School systems find inexpensive safety alternatives

Officers Tomario Rowe (left) and Robert Lemke, of the Johns Creek Police Department, enjoy a snack in the “Bear Den” at Barnwell Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. They are two of the three police officers who cover Barnwell Elementary as part of their regular on-duty rotation. The idea behind the Bear Den, a room in the school for officers to relax, do paperwork and grab refreshments, is to increase police presence at the school and deter potential threats. CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM
Caption
Officers Tomario Rowe (left) and Robert Lemke, of the Johns Creek Police Department, enjoy a snack in the “Bear Den” at Barnwell Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. They are two of the three police officers who cover Barnwell Elementary as part of their regular on-duty rotation. The idea behind the Bear Den, a room in the school for officers to relax, do paperwork and grab refreshments, is to increase police presence at the school and deter potential threats. CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM

Not all aspects of school safety have to be expensive.

That's the message some local schools are sending out as districts across the state and country focus on that topic. Although technology such as cameras and key-card entry systems, and highly trained personnel such as police officers and counselors require a considerable amount of funding, some practical ideas are free or come at a very modest cost.

The Georgia House and Senate have convened committees to study school safety programs and will recommend the best practices during the 2019 legislative session. They have already allocated $16 million to the state's 181 school districts. But that money can't pay for everything.

A room where police can sip a cup of coffee while they fill out paperwork or make phone calls, or a different way to carry out fire drills can impact school safety without breaking the bank.

Beth Dowd, a parent of a student at Barnwell Elementary, was concerned that her child’s school didn’t have round-the-clock police protection. The Johns Creek school is part of the Fulton County Public School System, which doesn’t designate officers to work exclusively with elementary schools. The officer at Barnwell spends the bulk of her time at Autrey Mill Middle School, about two miles away.

Like many others, Dowd didn’t think about school threats as something that could happen where she lived. Then, like a one-two punch, the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., was followed by another a few months later in Santa Fe, Texas.

“I went to safety meetings. I sent e-mails to (Fulton County school superintendent) Jeff Rose, and I also tried to connect with Gov. (Nathan) Deal’s office,” she said. ” I knew there was a solution somewhere.”

What a lot of experts were touting, however, were expensive products and complicated processes.

“I started looking at what other states were doing,” Dowd said. “I knew there must be something I could do.”

Dowd wracked her brain to come up with a way to get more police presence at her school.

Johns Creek was purchasing new police vehicles, and she asked if an old cruiser could be parked in front of the school.

“At least it will look like police are there,” she said.

That idea didn’t pass. Old police cars were stripped of the decals and security equipment and sold at auction.

Her research pointed to something just as simple: inviting officers into the building to relax or do paperwork.

“We have two Johns Creek officers that direct traffic every morning,” said Dowd. “Once they’re done, they leave for other duties.”

She presented her idea to Principal Martin Neuhaus and the school PTA and received a green light along with $200 to decorate and stock the room for officers, called the “Bear Den.” (The school’s mascot is a bear.)

“This is just a natural way to thank (the officers) and say, ‘come on in and be a part of our school,”” said Neuhaus.

Before school was back in session this fall, Dowd got students to draw pictures, purchased a single-cup coffee maker, a mini ‘fridge and snacks. A poll of Johns Creek and Fulton County Schools officers ensured that favorites would be on hand.

Officer Tomario Rowe who directs traffic is part of the school governance council so he knows a lot of the students and front desk staff. He almost always would pop in after his duty to say hello for a few minutes. He’s been doing that for years. He’s like family at Barnwell. The Bear Den gives him incentive to stay longer.

“We have police here most of the day now,” said Dowd. “I sleep a lot easier.”

According to the FBI’s analysis of 160 active-shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, suicide and gunfire exchanges with law enforcement end 70 percent of them. Logically, having an officer present could cut down the duration of those incidents.

In studying active-shooter events, one thing stood out to Wesley McCall: Often, the gunman pulls a fire alarm to get potential victims to gather in one spot.

“Think about it,” the deputy chief of public safety for Alpharetta told the Senate School Safety Study Committee during its Sept. 18 meeting at Chamblee High School. “Since kindergarten we are taught to line up single-file and exit the building in a quiet and orderly fashion.”

What was meant to keep students and staff safe from fire, now could put them in harm’s way because of an attacker.

McCall pointed out that within the past 20 or 30 years, building codes have eliminated a lot of the highly combustible materials that once would have made a school fire a certain tragedy.

“There are sprinkler systems and firewalls and a lot of safeguards in place,” said the former Alpharetta firefighter. And with so many schools comprising several buildings, a fire in one doesn’t mean that everyone has to evacuate.

Data from the U.S. Fire Administration shows there haven’t been any fatalities from school fires since before 1998, when it began collecting the statistics.

With this in mind, McCall and his colleagues devised a plan they call A-C-T-I-V-E. It stands for Alarm activation, Confine in place, Telephone 911 immediately, Investigate fire alarm, Validate threat and Evacuation.

The city of Alpharetta has shared this program with businesses, private schools and megachurches in the city. The goal is to have every large public gathering in the city using the method.

This is how it works: Once a fire alarm sounds, nobody begins to evacuate for about three minutes. That gives a designated person an opportunity to make sure there is an actual fire and move forward. If it turns out to be something else, there are alternative measures to take such as locking students in class while law enforcement searches for an active shooter.

Forsyth County Schools has implemented a modified version of the plan.

“For fire alarms, we ask that staff/students delay their response. And to check the halls for smoke/fire and wait for further instruction if there is no apparent fire related emergency,” said Forsyth County Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo. “Our school safety department has video coverage throughout all schools, and would be in contact immediately with staff.”


Proposed school safety funding

State

HB 763 created Georgia’s Safe Schools grant program, providing criteria for $16 million in grant funding allocated to school systems across the state.

SR 935 will help shape the future of the grant program, in addition to making legislative recommendations that promote the most effective school safety policies.

Federal

The Federal Commission on School Safety, formed shortly after the shooting earlier this year at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, will focus on best practices for school building security, active-shooter training, and school-based threat assessment.

  • A federal budget for student support is at $1.1 billion.
  • The funding connected to the STOP School Violence Act signed into law by President Trump on March 23 is at $75 million. The law authorized funding for new violence-prevention programs and coordination among law enforcement agencies and school administrators to identify threats and intervene to improve school safety.
  • FEMA has been allocated $249 million in pre-disaster mitigation grants that may be used for safe rooms and warning systems.

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