Sylacauga officials talk with parents about school safety
by Mark Ledbetter
SYLACAUGA — After the shootings in Newtown, Conn., Karen Elston, the Board of Education’s Parent Involvement coordinator, said she received phone calls from parents asking what is being done to ensure their children are safe in city schools.

“Parents need to know what is being done,” Elston said.

Parents met with members of the Board of Education, local law enforcement and fire personnel Wednesday to discuss what is being done to ensure students in Sylacauga schools are safe.

“I assure you we are going to do all we can to ensure your kids are safe,” said Bobby Hall, Student Services coordinator.

School Resource Officer Willie Kidd said he has spent 11 of the past 22 years as a Sylacauga police officer, working as a School Resource Officer.

Kidd said his responsibilities include ensuring the safety and security of students at each of the local schools, and visiting the homes of students is also a part of his responsibilities.

“I visit homes to see what is going on,” he said.

Incarceration, however, is not Kidd’s purpose as an SRO. In most cases where Kidd intervenes, courts often order counseling for parents.

“I’m not the favorite person in the system,” Kidd said. “I’m not there to be your friend. I am a friend to the kids, but not always to the adults.”

Police Chief Chris Carden said there “have been so many incidents and concerns for the school board and the Police Department.”

He said after a request from Hall, there are plans to have another School Resource Officer. Carden said they couldn’t put fences and brick walls around each school, and the key to safety and security is mitigation.

“It is expensive putting cops in schools,” Carden said. “We are going to add another SRO even though there has been no official vote. We are still needing documentation from the (school) board.”

Carden said a change in tactics during possible active shooter incidents have been implemented. He said the officers’ first priority would be to eliminate the threat rather than attend to the needs of victims. Once the threat is eliminated, they will provide aid to victims.

“We are so blessed to have this commitment, to have the relations with the fire and police departments and their resources,” Schools Superintendent Renee Riggins said.

Fire Chief Matt Missildine said his department is designed to respond to the “old dangers” — fire, severe weather, chemical spills, etc.

Missildine said all four of the city’s school campuses are being surveyed to determine the status of fire exits.

Severe weather may present a bigger danger to students than an active shooter, Missildine said. He said his department is developing a severe weather awareness education program to be implemented in the schools.

Hall said concerns for student safety have added to the workload of school administrators, who are conducting daily walk-throughs, making sure classroom doors are locked. Locked doors are required now, Hall said.

“It’s a hassle with all the other responsibilities,” he said. “The first thing is safety, If it’s not safe, they (the students) can’t learn.”

Nichols Lawson Assistant Principal Debbie Barnett said her school has magnetic doors and officers have trained them to have visitors stand in front of a camera before they are admitted into the school.

Indian Valley Elementary Title I teacher Cheryl Tubbs provided a list of safety procedures used at her school. Among some of the measures are lockdown drills, all visitors stopping at the office to get a visitor’s pass and several other measures.

Hall said another measure being adopted is “Text-and-Tip.” Students and parents will have access to a phone number to text to report drugs, intruders, harassment, bullying, etc. The number is 256-626-0333.

School bus safety is another concern, Hall said, “It is against the law to enter a school bus. If a parent wants to address the driver, they must come to the driver’s window.”

“Cameras have been placed on buses and can zoom in and I can hear things I don’t want to hear,” Riggins said. “We can zoom in on parents on their porch abusing bus drivers.”

While secure premises was a major concern of educators attending Wednesday’s meeting, they also raised a question of internal threats through social media.

Pinecrest Elementary Guidance Counselor Kristen Elliff said students don’t realize she can log on and see what they post. There have been some problems with Facebook, Elliff said.

Wendy Arnold, Nichols Lawson guidance counselor, agreed with Elliff.

“Parents need to monitor their child’s Facebook page every day,” Arnold said. “If mine change their passwords, it is gone.”

A new concern, Arnold said, is a social media platform called “snap chat,” which allows senders to send messages while determining the duration the text or pictures are available before being deleted.

Hall said he was glad to see fathers at the meeting and encouraged them to join “Watch Dogs,” a program where fathers who pass background checks can walk through schools to help mentor students who need a male influence.

After the meeting, Elston said she was pleased with the turnout.

“I am thankful for everyone who came out,” she said. “Hopefully they will go back to the community and share what they’ve heard.”

Contact Mark Ledbetter at

© 2013