Saturday, April 20, marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic event that’s kept school safety front and center in national and local conversations and gave a notorious definition to the name of a Colorado high school: Columbine.
In Georgia, like the rest of the nation, that school shooting and others since then have kept the unspeakable nightmare of 1999 a vivid part of the national psyche and made heightened security a reality of modern education. There are more police officers in schools, one rural county gives some teachers guns and trains them to use them, and the Legislature has passed a law and allocated money, all in the name of making schools safe.
That nightmare came to Georgia just one month after Columbine, at Heritage High in Rockdale County. T.J. Solomon, a 15-year-old student, walked into the commons area and opened fire with a .22-caliber rifle.
News reports at the time said Solomon was obsessed with Columbine but unlike the Colorado duo who killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 people, Solomon, who witnesses said was a practiced shot, wounded six students but killed no one.
“He wasn’t aiming,” junior Ryan Rosa, one of the victims, told the media. “He was holding it down low … He was not chasing people.”
He then went outside, pulled out a .357 magnum revolver and put the barrel in his mouth. Assistant principal Cecil Brinkley talked the young man into surrendering.
All the victims recovered — at least physically — but none would talk to The AJC for this story.
“I think everyone just wants to move past this,” said a secretary for Solomon’s lawyer, Ed Garland. “Nobody wants to relive that terrible time.”
It wasn’t the Heritage High shooting, though, nor even the one at Columbine, that prompted state legislators to take a closer look at school safety. It was the mass shooting last year in Parkland, Fla., that became the clarion call.
Two legislative school-safety study committees spent much of 2018 meeting around the state gathering what they called “best practices” to put together a comprehensive plan to keep students safe.
The bill that resulted, which requires school systems to develop safety plans and threat assessments, is now waiting on Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.
Senate Bill 15 calls for streamlining communication between schools, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center. It also emphasizes that local law enforcement should be notified when a reasonable suspicion of violent criminal activity exists.
“With open communication between students, staff, our state agencies and law enforcement, incidents can be reported immediately resulting in a timely and comprehensive response,” said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, chairman of the senate school-safety committee. “Our goal is that everyone will know how to respond calmly and appropriately if a threat or incident ever occurs.”
Twenty years ago, the day before the Rockdale County school shooting, the teen reportedly had got into a heated argument with two classmates, vowed to “blow up this classroom” and told a friend he wanted to end his life.
Nowadays, there’s a statewide hotline as well as resources at every school to make that kind of information known to adults.
Mental health awareness is a main theme of today’s school-safety discussions, and the legislation includes money for at least one mental health counselor at every school. A formula for allocating that fund hasn’t been finalized, but schools have been given money toward overall school safety, dispersed last month.
The first school district in the state to allow teachers to carry guns in schools used part of that money to fund its program. Laurens County Schools spent the summer preparing the program that took effect this school year. Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, has said arming teachers “puts too much responsibility on them.” But the school district only takes volunteers for the assignment. “I have the deepest respect for our staff who stepped up to take on this additional duty,” said Laurens County Superintendent Dan Brigman. “We didn’t ask them to do it.”
Other schools have added police officers, high-tech equipment and new protocols.
Almost every metro Atlanta school system has increased the number of school police officers since school shootings became more common.
Fulton County has installed a facial recognition system similar to that used at airports.
APS has a new check-in system for visitors.
Solomon was sentenced to 65 years — 20 to be served behind bars. He was released three years early for good behavior and according to the Rockdale District Attorney’s office, hasn’t violated his parole once. He will be on probation until 2064.
Richard Read was the Rockdale County district attorney at the time.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t recall what happened then,” he said. “But I’m not a fan of reliving anniversary dates. I don’t want some other knucklehead to think he’ll gain notoriety for copying someone else’s crime.”
He added that although Solomon was only 15, he was old enough to know right from wrong. He pushed for Solomon to be tried as an adult.
Read retired a few months after Solomon was released but is now back as the senior assistant district attorney.
In the 20 years since the Heritage High shooting, Rockdale has grown about 50 percent — from about 60,000 then to 90,000 now. Most people who live there now probably don’t know anything about the 1999 shooting, but Read said he hopes the school-safety urgings of law enforcement and school administrators don’t fall on deaf ears.
“Columbine wasn’t the first shooting and Heritage High wasn’t the last,” he said. “It seems that every month there’s another and no matter where you live you have to stay vigilant.”
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