Prepared for the worst scenario

Jan. 18, 2013 @ 06:10 PM

Just over a month since the second-most deadly school shooting in U.S. history shocked the nation, school safety and gun control issues remain high priorities in communities across America.

The horrific incident at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., left six adults and 20 innocent children dead.

As a response, President Barack Obama asked Vice President Joe Biden to oversee a force of White House officials, tasked with creating policy proposals for curbing violence and tightening gun laws.

The plan revealed this week centered largely on training teachers and others who work with children, teens and young adults to recognize mental illness as it’s developing.

The National Rifle Association has responded with ideas to curb violence by arming school employees with guns.

Locally, the Vance County School system and Vance County Sheriff’s Office have been working to ensure safety precautions and procedures are securely in place at all schools.

In the immediate days following the shootings in Newtown, Vance County Schools Superintendent Ronald Gregory asked that no lockdown drills be performed due to sensitivity issues.

“Sandy Hook occurred on Friday,” Gregory said. “On Monday, there was a drill and I sent an email due to sensitivity.”

Vance County Sheriff Peter White responded similarly in the days following the shootings, instructing a deputy to hold off on entering the school for a lockdown drill.

“I did instruct one of my deputies the day or so after, we wouldn’t do any,” White said. “It’s just too much stress on everybody.

“You don’t do that like the next day, or the day after. People need a few days healing time, and then we go back to business as usual.”

While students and staff enjoyed Christmas break, strategies to heighten safety at schools in the county were being evaluated by Gregory and members of the Vance County administration.

“One of the things I told them to do was that we needed to make sure all doors except for the main entrance were locked,” Gregory said. “People could come in from any direction, and not be seen, so if all doors are locked then you have to come in the front entrance.”

Surveillance cameras located at the entranceway of schools help monitor traffic coming in and out, but not all schools are provided that security measure.

“Not all have cameras at the front entrance,” Gregory said. “We’re going to explore that possibility.

“I’ve got a gentleman coming to take a look at what it would cost.”

Being aware of who is entering the school has been the focus of principals in the county, and a safety precaution they’re reinforcing to students and staff.

“All the outside doors are locked now,” said Laura Rigsbee, principal at Aycock Elementary. “They used to be unlocked and people went in and out.

“Our custodian is constantly walking around the building, making sure those doors are locked.”

Rigsbee says because of her school’s close proximity to the Aycock Recreation Center, she and the staff at her school have always been overly cautious, constantly monitoring the hallways and classrooms. She believes students at Aycock feel safe.

“We had the counselor go around and talk to all the kids when it happened, but the kids haven’t asked me any questions,” Rigsbee said. “I think they feel safe here.”

Crystal Richardson, principal at Clarke Elementary School, and Anne Garrison, principal at Zeb Vance Elementary, both mentioned the use of Ident-A-Kid Child ID Program, as an advantageous tool for monitoring children and school visitors.

“We’ve always had a program in place called Ident-A-Kid,” Garrison said.  “A company comes to the schools once a year and takes pictures of them, and gives the parents an Ident-A-Kid card. It has their picture, fingerprints, so if they ever become missing they have a record of the child.”

Ident-A-Kid also provides a computer program that prints bright yellow visitor stickers for guests of the school.

“We are always aware,” Garrison said. “If we see somebody walking, we make sure they have that visitor pass.

“If we don’t see that bright yellow sticker, it’s our responsibility to identify them.”

At Clarke Elementary, Richardson also uses the visitor pass as a guide to monitor traffic. Locked side doors help direct parents and guests to the front entrance.

“What we’re doing here right now, we are making sure all our side doors are locked,” Richardson said. “In the past they would open the door and let a parent in if they knew them, but now everybody has to come through the office, using Ident-A-Kid to take a picture.”

While lockdown drills were put off in the days directly following the shootings in Newtown, they are scheduled to resume in February.

Upon resumption, a sheriff’s deputy will be visiting schools to monitor the drills.

“We are required by the county to have regular lockdown drills,” said Michael Putney, principal at Dabney Elementary School. “In cooperation with the sheriff’s department they go through these steps with us, and tell us what we need to improve on.”

Steps to intensify and enhance lockdown procedures are also being taken by school administration.

“We do try to make sure we go over the procedures with staff, and do walk through situations,” said Dean Thomas, principal at E.M. Rollins Elementary School. “Educating children, doing practices in talking with them about the procedures in case we do have to secure the building.”

Keeping parents involved in safety procedures is another method being used to create a danger-free atmosphere in the schools.

“Parents want to know we have procedures in place in case an event would require us to lock down the school,” Thomas said. “I talked to parents, students and staff to let them know we wanted to have a practice drill in case something like that happened here, we would be better prepared.”

Gregory was recently presented with an idea for a program where parents physically partake in school safety.

“A parent gave an idea for a program that we’re going to put together called Moms and Pops in the school,” Gregory said. “Parent volunteers commit to working in their schools. They’re trained on things to look for by involving the sheriff’s department and police department.

“They would become another set of eyes and ears for the principal. We’re planning to put that together in upcoming weeks.”

Efforts to ensure the safety of America’s future are being made locally and nationally. No parent or family member should ever be forced to face a situation as horrific as the one that occurred on Dec. 14.

“Schools safety is our number one priority,” White said. “We’ve tightened up on our patrol in and around the schools and we’ll continue that from now on.

“We need to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent this.”

Contact the writer at amauser@hendersondispatch.com.