Officials around the nation are studying ways to make schools safer after last month’s massacre by a gunman at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Safety starts with the design of the building, and local school and law enforcement officials are taking a close look at every school to see what needs to be changed, Charleston County School Board members were told Wednesday.
Jeff Scott, the district’s security director, told the board he plans to meet with every local law enforcement agency to review the district’s security plans, and he expected those officials to “pick them apart” and find ways to make schools safer.
“We’re always looking to continuously improve,” he said at a workshop. “We’re never done. We can always do something better.”
Whether safety also includes bringing more police into schools is a more contentious matter. The school board will vote Monday on whether to have police officers in elementary schools.
North Charleston City Council voted last month to put an officer in each of the city’s 21 elementary schools. New officers already have taken up residence in about a dozen schools, and the rest are expected to be in place by the end of the month.
The school board will decide whether to endorse that plan or not.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon held a press conference earlier Wednesday to urge residents to be prepared to fight back if a gunman threatens people and an officer is not around.
He didn’t take a position on whether more officers are needed in schools.
Focus on safety
At the board meeting, Scott discussed fencing, camera systems and access controls, and he noted that some schools don’t have certain security features the districts would like.
Superintendent Nancy McGinley said she plans to bring the school board a proposal for what needs to happen so every school is in the same place. She also plans more countywide training for staff.
“We have done this in the past, but we’re going to really accelerate our efforts in the training arena,” she said. “It has to be constant. It can’t be once a year or twice year.”
Every school in the district will walk through practice drills next week, and police will be observing those proceedings to give feedback on areas for improvement, she said. Principals also are creating lists of site-specific issues that need to be monitored or addressed.
She told the board she met earlier this week with law enforcement leaders and mayors, and they talked about ongoing cooperation.
They are exploring new technology that could be instituted in district schools, such as panic buttons, and they are discussing whether changes need to be made to existing state laws, such as allowing schools to substitute mandatory monthly fire drills with different types of drills, such as hurricane or intruder.
Board members wanted to know what security holes needed to be filled sooner rather than later, and McGinley said she may return to the board as soon as Monday with a list of issues that need to be addressed immediately.
Board member Elizabeth Moffly brought up the officers in North Charleston elementary schools, saying she thought the city acted too quickly in adding them. She said the board is in charge of its schools, and police aren’t the right resource to be in its buildings.
It would be better for the district to contract with private companies for school security because there are unintended consequences by hiring school resource officers, she said.
Other board members said Monday’s meeting would be a more appropriate time to talk about that issue, and the full board didn’t respond to her comments.
At the press conference, Cannon recommended watching a five-minute video called “Run, Hide, Fight,” which is on the sheriff’s website. The video, which the city of Houston produced with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, assumes you don’t also have a gun.
It’s important to remember “the inherent strength of the individual who when confronted with danger is in the position to do something about it,” Cannon said. “A hero is an ordinary person who when confronted with extraordinary circumstances acts in an inspiring fashion.”
A reporter pointed out that Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung tried to stop gunman Adam Lanza from entering the school and was shot to death and asked what anybody there could have done differently.
“I’m not going there,” Cannon responded.
Instead he pointed out other instances where aggressive actions by unarmed citizens had stopped a shooter from doing more damage.
North Charleston’s move to put police officers in elementary schools has sparked fierce debate, especially in the black community.
About two dozen people gathered at a North Charleston community center Wednesday night to express their concerns over putting more police officers in schools.
The meeting was organized by Citizens United for Public Schools, whose leaders include Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott. Speakers said they were worried that more police officers in schools would lead to more children, especially black students, being arrested instead of properly disciplined.
“We are indirectly taking steps that criminalize childhood,” said Susan Dunn, general counsel for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Don’t expect the police to come in and rescue us.”
“We are now turning our schoolhouses into a police state,” said Jim Campbell, who described himself as an educator and activist. “Are we teaching children that democracy comes out of the barrel of a gun?”
Cannon and several deputies attended the meeting.
“I thoroughly agree that law-enforcement officers in the school is not the solution,” he said, citing wider problems in society that need to be addressed to make schools safer.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.