As a result of the recent school tragedy, school safety has been on the hearts and minds of our community. I have received several phone calls and engaged in multiple community conversations regarding the tragedy and the steps we take to keep our students safe. I decided I could best address this issue in a public statement provided to you through our local media.
When I first became Superintendent, I immediately began a series of school tours to observe and learn about all aspects of our school system. As Superintendent and a Morgan County citizen, I believe that complacency can be our biggest threat. We live in a great community and often feel as though we are immune to such tragedy. Therefore, we decided that we needed to be more proactive in regard to the safety and discipline of our school system. I believe these two areas go hand in hand. A well disciplined school system promotes a culture of school safety and a strong awareness about school safety enhances the discipline of our students.
The first item of business was to create a District Safety Committee. The purpose of this committee is to maintain a consistent focus on issues regarding school safety. The committee is comprised of representatives from each school/building/department, school resource officers, local law enforcement, and parents from the School Governance Teams. The maintenance, athletics, technology, and transportation departments also participate on this committee to ensure that all aspects of our school system are covered. We have discussed such topics as fire alarm/tornado drills, school visitors, AED training, Stop-The-Bleed, background checks, cyber security, cameras, active shooter drills, school safety plans, etc. The safety committee meets bi-monthly to discuss these issues.
Multiple changes have been made as a result of our focus on safety. First and foremost was the level of awareness and vigilance regarding school safety. Administrators, teachers, staff, and students are more aware of surroundings and are encouraged to keep an eye out for odd situations. I believe this is the most important thing we can do to ensure a safe school for our students. Everyone needs to be focused and alert in securing our building, halls, and classrooms. Safety is EVERYONE’S responsibility.
Secondly, the Safety Committee has helped to identify gaps in our system and school safety plans. Members of the committee are encouraged to attend a school safety conference held in the summer to hear the latest updates on potential threats and safety measures. These conferences have assisted our staff in recognizing the new threats, leading edge technologies, and strategies developed to assist in combating the threats.
Thirdly, a big step was to implement the Raptor system for identifying visitors who come into our buildings. While this visitor management system was met with some opposition, the reality of today’s world justifies the need to identify and screen visitors.
I realize the inconvenience some of our visitors may feel when being screened by this system, but as a parent, I appreciate the vigilance of knowing who is in our building, as well as having knowledge of the various backgrounds of these visitors.
Another area of concern is the numerous entry points at the high school, middle school, and elementary school which is being addressed through the construction of new buildings and renovations. Our present buildings are old and were constructed over decades of time when threats of this nature did not appear to exist. However, correcting these multiple entry points and the open campus aspect will take time. As I reflected last week after the school shooting, the completion of these new buildings will not come fast enough. I applaud the courage of our Board of Education members to move forward with addressing important issues of safety through the construction of a new high school and middle school.
Another strategy we have implemented is the concept of identifying how far an intruder can enter our buildings. At least once a year, we identify someone who does not have ties to our community to attempt to enter our buildings unannounced.
If successful, we want to know how far he or she is able to enter before being recognized as someone who doesn’t have the proper credentials. We then report this information to the principals so they can help address these issues with teachers and staff.
We have worked to develop and maintain strong relationships with local law enforcement. Sheriff Robert Markley and Police Chief Bill Ashburn collaborate very closely to assist in maintaining a safe environment. During the summer months, we have cooperated with local and regional law enforcement officials to conduct active shooter drills in our building to assist law enforcement to better know the layout of our buildings.
Morgan County School System and the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department share resources to position a School Resource Deputy in our schools. However, we acknowledge the need for one additional position to fully cover all of the campuses. We will be working on this position through the FY19 budget process. The Madison Police Department also assists the morning car rider lines to make sure parents are dropping off in an orderly fashion so that our children are safe.
In more recent years, we have added staff to deal with the mental health issues of our students. In addition to the already established nurse, counseling, and school psychologist positions, we have added counseling positions to specifically deal with the mental health of our students at the primary and elementary schools.
Our primary and elementary mental health counselors have already been effective by helping students cope with their stressors. We will continue building this capacity to more successfully assist students in all grades.
I could go on for days about the safety concerns which have been addressed as a result of a focus on safety through the Safety Committee.
I could also expand on the numerous issues which continue to be addressed. And then, there are issues which have not been dreamed up but require us to act instantaneously or change processes. The balance of maintaining a safe environment while protecting the instructional time is overwhelming. We maintain the belief that awareness and vigilance on a daily basis is of utmost importance. Open communication about potential threats and safety compromises is critical to the process.
I want to assure the community that we have many aspects of safety working. However, we also recognize the constant changing threat. We ask that the community assist us in this endeavor. Parents need to have open conversations with their children about the need to bring safety issues to the staff as we all share in responsibility to keep our community a safe place. They also need to reinforce safety awareness in everyday situations (for example – shopping, church, vacations, etc.) by teaching and openly discussing potential safety concerns and strategies.
My hope is that this open communication will stimulate thought about issues of school safety and what control and impact we have on it as a community. In no way do I want to paint a picture of hysteria. These concerns did not just begin, and unfortunately will not end. Let us not become complacent in our actions and strategies about safety. A culture of safety will help protect our students and staff and we are focusing on preparing for and embracing that culture. Preparing and embracing a culture of safety will help to protect our students and staff.