Law enforcement officials from across the state met Monday at the Dawson County Board of Education offices to discuss school safety with the House School Security Study Committee. (left to right) Pickens County Sheriff Donnie Craig, Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby, Gordon County Sheriff Mitch Ralston and Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson. Arlinda Smith Broady/AJC

House school safety committee has first meeting

If nothing else, the first meeting of the House Study Committee on School Security showed how important the issue has become since the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida. The state had passed over 40 laws regarding safety and discipline in Georgia’s 2,299 public schools. But it was the death of 17 students and staff at the hands of an alleged mentally ill gunman that put a new intensity on it.

The committee of nine members of the state House of Representatives called on educators and law enforcement officials to give their perspective at the Dawson County Board of Education offices on Monday.

Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent of policy and external affairs for the Georgia Department of Education, gave an extensive presentation bringing everyone up to speed on what the state had done so far.

“I can’t stress enough how important school climate is to this issue,” he said. “Georgia is one of first states to put school climate in a state statute. Others are calling us to find out how we do it.”

To gauge that, the state conducts an annual climate survey of students, and nearly all students participate.

“The numbers were pretty good with most students knowing who to tell if there’s a problem and most feeling safe at school,” said McGiboney. “But we’d like to see all the numbers in the 90s.”

Keeping students safe and feeling safe requires an effective use of resources, he added. The definition of effective is where much of the debate lies.

A panel of law enforcement officials from throughout the state were mainly concerned about manpower.

Gordon County Sheriff Mitch Ralston said it boils down to funding.

“It’s my responsibility that kids come home safe every day,” he said. “But is it fair for me to ask the schools to fund 24 officers — two per school?”

While the school administrators said they believe the responsibility of school safety is primarily theirs, they admitted that they can’t do it on their own.

All applauded the work of the legislature to give them the tools to make schools secure, but most agreed their hands are still somewhat tied. They said state regulations limit what they can do with SPLOST, special-purpose local-option sales tax, funds.

“We’re maxed out when it comes to school board funds,” said Dawson County Schools Superintendent A. Damon Gibbs.

At the end of the day, everyone agreed to share best practices in areas such as staffing, technology and training. And they agreed that it will take money, but also community input.

” I feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders,” said Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby. “It’s going to take a whole lot more to making schools safe.”

The committee hasn’t set a firm date for the next meeting, but Chairman Rick Jasperse expects it will be in July.

“We want to move swiftly on this very important issue,” he said.

The state senate recently put together a similar committee, but hasn’t set its first meeting. As the first committee named by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle after the end of the legislative session, it will most likely meet after the primaries are over, said a spokesman for Cagle’s office.

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