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Parents, educators discuss school safety

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Carroll County Parent Connect meeting focuses on what can be done to protect students at local level

By Ethan Campbell

HILLSVILLE – Parents and citizens of Carroll County capitalized on the opportunity to express their concerns and ideas regarding school safety on a local level at the Parent Connect meeting that was held at Carroll County Middle School on April 5.

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Schools Superintendent Dr. Shirley Perry, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mark Burnette and Carroll County Middle School Principal Marc Quesenberry conducted the conference with assistance from several members of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department; including School Resource Officers (SROs) Kevin Kemp, Mike Combs, Steven Woods and Gator King; as well as Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner.

Followed by a meal in the CCMS cafeteria, attendants gathered in the band room to exchange views on developing methods to prevent fatal or threatening occurrences across all campuses. The main topic at the meeting was a discussion of ideas for potential improvements to current safety measures in place, with regards to critical incident management in the event of a suspected threat.

Gardner was asked about the preparation procedures taken by the sheriff’s department once it has been advised of a potential threat.

“Every certified law enforcement member of our department is assigned a vehicle, and is also assigned an assault rifle, which remains secured in the vehicle at all times for that sole purpose,” the sheriff said.

Gardner further confirmed that every officer is certified to operate the equipment, and are mandated by the state to complete training qualification at least twice a year with the equipment for accuracy, efficiency, operational assessment and safety. They undergo further training designed specifically for response to active shooters.

“From our point of view, you have got to be mentally able and prepared to go into the building,” said Gardner.

Several of the sheriff’s department staff are also members of individual school safety teams, and they use the old Woodlawn School building for active tactical training to simulate the environment of a campus incident.

Carroll school buildings are also occasionally used after-hours for officers to become familiar with building layouts, floor plans and other factors.

“We drill as often as we can, but you can never drill often enough, and we will never have the kind of time to drill as often as we would like because of shift differences [and other personnel factors],” Gardner said. “The only way to make buildings 100 percent safe is to make them look like River North [state prison, in Independence], and I don’t want that for our children. But I do want our buildings safe.”

In past Parent Connect meetings regarding similar subjects, parents have proposed purchasing metal detectors for every door in the high school, said Gardner, but there are 65 doors in the building, so in terms of budgeting this is not a realistic option.

“If I had my wishlist,” continued Gardner, “we would have an SRO in every school. I think it’s important, and I don’t know a single one of these guys [SROs] — same with Hillsville PD — who’s not going to go into the building when there are children who could be hurt, and I don’t know a single one of them who wouldn’t give up their life for any one of these children in our schools.”

Several attendees brought up the fact that SROs develop a relationship with students, and emphasized how having SROs in schools leads to gaining knowledge about a potential threat. The officers also are able to flag irregular behavior displayed by students who are suffering from metal health-related circumstances, because they are familiar with the students.

The SROs and school personnel concluded that, once this relationship has been established and students realize that the officer is there for their safety and to be a positive role model, students will tell the resource officer things that they wouldn’t tell their parents, teachers or administration.

Many parents asked what has to be done in order to get an SRO in every school. The sheriff’s department and school administration referred parents to state legislators.

Under the current allowed budget, the sheriff’s department reports that much of its personnel time is utilized carrying out mandated responsibilities such as criminal and patient transports, highway safety and court room security. The additional personnel needed to provide a resource officer for every school is outside the scope of current funding.

School administrators confirmed that the majority of their available budget comes from the state, as well.

At the meeting, Carroll County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Rex Hill was able to provide the details of the state’s legislative process, and proclaimed his support and willingness to request additional funding for schools.

Other topics were discussed among parents, including the subject of arming teachers or allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons.

A room-wide vote by show of hands revealed a very split decision on the matter.

Parents also discussed protocol standards that would be set, as well as other potential hazards that arming teachers might cause within the school system.

They also expressed concerns about improving the transparency of the school’s communication alert system, and discussed ways to make entrances and accesses to main hallways less accessible to walk-in visitors.

Other details regarded critical incident management responses once the campus has been secured by law enforcement, so that parents could gain an understanding of all the protocols that have to be carried out by law enforcement, EMS personnel and other responding departments.

School administrators described proposals to begin holding assemblies starting in the fall semester this year for critical incident education and awareness.

“Things aren’t the same as they were 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. I would have never thought that we would have seen the day where we had to worry about this type of thing happening in our schools.” said Gardner during the meeting.

Perry agreed: “We have to start by changing the culture in the schools. We have to change students’ mindsets and attitudes so that they are not afraid to say something if they see or hear something, even on social media. We have to get students to understand that this is a big step in promoting safety for our schools and community.”