A new security feature, an extra set of doors and a check-in window, are under construction at Johns Creek Elementary School in Suwanee. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Back to School: Security upgrades lessen fears in metro Atlanta

With three mass shootings taking place in week’s time, the term ‘soft targets’ again shed light on vulnerabilities of the nation’s shopping centers, office buildings and schools.

As back-to-school time gets into full swing in metro Atlanta on Monday, parents, administrators and law enforcement officials continue to scrutinize procedures to make sure students are safe.

And while student safety is a concern for all, many say increased investment in school safety in recent years has lessened fears.

Kwame Gordon’s son Kai, attends Wynbrooke Elementary in DeKalb. He had just left the playgroundwhen a teen shot several kids with a pellet gun in May.

“It could have been a tragedy if it had been a real gun,” said Gordon. “But the school took this seriously. And I think they are doing the best they can. I went to school in New York with metal detectors and things still happened. You have to have faith in the system.”

Faith in the system among educators and parents intensified when Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation last year that provided more than $69.4 million to enhance existing security measures and start new programs at schools across the state — about $30,000 a piece to public schools, charter schools, state schools and Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support facilities.

Related story: Kemp unveils school safety plan

“The allocation is being utilized by each facility for what they see as their specific need,” said Georgia Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who chaired one of the committees. “I do anticipate additional budget requests because securing our schools and ensuring the safety of our students, educators and other staff will remain a top priority.

“I will work closely with the Governor to ensure that as technology advances and as types of threats evolve, additional funding will be made available.”

With certified law enforcement officers in schools who’ve been trained for various levels of security, the schools may look soft on the outside, but there are “layers of tactical force beneath the surface,” .said Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds.

“I understand why the term ‘soft target’ is used,” he said, “But in this day and age it really is a misnomer for most schools.”

Related story: Troubled Georgia teens wanted to kill, but someone spoke up

Although the main focus is to educate students, security is a high priority said Shannon Flounnory, director of safety and security for Fulton County Schools.

“Nobody wants students to feel like they’re in a police state, so we use methods and technology that aren’t invasive or obvious,” he said. “Fulton County Schools has the most state-certified police officers of any school district in the state. But they connect with kids and school staff on a personal level. But when it’s time for their police training, there are none better prepared.”

Poll: Students feel safe

Despite active shooter events of the last few years, students in Georgia’s public schools feel pretty safe in class, with about 70% of high and middle school students saying their schools have adequate security, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Education.

A gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday in a popular entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people, including his sister, and wounding dozens of others before he was quickly slain by police, city officials said.

The Ohio shooting came hours after a young man opened fire in a crowded El Paso, Texas, shopping area, leaving 20 dead and more than two dozen injured. Just days before, on July 28, a 19-year-old shot and killed three people, including two children, at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Northern California.

Many school districts made improvements to existing technology and added security personnel. Others bought new systems. Gwinnett County Public Schools did both.

“New safety concerns, situations and best practices pop up and change so rapidly, the moment you stop or pause efforts to improve safety and security measures, you fall behind,” said spokesman Bernard Watson.

The school district’s police bought a new Motorola radio console they say will improve communication between officers, and the school system increased training for crisis intervention.

Forsyth County convened a safety task force in spring 2018 that made recommendations, including the installation of security vestibules — secured spaces with two or more sets of doors and an office sign-in area that are not unlocked until a visitor has been identified and authorized.

The Forsyth task force also recommended hiring additional police officers and specialized staff for social-emotional learning, as well as increasing partnerships with the sheriff’s department for active shooter drills and sharing costs of school police.

More tech, police in schools

Debra Murdock, former principal of Cherokee High School and a Georgia High School Principal of the Year, will lead a new social and emotional learning initiative for the Cherokee County School District. In the position, she will focus on “developing new ways to better support students’ and employees’ emotional and mental health and well-being.”

Related story: End of school year brings heightened safety issues

Fayette County Public Schools also added vestibules to all five of its middle schools as well as three high schools and three elementary schools.

The district used its safety grant funds to pay for the initial installation of the visitor management system and licensing software.

Fayette’s transportation department launched the new Safe Stop App, which shows the location of school buses real-time, allowing parents to know exactly when their children are picked up and dropped off.

The school system has also implemented a pilot program with detection dogs provided by a private company. The dogs are trained to detect illegal drugs, alcohol and firearms. Unannounced visits will be made at middle and high schools.

The Marietta City School District spent more than $68,000 for a visitor control system at Marietta Middle School, and more than $268,000 to upgrade the public address systems at every school. Those systems already have been installed at A. L. Burruss Elementary School and Marietta High School.

And all of Marietta’s elementary schools will now have school police officers thanks in part to the 2017 COPS Hiring Grant, which will provide a portion of their pay during the 2019-20 school year and can be renewed for the 2020-21 school year.

Related story: Armed teachers become a reality in some Georgia schools

But national safety experts warn that there are no one-size-fits-all tactics for school safety.

“We can make something as complex as human behavior seem as simple as a few key words,” said Michael Dorn, executive director of Save Havens International, a Georgia-based campus safety organization. “There are so many variables — the weapon, the time of day, the tactics used.”

His company helps schools all over the world develop safety plans and helps analyze active shooter events. As a former Bibb County police chief and a state anti-terrorism planner and lead program manager for the Georgia Office of Homeland Security Terrorism Division, he’s researched thousands of active shooter events and acts of terrorism.

“With the news cycle now 24/7, people hear about these things more frequently, but with modern technology, police and school staff training and a better informed public, schools are much safer than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” said Dorn. “Back then we didn’t want to acknowledge that it could happen anytime or anyplace. That awareness alone has made schools that much more secure.”

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