The County Committee of the Catoosa County Republican Party expressed concern at its Feb. 27 meeting about how safe students are in Catoosa County schools.
Committee first vice-chairman Greg Grayson, who is a former Catoosa County probate judge, says the time to do something to make local schools more secure is now. "The last thing we want to do is sit around until something like Columbine or Sandy Hook or Parkland, Florida, happens to us."
The committee passed a resolution calling for metal detectors in all schools and for training and arming select teachers.
But Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese says there is far more security in place than a lot of people realize and that the system is engaged in constant improvements and additions to the security of its schools.
"Every school violence incident is alarming," Reese said. "I’ve been in education for 34 years, and I never dreamed we’d be having the conversations we are today about school safety. I want the citizens of Catoosa County to be confident that maintaining safe and secure schools is our highest priority."
Here’s a run-down of the security measures in place, as provided by Reese’s office.
- In a partnership with the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Department, every middle and high school has school resource officers (SRO). SROs are armed and trained to recognize and respond to danger.
- In 2015, a Threat Assessment Protocol was implemented to evaluate students who might be at risk for hurting themselves or someone else.
- The school system has a Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA)-approved safety plan, developed in partnership with the sheriff’s department. The Catoosa plan is used by GEMA as a model for other school systems within the state.
- The school system has teams that include law enforcement and emergency management personnel. The teams conduct regular safety audits in every school. School Safety Teams are then responsible for implementing protocols and conducting safety drills, including "Run, Hide, Survive" drills in which teachers and students practice appropriate responses to different emergency scenarios.
- Surveillance equipment, including new security cameras, has been installed in every school.
- In case of a threat, teachers can access their school’s surveillance system from their classroom computers to assess the wisdom of evacuating (RUN) or barricading the classroom and getting out of the way of windows and doors (HIDE). Teachers and students are instructed to fight (SURVIVE) if the intruder manages to get past the barricade.
- All schools now have "Buzz-in systems." Anyone wishing to enter a school must push a buzzer and, if requested, show identification by way of a security camera. Unknown visitors are not allowed in the school until their purpose for visiting has been validated by an administrator.
- Sielox CLASS (Crisis Lockdown Alert Status System) has been installed in every school and training is underway. The system can alert emergency personnel of a threat and enable communications with first responders. It can visually track and report situations in real time on a room-by-room basis. Any teacher or designated person can initiate an emergency alert. First responders can access a color-coded map of the school and track motion within the school. If they’ve confirmed an area of the school has been evacuated but they still see movement, they know it’s likely an intruder.
- The school system is in its third year of implementing the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support Model designed to enhance students’ academic and social behaviors. Administrators say they’ve seen significant improvement in student behavior as a result.
- Schools teach students strategies to deal with issues like teasing and bullying. If those strategies fail, students or parents can call a toll-free number, 1-800-SAY-STOP, to report problems.
- The school system has a text alert system for parents to let them know if there’s a problem they need to be aware of. There 14,000 people signed up for it at this time. There’s also a free APP that keeps parents aware of what’s going on in the schools and includes an alert feature. The APP can be downloaded from iTunes or Google Play by searching "High Ground Solutions" then scrolling to the Catoosa County Public Schools APP.
- Superintendent Denia Reese has started "Listening Luncheons" with school employees to discuss safety issues and plans to start them with the Local School Governance Teams at each school. The teams include parents and people from the local community.
Reese says that the experiences of other school systems using metal detectors has been problematic – extra people have to be hired to facilitate the use of the detectors, class times have to be staggered because it takes so long to get all the students through, backpacks have to be passed through, backup is required to deal with situations in which students set off detectors, and protocols must be in place for searching students who set off detectors.
As far as arming teachers goes, Reese prefers the use of school resource officers. "The sheriff, the board of education and I agree that school resource officers who are armed and trained for emergency situations should be considered as our next investment to enhance school safety."
"The Catoosa County Board of Education is committed to safe schools," says Reese, "but at the same time, we want to make sure we are investing in equipment that will actually be a long-term solution to improve student safety."