Safety and security are integral parts of school operations. School shootings in other parts of the country and a series of threat incidents in Middle Georgia schools this year have pushed these policies and procedures into the spotlight.
So, how safe are schools in local districts, and are any changes needed? Residents in Bibb and Houston counties will decide May 22 who they want to help make those decisions in the future.
Bibb County has one contested Board of Education race, and Houston County has two in the upcoming primary election. Voters will recognize some familiar names and faces, as most of the candidates have run for school board before.
Incumbent Wanda West and Lisa Garrett are vying for Bibb County's at-large Post 8 seat. Current board treasurer Daryl Morton is running unopposed to continue representing at-large Post 7.
In Houston County, Tawanda Ellis, Andy Rodriguez and incumbent Lori Johnson are on the ballot for District 2; and Sheila Ashley, Robbin Jackson and incumbent Hoke Morrow are running for the at-large Post 6 seat. Board chairman Fred Wilson is unopposed for the District 4 seat.
Here's what the candidates in the contested races had to say about school safety and security.
What changes would you like to see made to your district's safety and security policies?
Garrett: "Since our middle and high schools already have resource officers on site, I would support each elementary school having a security officer on their campus as well. I do not believe that these officers need to be highly trained police officers, but a uniformed authority figure whose presence might deter more involved disciplinary infractions."
West: The Bibb County district is piloting metal detectors at Westside High School and is waiting to receive feedback. "Instead of just the pilot on the metal detectors, I want to see it on all doors, with a central control to have somebody really watching and knowing that on the extremities on the building we are safe also."
Ellis: "There’s always room for improvement. I recently visited a school in our district to speak to a class. Upon arrival at the office, I was greeted, but no one asked me to sign in. They just buzzed the teacher, and I was directed to the classroom. This really shocked me. As of today, they have no recourse that I stepped foot in the school. This action is unacceptable."'
Johnson: "I do not think our system is at the point where we need to implement these type of procedures (metal detectors, random searches, clear/mesh backpacks). I think that we will need to continue to keep our eyes and ears open and make changes if the current climate in our county changes."
Rodriguez: “I’m not the policy maker. I’m the conduit. I take input from the people that put me there." Teachers' number one concern is discipline, so clear rules, boundaries and limitations need to be established. Policies have to be equitable and evenly distributed, and they should be applied rather than just interpreted.
Ashley: Resource officers should be placed in all schools, and there should be more than one in larger schools. School employees have to be provided with training on bullying and how to identify students with depression and children who are isolating themselves.
Jackson: Metal detectors aren't really needed at every school, especially at the elementary school level. If necessary, they could be installed in the high schools at every entrance, but that would be costly. Resource officers in the schools can help deter behavior issues.
Morrow: "We’re constantly looking at new options and more productive ways. We’ve talked about metal detectors and bag searches, but it’s a logistical nightmare.” These methods are hard to implement, but the district is constantly reviewing what can be done to improve safety.
What can be done to address and prevent school threat incidents?
Garrett: "Bibb County has a protocol for handling school threats, and procedures are shared with school personnel each year. There is no substitute for knowing students and knowing them well. I believe that if teachers create positive relationships with students, they can alleviate many of the events that lead to students making threats. It would also be advantageous to have students involved in their own safety through open classroom discussions and active student participation in school safety task forces."
West: “I feel like the schools are safe, to be honest with you. What I’d really like to encourage is for the public and private sector to take a minute and come into the school system and learn what is going on ... so they can actually get a feel for the work and how much excellent work is going on.” Prevention and intervention are key, and training for entire school staffs is important.
Ellis: "I do think students should be disciplined accordingly. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, we have to treat every threat with a sense of urgency. We must continue to follow the discipline policies and procedures accordingly and expediently. We need to make sure our culture in our schools continue to be that of a positive and thriving culture and not a culture of disrespect, acts of violence or bullying threats."
Johnson: "Each and every (school threat) incident was taken very seriously, and legal actions were taken against those that made any sort of threat to our system. I think we made it very clear that we will not tolerate any type of threats. We also communicate with our parents, asking them to talk with their children about the seriousness of any type of threat and to encourage their children to tell an adult if they ever have a safety concern."
Rodriguez: "I'm a veteran of 32 years. We know when something doesn't look right or when something doesn't feel right and we take proper action." When an infraction occurs, the offenders need to be called out immediately, the proper authorities notified and appropriate steps taken. The district has to monitor where every child is at all times and continue to improve safety and security.
Ashley: “I believe that the board should always put the safety of all (students) first. I would really like to see things handled differently than they were handled when we had our school threats here. I feel that parents should be notified in a timely manner.” Principals, the school board and local law enforcement should meet immediately when a situation arises to make sure everyone is on the same page about safety. Schools should also hold assemblies, so principals, board members and counselors can talk to students about incidents.
Jackson: "I believe that there should be resource officers available and present (at all schools), so people know there is someone they should go to. If there is a problem, you need resource officers there to address the problem immediately. I don’t think arming teachers with guns is the solution to it."
Morrow: "We’re being very proactive and reactive. If we hear of anything, we’re going over it and reporting it to authorities." All rumors are investigated, and law enforcement is involved.
How can your district reassure parents and the community that children are safe in their schools?
Garrett: "Parents and community members need to understand that Bibb County school buildings are quite secure. Once in school, students are shielded from violence taking place outside the facility. ... Along with those safety measures, administrators, teachers and students practice safety drills annually so that all know what to do in case of an emergency. Yearly trainings are held for each staff to update any changes in procedures."
West: "I really think we've got to work outside of the schools with parents. We've got to retool our parents. The only way we can stop what is going on is to get parents to walk with us on this journey, for us to regroup as a total community.
Ellis: "Over-communicate. I feel that if parents and community members are given effective communication then it leaves no room for what if’s or why’s. I believe placing resource officers and placing metal detectors in schools would help with security and safety. I want to look at ways where we can look at our existing budget and invest in the classroom and in safety."
Johnson: "It’s important for our community to know that we are proactive in improving safety in all of our facilities. Projects under the current ESPLOST include installing access control at 25 schools, upgrading security systems and cameras, and upgrading fire alarm panels. Currently, all of our high schools are served by school resource officers. We work closely with all of the law enforcement agencies in Houston County to ensure our students’ safety at school and extracurricular activities."
Rodriguez: "It all begins with education and information sharing. Our number one focus in the county is safety in the school system. What we need to do is educate, communicate and evolve." If elected, Rodriguez said he'll hold periodic forums where people can share concerns, and he'll bring those ideas back to the board.
Ashley: “We have to build that student-teacher morale so that our school environment is one that is conducive to a happy environment where students can learn, and they also will feel safe.” The Board of Education needs to seek community input, rather than making isolated decisions. Public, countywide meetings should be held with parents, students and faculty to get feedback on any new safety policies, and those thoughts should be brought to the board for further discussion.
Jackson: It's vital that students and the community be educated about the importance of having a "good, safe community." Students and parents need to feel confident in their school system, so they will feel safe and glad to go to school there.
Morrow: “You can see the times that we’ve improved school security with cameras and locking doors. (We're) in the process with trying to add school resource officers (to every school). We’re working on new things every day. It’s something that comes up at every meeting.”