Since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn., last December, and even more recently, the 5-year-old Alabama boy snatched from a school bus and held captive for a week, schools have been at a heightened state of security – and rightly so.
Sylacauga Students Services Coordinator Bobby Hall said the community demands and deserves to know their school system is doing everything possible to prevent situations like those from happening here.
“You want to make sure parents in the community know you’re doing the best you can to secure the schools,” he said. “Back when I was in school, it was a safe haven, but now that’s obviously not the case, so we have to put extensive measures in place to provide that security.”
While there is always more that could be done if funding allowed, Hall said Sylacauga schools are making the most of what is available.
“We don’t have the resources to do what some larger school systems may do, but for what we have, I think we hold our own,” he said. “I think we’re right there at the top compared to schools across Alabama and even nationwide with safety, and most schools in this area are doing some of the same things.”
Talladega City and Sylacauga schools have recently revised each school’s safety plans, which outline response actions for a wide variety of scenarios, including an active shooter. Schools have also minimized the number of entry points and are required to keep all external and classroom doors locked at all times. Sylacauga is in the process of purchasing electronic, magnetic locks to be installed on every external door.
While the locked-door rule can be an inconvenience, Hall said it is necessary.
“Personally, I could care less about inconveniencing a parent or teacher, because our priority is student safety,” he said. “As educators, we have one responsibility above education, and that’s to make sure the kids get back home to their parents, because that’s a treasure. It’s a gift that we have, and if a kid is harmed because we didn’t lock the doors, we’re being negligent. So, we’ve had some negative calls, but we’ve had more praise than complaints about it.”
Alabama schools are required to have two lockdown drills a year, although they typically do more than that, and a monthly weather and fire drill. As a further precaution, Hall said he and Sylacauga police are conducting threat analysis at each school, where they walk through and identify potential safety weaknesses, such as students walking from one building to another to get to class, and ways to strengthen them.
Sylacauga is also adding a second School Resource Officer, a full-time, in-school policeman, next school year with costs to be split between the Board of Education and the city. While Talladega does not have any SROs, Talladega City Superintendent Doug Campbell said they maintain a close relationship with Talladega police, the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency and other responders.
The visibility of police in schools, and particularly SRO Willie Kidd in Sylacauga, is invaluable to a school system, Hall said.
“Officer Kidd is a real diamond in our schools to have someone who loves the kids and provides so much in the way of safety, not only inside the schools, but out in the community also,” Hall said.
In a typical day, Kidd said he talks to students and other school staff to get a feel for their mood and any issues that may arise. He also does home visits to keep issues from getting into the classroom. Also, Kidd said SROs are crucial to bridging the gap between the Police Department, schools and the juvenile courts.
“In the past, it was either an incident happened in school or it happened in the street, and the two didn’t intersect at all,” Kidd said. “With the SRO, you know what’s going on in school and on the street to give the everybody a better understanding of what students are dealing with, because their life continues beyond school day.”
Talladega County Schools declined to disclose any specific safety plans; however, Operations Director Dan Payant said safety is a priority for the school system.
“The only thing I will say is that we have a comprehensive safety plan in place,” Payant said. “We worked very hard on it with all the local first responders and agencies and the state department, and nothing is more important to us than making sure our children are safe.”
These and other major changes in school access and safety over the last five to 10 years is a direct reflection of the changes in society, Hall said.
“We are a society of copycats,” he said. “When there’s a school shooting incident put in front of the media, you have others who want to do the same thing, and that’s just the world we live in right now.”
Hall said schools are forced to be more sensitive about possible threats and cannot take any suspicion casually.
“You want to make sure you are addressing every complaint, every potential concern,” he said. “If a kid says, ‘I’m going to blow this place up,’ you can’t take that lightly. We’d have to suspend that student. If somebody points their finger at somebody like a gun, we have to discipline them. Years ago, you could do that and no one would think anything of it, but you can’t ignore that kind of thing now, and that’s probably the biggest change in safety over the last 10 years. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Campbell said the improvements in technology have also contributed to the changes, providing safety options that simply weren’t available before now.
“In this day and time, you can take more advantage of technology,” he said. “We have surveillance, phone systems, handheld devices, the Internet, all to help us coordinate between the school district and first responders.”
Some possible security improvements for local schools in the future include installing entry gates around schools and video systems outside the front door to screen visitors before they enter the building. Hall said Sylacauga is also considering implementing Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students), a national program that allows father figures in schools to patrol hallways and provide another layer of security.
Realistically, Hall said schools know a closed door or a video camera will not stop a deranged intruder – even Sandy Hook had electronic locked doors – but the goal is to set as many barriers between students and a potential danger as possible.
“Our objective is really to buy time,” he said. “If you are an intruder, and you come into a school, you’re not going to spend time getting into a locked door, because the more time you spend trying to get in, here come the good guys.”
Campbell said the key is to use the knowledge and resources at hand to provide a peace of mind to parents, teachers and the community at large.
“When an incident occurs on national level, parents will ask questions, but by in large, we feel as though our community has been pleased with the efforts we have in place,” Campbell said. “I feel we are as safe as you possibly could be under the circumstances.”
Hall said the intention of every school system’s security efforts is to make school an environment conducive to learning.
“The bottom line is school should be a place where kids want to be and feel safe, so that’s what we have to provide,” he said.
Contact Emily Adams at email@example.com.