UNION COUNTY — A crisis management plan and a program of readiness drills throughout the year, video surveillance systems in every school, and a close working relationship with law enforcement and other emergency responders is how the Union County School District is maximizing safety and security in local schools.
The massacre at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 12, 2012, has reignited the debate over gun control and a concurrent debate over how to secure America’s schools against such atrocities in the future. The steps proposed in the weeks since have ranged from bans on assault rifles, semi-automatic weapons and large ammunition clips to putting armed guards in every school and/or allowing teachers and principals to carry guns on campus.
Union County School District Superintendent Dr. Kristi Woodall and Randy Crocker, district Safety and Security Coordinator, recently discussed the steps the school district has taken over the years to maintain and improve school safety. One step that Woodall said the district will not be taking, however, is allowing teachers or other staff members to carry guns in the schools. Some have called for teachers to be armed while in school, but Woodall said state law forbids anyone other than law enforcement personnel from bringing guns into a school.
“This is going to have to come down as an option from the State of South Carolina,” Woodall said. “That can’t even be considered now because state law does not permit anyone to bring a gun into the schools. Even people with concealed weapons permits are not allowed to carry them in the building. Only law enforcement personnel can carry weapons in the schools.”
Woodall pointed out that while the massacre at Sandy Hook may have renewed the debate on the subject, there has been an increased emphasis on school security since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
“Columbine changed everything for school districts,” Woodall said. “It was the reason we developed crisis management plans and practice them annually. Each time there is a violent incident we consider our own procedures and adjustments that can be made.”
Crocker pointed out that the district obtained a grant in 2005 and used it to update its crisis management plan, a process that involved law enforcement and other emergency response organizations.
“We worked with Spartanburg Regional, Union County EMS, Union Public Safety, and the Sheriff’s Department to review and update our plans,” Crocker said. “We operate under the Incident Command System of Disaster Response which is the same system all local, state, and federal responders use. Having our county EMS and local law enforcement work with us in developing our plan gives us comfort in the fact that they know our plans as well as we do.”
Woodall added that the process has helped the district develop a strong relationship with law enforcement that has often helped the district prevent problems before they happen.
“We have an unusually good relationship with law enforcement,” Woodall said. “When we are concerned that something might happen we call them and they are there with us. Our students are their children and grandchildren. Even off-duty they’ll come in to be with us to avoid problems.”
In addition to working with law enforcement and other emergency responders to develop its crisis management plan, Crocker said the district has a schedule of regular drills to test the effectiveness of its response to an emergency situation.
“We have monthly fire drills and tornado and earthquake drills are conducted annually,” Crocker said. “We have intruder lockdown drills twice a year and one of them is unannounced. We also have bus evacuation drills twice a year.”
Another aspect of the district’s efforts to secure the schools is video surveillance. Woodall and Crocker said that there are video cameras in every school covering every area of each school. This enables the administration in each school to monitor what’s going on in their halls and entrances and respond quickly and effectively if they see something happening.
Security at some schools is further enhanced by the presence of a School Resource Officer. Union County Sheriff David Taylor said recently that in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre he’d received a number of calls asking if School Resource Officers would now be deployed at all county schools. Taylor said that while he would like to have School Resource Officers in every school, his office does not have the funding or the personnel to do so.
Woodall said that while the School Resource Officers are a welcome presence at the schools in which they are assigned, their presence will not necessarily prevent someone from attempting to carry out a Newtown- or Columbine-type massacre.
“We find our SROs to be very helpful, their presence is reassuring and probably a deterrent,” Woodall said. “I don’t think, however, that having an SRO at each location would prevent violent acts. It could possibly deter someone if they know that someone is armed in the building.”
Woodall pointed out that in some of the school shootings of recent years there were armed security and/or law enforcement personnel on the campus but this did not prevent the violence.
The district did receive a number of phone calls from in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, but Woodall said they were mainly from people expressing concerns about campus access.
“We had a number of calls the week after the incident and we followed up on all of them,” Woodall said. “Most of our calls were from relatives or employees who gave information on access to the building that they wanted us to reevaluate. That was very helpful.”
Crocker said that since the Newtown massacre the district has performed security audits at each school “to see what we’re doing well, areas we need to improve in, and any changes that we can implement to make the building safer.”
One area that needs improvement is for personnel from the district office to wear their identification when they visit the schools.
“Visitors are required to wear a visitor’s badge when they are in the school so they are easily recognizable,” Woodall said. “Faculty and students must also have their identification so they can not only be identified but a determination can be made if they are out of place. District personnel like myself are also supposed to wear our identification if we visit the schools but we tend to be lax about it because the adults on campus know who we are. Nevertheless, if we require visitors, teachers, staff, and students to wear them district staff like myself should wear them too.”
Woodall said that while the district will continue taking steps to improve its security at the schools, in the end school safety should not only be everyone’s concern but that everyone should cooperate in maximizing it.
“Our schools are safe and we have a good crisis management plan, but safety and security is everybody’s responsibility on campus,” Woodall said. “We have to remain vigilant and do things like make sure doors are locked when they are supposed be.”
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com.