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School safety: Variety of efforts
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Last week, more than 800 students were evacuated from Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur as a man with an assault rifle and other weapons exchanged gunfire with police at the elementary school.

Though no one was injured and 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, who opened fire at the school, is in custody, safety in schools continues to be a topic of discussion.

In Newton County, school system officials continue to work to keep students safe. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed 26 lives, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn., Newton County began a pilot safety program at Newton High School.

Gary Shattuck, NCSS director of technology and media services, said the Newton County Board of Education approved purchasing ViewPath for Newton High in March. Shortly thereafter, several NHS classrooms had cameras (ViewPath) and silent alarms (SAFE) installed.

“This was a package of three products: a sound amplification system, a silent alarm system, and a camera system to improve instructional practices and to improve student behavior,” Shattuck said.

He added that, in April, the Board approved placing ViewPath in most classrooms in the other Newton County high schools and at all middle schools. So far, Shattuck said, 552 classrooms have had ViewPath technology installed and faculty and staff have been trained on the system.

“We trained a core group of teachers at all the middle and high schools, which included Newton, on the ViewPath system on July 29,” he said. “It is the teachers in this core group who are responsible for training the other teachers in the building on the ViewPath System.

“We are offering six follow-up trainings to each of these core groups, starting on Sept. 4. Each of these follow-up trainings will be spaced one month apart in order to make sure we increase the capacity of teachers to use this equipment effectively,” Shattuck said.

The school system’s middle schools and high schools also have School Resource Officers (SROs) – specialized sheriff’s office deputies – assigned to them. Though no SROs are assigned at elementary schools, school system officials said Newton County Sheriff’s Office deputies routinely visit each school to ensure safety. According to the county budget, the cost of SROs for the current school year is $719,380.

Jan Loomans, NCSS director of operational services, said the NCSS continues to evaluate the cost of adding SROs at the elementary level, which, according to officials, would cost about $800,000 annually.

“The decision was made that the school system could not afford to fund those positions at this time. This will continue to be evaluated during budget planning each year,” Loomans said.

Newton County Schools Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said ViewPath technology will be installed at each of the elementary schools in the near future, and noted that a timeline for installing the technology is in the works.

In addition to ViewPath technology and School Resource Officers, Loomans said the NCSS is in the process of installing security access systems on doors used by staff members at all schools throughout the day. The security system limits access based on the hours that each employee works. The installations should be completed within two weeks, Loomans said.

Additionally, a system-wide safety committee has developed lockdown procedures to ensure that every school responds in exactly the same way to intruders in its building or to outside threats, Loomans said.

“This information has been supplied to the Newton County Sheriff’s Office,” she said.

She added that based on safety committee recommendations, all classroom doors remain locked throughout the school day. The doors may remain open while the classroom is occupied, but must be closed when the classroom is empty.
“This allows the teacher to quickly secure the classroom in the event of an internal lockdown situation and prevents unobserved access to the classrooms when empty,” she said.

Loomans said an existing maintenance position has been converted to an Energy and Safety Specialist position to provide additional safety resources to all schools. And this summer, she said, two maintenance staff members and one School Resource Officer attended “School Shooter” training sponsored by the FBI.

Loomans also said the Sheriff’s Department conducted three school shooter training sessions in one of the school system’s buildings. She said the training was mandatory for all deputies and that some school staff members observed. She said additional security measures are planned, but details won’t be divulged.

“The Safety Committee is working with a GEMA school specialist to maintain an ongoing evaluation of school safety procedures – not only for intruders, but for all aspects of school safety.”