Dylan LightfootStaff Writerdlightfoot@heartlandpublications.com
December 21, 2012
A special meeting of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners (BOC), the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) and the Ashe County Board of Education (BOE) was held this morning to dicuss security practices at Ashe County schools.
Board of Commissioners Chair Larry Rhodes said the purpose of the meeting was to review existing school security measures, and look at what might be done make improvements.
“The tragic situation they had in Connecticut obviously has heightened awareness of our school safety,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes said that, while the BOC called the meeting, any development of school security programs is for ACSO and BOE to jointly decide.
“We are not here in any way telling the Sheriff’s Department or the school board how they need to be running their department,” he said, emphasizing the BOC’s partnership role in the process.
Briefing the meeting on the ACSO’s actions since Sandy Hook, Sheriff James Williams said the incident had “probably affected this country more than anything since 911.”
In addition to School Resource Officers (SRO’s) already on full-time duty at Ashe County Middle School and Ashe County High School, Williams said he had placed patrols at the elementary schools every morning “for the foreseeable future.”
Deputies on duty around the county have been ordered to step up their presence at schools in general. “If they pass an elementary school, they are to travel through the lot, observe what’s going on in and around the schools and, if time permits…walk in the schools,” he said.
The ACSO has also been focusing more on the mental health issues they confront in the community a daily basis, said Williams.
“Some of them are young people…with violent tendencies…so we are more mindful of who we are dealing with,” he said. “We try to think about who might have access to weapons.”
Commissioner Judy Poe said Ashe County has an average 16 involuntary commitments per month — roughly one every two days.
Williams said his department wants students, parents and school faculty to feel safe. “We want them know that we care, and that we’re looking out for them,” he said.
“I want to assure the public the Sheriff’s Office has trained for…active shooters in schools,” he said.
But, said Williams, “these things occur in a matter of seconds.”
The day of the shootings, the ACSO Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) was training at Ashe County High School, he said.
Security upgrades, such as posting SRO’s at elementary schools or installing security cameras, will have to be determined, Williams said.
Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill said she and Williams had discussed planning some “active shooter” training exercises for the coming year. “We’d probably like to involve the schools as much as possible,” she said.
Classes in multi-hazard emergency planning are also available to school system faculty and staff through Emergency Management, Gambill said.
Ashe County School Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves said he feels the county’s schools are safe, but had convened a meeting Tuesday with school principals the ACSO and to discuss any security concerns.
Reeves said for several years all county schools have practiced lock-down drills, as well as fire, tornado and earthquake drills. Lock-down drills are done at the beginning of each school year, and follow guidelines set by the N.C. Attorney General’s office following the 1999 shootings at Columbine.
Prior to Sandy Hook, the BOE had already planned review of the school system’s crisis plan, and new security cameras have been operating in the elementary schools, with monitoring stations in the principals’ offices, he said.
After winter break, Reeves said, a policy of locking all interior doors during the school day will be adopted throughout the school system.
At the elementary schools, all exterior doors and all but one front entrance door are already locked under current practice. Exterior doors are harder to secure at the high school, as some students attend community college classes off campus, Reeves said.
“We’re also looking at some keyless entry systems,” he said. Intercom systems and additional security cameras will also be considered.
“Come budget time we may need additional resources,” Reeves said.
Several speakers took the floor during public comment. Posting of additional SRO’s, and certifying of school faculty in the carrying and use of firearms were proposed more than once.
Victoria Roark said “teachers are definitely well underpaid for what they do” without having to also train as security officers.