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By SHAINA STOCKTON and CHRISTOPHER BROOKE
The Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Connecticut on Dec. 14 that resulted in 28 deaths, many of the victims small children, has left the country in shock, and many parents are showing a reluctance to send their own children off to school this week.
Others are questioning how prepared schools and police are to respond to such an incident here in the Twin Counties.
Random outbreaks of mass violence create concerns for public officials, too. Schools across the nation have responded with increased security measures this week to ease the minds of parents, students and school officials.
Local schools in Carroll and Grayson Counties and the City of Galax are included in this effort.
"We've worked for several years prior with the school's administration to try and assure a safe environment for the students," said Galax Police Chief Rick Clark on Monday.
According to Clark, Galax schools have a yearly survey of security, along with practices of lockdown drills and evacuation procedures, and other safety measures such as video surveillance.
Galax Schools Superintendent Bill Sturgill has spoken with school board members and city officials about the state of security and what could be done to strengthen it.
All lockdown procedures and day-to-day safety policies are being carefully reviewed.
"I think that this is the conversation that the country is having right now," said Sturgill. "We want to be sure that we are doing everything that we are supposed to do."
As a result of the Sandy Hook attack, Clark says that were will be an increase of police presence at Galax Elementary School this week, and Sturgill confirmed that the additional officers will be visibly present at the elementary and middle schools throughout the rest of the year. In addition, there have been long-term talks of increasing the presence of law enforcement officers at the schools.
In compliance with creating a long-term effort to protect students is Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan.
On Monday, Vaughan said that there were deputies at each school that morning waiting to greet faculty, staff and students as they arrived.
Parents called in to thank the department, he said, and several broke down as they expressed their gratitude.
"It's definitely a major concern for us. We want to do everything we can do to make sure they are as safe as they can be," he said.
Vaughan has also spoken with Grayson Schools Superintendent Kevin Chalfant, along with the county administrator and the school board, about having six resource officers for the schools next year, an increase from the three that are already employed. The department is looking to split the cost for security, which is $240,000 per year, between the school system and the county.
Though their primary focus would be campus safety, resource officers would also be trained as emergency medical technicians, and continue to take part in teaching DARE drug abuse prevention classes.
"I think it's a good selling point for us to show the board of supervisors and the school board that the positions will be a dual role. I think we can get this pushed through. I certainly hope so," Vaughan said.
Chalfant also assures the community that the schools are all up-to-date with their emergency and crisis plans and practice them on a regular basis. As an added resource, counseling has also been offered to whomever needs it.
"We are as prepared as we can be," he said. "With every situation being different, you have to be able to have certain protocols in place, but at the same time, use good judgment."
Carroll County Public Schools has a crisis management plan as well, and each school has its own plan for that facility, said Carroll Schools Superintendent Strader Blankenship.
There is also a safety audit committee that tours the schools annually and gives suggestions for each facility and the county as a whole.
"Our folks are pretty well drilled in the crisis management plan and what to do," he said.
Parents with ideas for security can share them with the principals, and that will be added to the school's annual safety audit. The superintendent also encouraged all school principals to reevaluate their emergency plans.
Blankenship and Sheriff J.B. Gardner spoke Sunday and agreed to have a law enforcement presence at each school in Carroll on Monday morning as a way to be proactive.
Blankenship had heard in a report from NPR that school violence is actually down overall, he told The Gazette. The same report also called schools the safest place to be, though Blankenship acknowledges that may have a hollow ring to it given the incident at Sandy Hook.
Each Carroll school should only have one door that's unlocked during the day, and that's the one at the office so visitors' comings and goings can be observed. Each facility also has cameras inside and out for security.
All administrators have also taken federal Homeland Security training and have the crisis management plan to cover the imaginable problems that could arise.
"We have taken a lot of precautions," Blankenship said. "It's a scary proposition, but we have good people who take care of kids every day ― they go out of their way to make sure children are safe."
Educators want schools to be welcoming to parents, but also secure. That's a fine line to walk.
"It's a very welcoming community and that's wonderful, but we cannot be complacent ..." Blankenship said.
Educators need to continue to follow the crisis plan, as well as be aware of happenings at schools and inform police of possible problems, the superintendent said.
"It is true we live in a very safe place, but all these other places said, 'It can't happen here,' and we can't assume that's true anymore," Blankenship said.
Most Carroll parents reacted positively to the idea that deputies showed up at the schools Monday, Gardner told The Gazette.
"The kids have every right to expect they are going to be safe at school," the sheriff said.
Many off-duty deputies volunteered their time to reassure the children. "My officers said we've got to do something," he said.
"We've had nothing but good responses from people today," Gardner said. "I wish I could afford to put [a school resource officer] in every school."
With budget cuts, that's not likely to happen, he added.
If he didn't have deputies writing summonses on Interstate 77 and collecting the associated fines and fees, Gardner said the Carroll Sheriff's Office wouldn't be able to afford the third school resource officer, added recently to spend time at the elementary schools.