By Kim Walter
Emotions were high as over 100 parents and community members packed the Signal Knob Middle School auditorium Tuesday night for the first of three county school safety forums.
Superintendent B. Keith Rowland and Sheriff Timothy C. Carter presented current safety policies as well as proposals for safety improvements for all schools in the county. Some members of the county Board of Supervisors were in attendance, as well as two School Board members.
The forums were planned following two incidents at Shenandoah County schools that took place after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.
Rowland told those in attendance that "Tonight, I want to talk about what we, as a community, can do to improve the safety in our schools."
He recognized that school safety is on everyone's mind, but outlined why improving safety "isn't as simple as it seems."
Since 1990, 52 school shootings have taken place, with 30 of them originating from students or persons inside the buildings.
"Unfortunately, it isn't as simple as locking the front door," Rowland said.
Since the incidents in December, Carter has managed to get school resource officers at each school in the county, even though only six are funded in the current budget. The officer presence is temporary, Carter said.
"I need to make this clear, that SROs do eat lunch, they go to court, they use the restroom ... they have other things to take care of during the day, and it isn't as easy as calling someone up, asking them to be an SRO, and then having them at school the next day," he said.
Rowland mentioned that during the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, a school resource officer was on school property, but was in his car taking his lunch break when the shooting started.
"I absolutely think we need the presence there, to let people know we're being active and we do care, but what I need to explain is that it doesn't mean that officer will be there from the first bell to the last bell of the day," Carter said.
He later noted that he would make the commitment to go to the Board of Supervisors to see what extra funding or resources he could find to keep the school resource officer number at 10 instead of six.
During Rowland's presentation, he mentioned some short- and long-term ideas to improve safety. One way to protect students from outsiders is to redesign most of the schools' front entrances so that a visitor would have to be checked and then buzzed in by someone in the main office before being able to enter a school. He noted, however, that if parents wanted that they would need to be ready to deal with possible longer waiting times and other consequences of the change.
Rowland also brought up metal detectors, and said that if those were installed, there would need to be someone to man the device in case something was detected.
The installation of panic buttons in each of the main offices was one option that Rowland said would be inexpensive and effective.
"That would cut out the time it takes to pick up a phone and dial 911, because I can guarantee that an intruder is not going to give you the time to do that," he said.
Since some of the schools in the county are several decades old, Rowland suggested replacing the exterior door locks, and use a card-key system instead. He also said that putting surveillance cameras in each school was doable, but again, it would require someone to monitor the footage.
As far as a crisis management plan, Rowland told the audience that the county has won an award for its plan because of how detailed it is. However, he did propose that the number of intruder drills be increased from two a year to four.
Mental health was touched on by both Rowland and Carter. Both said that it seems to be an underlying issue when any type of school shooting occurs.
"I don't know if it's because people don't like to talk about it or what, but I encourage all of you to read up on it and do some research," Carter said. "I don't believe that if a parent feels something is wrong with their child, that they should be ostracized and not get the services or help they need, because then there's suddenly a crisis that law enforcement has to deal with that could've possibly been avoided."
Rowland agreed, reminding attendees that like many other things in the state, mental health has been "subjected to cuts and reductions." He encouraged people to contact delegates and let them know how important the issue is.
Transportation is also an issue to Rowland, and he said he'd like to look into installing GPS devices on all county school buses, as well as upgrading the radio transmission system.
In total, immediate changes would cost roughly $500,000, and long-term safety fixes could require more than $1 million.
"Every year I do a budget presentation and I ask for funding for your child's education and safety. I stand there by myself, and after I finish talking there are people pounding their fists saying 'Don't raise my taxes under any circumstance,'" Rowland said. "But if this is important to you, you need to stand up with me and say you want our schools to be safe. I can't do it by myself."
He added, "I have a child that goes to these schools, and I drop her off every morning just like you do."
His voice raised in volume as he continued. "Do I want her safe? Absolutely."
Audience members were given the chance to voice their thoughts on the presentations. Some parents thanked Rowland and Carter for what they had done thus far, while others accused officials of not doing enough.
Several parents asked what could be done immediately, and Rowland said that since changes would require funding that is not currently available, "it will be a process."
"Personally, I am willing to pony up a few extra dollars for taxes if it means our schools will be safer," Rowland said. Several parents in audience nodded their heads along with his statement.
Shouting between parents with differing opinions took place, during which many got up and left the forum.
Parent Gail Tefft said, "I understand people get emotional when their kids are involved, but we have to think rationally.
"Realistically, though, I don't think the county will support a huge tax increase for architectural changes at schools when the risk factor of something major happening is so low," she said.
Andrew O'Neil, a Toms Brook resident and parent of a student, said he worked in security and had ideas that Rowland didn't present. O'Neill offered his knowledge and experience, to which Rowland said he "would be a fool not to accept."
Parents were given the chance to sign up for alerts concerning a more defined school safety improvement plan, along with costs and a timeline. Rowland said he would make sure that everyone would know in advance when the first public hearing would take place concerning the school budget. He also welcomes commentary on new ideas and how parents prioritize certain changes.
"I was here with you at Sandy Hook on Monday morning ... I was worried," Rowland said. "We're in this together, and right now, I think you're all willing to be part of the solution."
The next school safety forum will take place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 15 at North Fork Middle School.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org