Local school system administrators and principals are reviewing their school safety plans, grieving the loss of children they never met and contemplating the “what if” possibilities in the event their school were to be consumed with grief and loss while instantaneously thrust into the national spotlight.
Georgia’s superintendent at the Department of Education, Dr. John Barge, sent a statement to all school systems expressing grief for “the victims and families of the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.”
“Generally speaking, schools are safe places for students, but these kinds of incidents remind us to always keep school safety at the forefront,” Barge wrote.
A note from Chickamauga superintendent of schools Melody Day appeared on the system’s website the day after the tragedy.
“Please know that each of our schools has an emergency preparedness plan created with the assistance and guidance of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency,” Day wrote. “The safety of our student body is our top priority and we appreciate your cooperation and assistance.”
A similar statement was echoed on the Walker County school system’s website.
“This plan is reviewed, updated and practiced throughout the school year with input and assistance from all local agencies and law enforcement officials,” Walker County superintendent of schools Damon Raines wrote. “We also have a mass communication system that is utilized in case of any type of an emergency for immediate notification to parents.”
Such a message would be sent once an actual emergency has been verified.
Both systems expressed sympathies for those grieving families.
The Walker County school board urges parents to share safety concerns or questions with their child’s teachers, administrators or central office.
Counselors are available at all Walker County schools to address any student anxieties prompted by the recent school shooting.
Both systems will thoroughly review each school’s preparedness plan in the weeks to come.
Chickamauga Public Schools will be equipped with a security camera system during Christmas break, a measure that had been planned prior to the Sandy Hook shootings.
Two newly elected Walker County school board members, Dale Wilson (Post 4) and Karen Stoker (Post 1), will learn the new policies upon being sworn in next month.
New understanding for previous procedure changes
Safety precautions and procedures are reviewed annually as new teachers and administrators arrive.
After completing his first year as principal of LaFayette High School, Mike Culberson made a few procedure changes during the summer break.
“There were some things that I observed first-hand that were a bit concerning to me,” Culberson said. “One was the amount of people that could enter the building without us knowing about it.”
A series of doors in the rear of the building, where students were picked up or dropped off, was usually unlocked.
Signs requesting all visitors to sign in at the office were disregarded, often by previous students visiting their friends, according to Culberson.
“Over the summer, we talked about some things that we could address, and one of those was changing where parents come in to check out their (children),” Culberson said.
The entrance has remained locked for this school year, with large signs to alert parents.
Some parent were “upset” during the first month due to the procedure change, but have since become used to the safety change.
“I think that after the (recent) tragedy, even the ones who got upset about it, will understand that we were just trying to look out for the best interest of their kids,” he said.
The change at the start of the school year has greatly decreased the amount of people coming to the school during instructional hours.
The day after the tragedy in Connecticut, Culberson reviewed the school’s site safety procedures and urged all teachers to read it by email, stating “I’d much rather answer your questions now than in the middle of a true emergency.”
His wife, Heather, did likewise as the principal of Chattanooga Valley Elementary.
The two administrators tearfully pondered the “what if” scenarios as more details of the elementary school massacre unfolded.
“We talked about things that we could do to improve upon what we are currently doing,” Culberson said. “I’m a parent first. I can’t imagine the grief that these parents are going through.”
Teachers have “to-go” kits for a variety of emergency situations. The kit includes class rosters, flashlights, baggies to collect cell phones, among other items.
LaFayette High has encountered a few “soft” lockdowns as a precautionary measure at the school in recent years.
In addition to searching bathrooms for bomb threat hoaxes, Culberson is also having custodians monitor all doors on an hourly basis to maintain security, including mobile classrooms.
If doors are found to have been propped open, a review of video surveillance could result in disciplinary actions for any student found to have been involved.
A “soft” lockdown can be utilized in a variety of situations, including hoax bomb threats and other unsubstantiated messages that have a threatening claim. Evacuation for a fire is a protocol that is practiced a few times each year, however evacuating based on a perceived threat would increase the potential loss of life in an actual school shooting.
“It goes to placing additional barriers in front of someone who’s intent is to harm,” Raines said. “By (immediately) locking down and cutting those lights off, you’ve created another level of obstruction for that person to get through.”
That core philosophy behind a “hard” lockdown was verified during the Sandy Hook shooting.
The 20-year-old shooter had to make entry by shooting out a window, which prompted a hard lock down at the school.
According to reports, at 9:40 a.m. principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach were then fatally shot upon engaging the gunman in a hallway as the teachers quickly tried to sheltered children out of view.
The suspect, Adam Lanza, approached the kindergarten room of Kaitlin Roig, only to find the room empty as she had hidden her kids in a bathroom, telling them to keep quiet.
Lanza continued to an adjacent room where he fatally shot substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau and 14 members of her class, with only one child surviving the hail of bullets.
He proceeded to the classroom of Victoria Soto, who also hid her kids in a closet.
According to investigators, Soto tried to divert Lanza by telling him her students were in the school auditorium. Unfortunately, six of her students tried to flee during that exchange and were gunned down, along with Soto and another teacher.
He then shot himself upon hearing a police siren and was found by the door to Soto’s classroom.