By Jill Penley
Since the recent shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and staff members dead, much of the nation’s focus has zeroed in on increasing school safety. Federal, state and local authorities continue to examine the breakdown in security measures that allowed a gunman to enter a school of nearly 3,000 students without confrontation.
“Safety is the top priority of the Johnson County School System,” said Angie Wills, Safety Coordinator for Johnson County Schools. “We are continually reviewing our procedures and plans to ensure that we are doing as much as possible to protect students while they are in our care.” Studies suggest students learn best when they are part of a supportive, safe learning environment, and the local school district works each day to provide a safe place for all to learn, work and grow.
Law enforcement and local education agencies have a long history of partnering together for the safety of students. Strong relationships have strengthened the ability of both agencies to prepare for and respond to threatening incidents that occur in school settings. School resource officer (SRO) programs can provide the crucial link between school districts and law enforcement agencies in their continued efforts to establish and maintain secure and safe learning environments.
The high school campus, which includes the county’s only high school, the middle school and the vocational school currently has a School Resource Officer on duty each day. “District administration has also met with the city mayor to discuss safety measures, and the city police department is supporting our city schools by providing extra security throughout the day,” said Wills. “We have also been in communication with the sheriff’s department, and they are also going to provide additional security checks to our county schools.”
In addition to extra patrols and the SRO, a comprehensive safety plan for emergency
and crisis situations is in
place. According to Wills, the district and each of the county schools recently completed a thorough update to individual school improvement plans by collaborating with area law enforcement and the Johnson County Emergency Management office. Also, all schools participate in monthly required drills that include: fire, earthquake, tornado, and armed intruder drills. These drills must be logged and are verified by the state fire marshal. “All district personnel will also participate in a mock armed intruder drill before school starts next year,” said Wills. “This is currently being planned along with Johnson County Emergency Management and area law enforcement and will provide all agencies with an opportunity to evaluate our current plan and procedures which will be updated if needed.”
Unlocked entrance doors are a thing of the past, and gone are the days when parents can pop in and check on their children without proving their identity and reason for the visit as experts suggest one of the most critical aspects of security is stopping an intruder from entering the school. “The district has updated entrances at the majority of our schools with secured entrances,” said Wills. “The district plans to continue this project until all entrances are made more secure.” The board of education has also appropriated funds to upgrade some outdated security cameras this year.
School officials shy away from speaking publicly about specific details of school building security as a precaution to keep such information from those who may be planning violence at local schools, but they said overall school buildings are vastly better secured than in the past.
The physical layout of school buildings constructed in the last 20 years is far superior regarding intruder prevention, officials said. “District administration is evaluating all school buildings and developing a comprehensive needs assessment to present to the board of education,” explained Wills. “The board plans to review and discuss this assessment and take appropriate action as needed.”
Increased vigilance is also essential to curtail school violence. Local school administrators continue to emphasize the necessity of reporting suspicious behavior and taking immediate action. “We provide JCMS and JCHS students an avenue to report safety concerns anonymously through an app that we purchased called STOP IT,” explained Wills. This app, which has been available for students use for the past two years, notifies administration immediately so that situations can be investigated in real time.
Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced the formation of a working group of leaders made up from the executive branch, General Assembly, safety, education, and mental health communities to immediately begin reviewing school safety in Tennessee and provide recommendations to enhance the security of school children.
While all schools in Tennessee currently have safety plans in place, the Governor’s new task force will review the policies, procedures, and process of developing and implementing those plans, as well as other school safety measures, including increased communication among law enforcement, educators, and mental health professionals.
County Mayor Larry Potter reached out to the director of schools soon after the most recent school shooting
tragedy. “I wanted to see if administrators and the board
of education would be agreeable to me contacting State Senator Jon Lundberg and
State Rep Timothy Hill to seek funding at the state level to provide this security for our children,” said Potter. “With the support of Dr. Simcox, I have reached out to both Sen Lundberg and Rep Hill asking the state to fund school security.”