,” Tuck said. “Me and some administrators and other folks in leadership talked about what we could do to best spend our limited dollars on creating the safest environment possible.”
The incident with the Mountain Creek student didn’t “directly” impact the decision to increase security, Tuck said, but did have an indirect impact on the discussion.
SROs are provided by the Murray County Sheriff’s Office, Tuck said. Last year, the school system spent $124,489 on four officers, according to information provided by the school system. This year, it is spending $181,511 on 13 officers, finding savings, Tuck said, by being “creative.”
“Last year we made an agreement with the sheriff’s office to do a 75/25 percent split,” Tuck said.” So we paid for 75 percent of everything: salaries, benefits, supplies, whatever expense was attributed to that officer.
“This year, we couldn’t afford that. We worked something out with the sheriff’s office to pay part-time officers on an hourly basis and they would go under the ‘Obamacare’ limit of 29 hours (to be considered full time).”
What that looks like is four full-time officers who are still under the 75/25 plan with nine part-time officers who provide “full-time coverage for our middle schools, high schools and Mountain Creek Academy, with half-time coverage for our elementary schools,” Tuck said.
Emily Trammel, president of the student council at Murray County High School, said the increased security presence makes her feel “110 percent safe.”
“I see them (sheriff’s deputies) every morning as I walk in,” she said.
“I feel safer,” he said. “I know if something bad were to happen it would be stopped sooner than, say, another school (system). I know someone who wants to do something bad would probably think twice before hitting one of our schools. I know it costs money, but you know, bottom line: the schools are safer.”
Murray County High’s SRO is a man named Ralph Ridley. Ridley, who has had different beats from traffic to patrol, said he had to undergo several weeks of training before stepping into the school setting.
He said he spends most days checking bathrooms, making sure exterior doors are locked and dealing with “minor in comparison stuff” like two girls feuding over a boy. But if someone ever enters the high school poised to kill innocents, Ridley says he knows what to do.
“I’d go straight to the threat,” he said. “I don’t stop. I would radio for backup, but I would go to where the threat is to stop mass casualties.”
He typically patrols the halls with a Glock pistol on one side and a radio on another, but if he knew he was facing a well-armed threat — James Holmes of the Aurora, Colo., movie shootings last year was armed with a shotgun and semi-automatic rifle — he would be within “seconds” of better firepower.
That is thanks to a U.S. Department of Defense program that supplies free military surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies. Ridley, along with at least 30 other deputies, received an M16 assault rifle and a 10-gauge shotgun during the summer from the program.
“If I ever got information that there was someone who was armed with an assault rifle, it doesn’t take me that long to get to that M16 and run to the threat,” he said. Both weapons are typically secured in his patrol car, Ridley added.
A correct balance of security?
Trammel said she’s a “good ol’ Southern girl” and supports weapons on campus, even expressing support for principals and teachers to have access to firearms.
But how practical that would be, Trammel said, she doesn’t know.
North Murray student Alexis Rodriquez said she isn’t sure about how many guns school officials should have access to. Officers are good, she said, but she said she would “hesitate on adding more than that.”
“There’s got to be a fine line,” she said.
When news broke about the Newtown shootings, many local teachers and students were divided on how much security is too much. Several teachers cautioned against an initial overreaction, saying too much security could turn schools into prisons, while some parents and students asked for what Murray County Schools officials implemented: more officers.
“I think where we are at is a good baseline,” Trammel said on the level of security.
Tuck said school officials talked about what else they could add, from bullet proof glass to metal detectors (Mountain Creek received metal detectors this year, but not other schools). The ultimate decision rests on how many dollars school officials have at their disposal.
“We do have a limited budget,” Tuck said.
School officials did use $5,400 on a new hotline system that Tuck says has already worked in a few cases, “nothing too dramatic.”
“We’ve addressed any issues we get from the tip system,” he said. “So far, there haven’t been a whole lot, but there have been a few things that have come up.”
Rodriquez said she supports the hotline.
“I think it’s good,” she said.
But there’s still a concern, Rodriquez said, that “too much security is a bad thing.”
“Right now, I think it’s good to have more security,” she said. “I just don’t want to ever feel like I’m going to jail when I’m going to school.”