December 20, 2012The Guilford County Board of Education met in a somber mood on Tuesday, Dec. 18 in the wake of a mass killing that left 26 students and staff members dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr briefed the school board on steps Guilford County Schools has taken to beef up security at its 124 schools.
Carr said that the administration of Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green contacted all of its school administrators after the Connecticut shootings, asking them to check their security, to report any breaches or suspicious activity to the North Eugene Street headquarters, and to focus on "relationships of trust" – knowing who belongs in a school and who doesn't, and having everyone in a school report any unrecognized people on school grounds.
Carr said research shows such personal identification is more effective than metal detectors or other knee-jerk reactions often made by school systems after shootings.
Guilford County public schools are required to hold two lockdown drills a year. Carr said that schools that haven't held one recently have been asked to do so before the Christmas break. She also said the school system is reviewing its violence risk assessment protocols – training social workers and counselors to spot students who show signs of being a threat.
Guilford County Schools has posted on its website a list of suggestions from the National Association of School Psychologists it says will help parents and school employees talk to students about the tragedy. Carr said that, in the aftermath of the shooting, some discussions with children may have been counterproductive. She said, "We're sort of creating more fears in children."
The suggestions include adults remaining calm. "Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives," the list states. "Avoid appearing anxious or frightened."
The suggestions also include reassuring children that they are safe, reminding them that trustworthy people are in charge, telling children the truth but not dwelling on the scope of the tragedy or its emotional impact, and varying discussions about the shootings to make them appropriate to the age of the child.
Carr said that the Police and Sheriff's departments have increased patrols around Guilford County Schools, particularly elementary schools. Police officers and Guilford County sheriff's deputies, called school resource officers, are permanently stationed at middle schools and high schools in Guilford County.
School board member Amos Quick said he was contacted Tuesday by a staff member at an elementary school, who said that the lockdown drills were causing a little bit of chaos in schools. Quick said, "It frightened the kids very much, in that they thought something actual was happening."
Quick said he knew the drills need to be taken seriously.
"Agreed," Carr said. "It's always a balancing act."
Carr said that most Guilford County Schools had already held lockdown drills and didn't need to hold new ones after the shootings. She said the school system has an emergency management team and has plans for different types of emergencies.
"Will any one thing prevent that type of situation?" she said. "I think that's probably beyond the ken of this discussion."
The problem with heightened states of security, whether at schools, airports or government buildings, is that it is impossible to maintain a state of alert indefinitely.
Quick questioned the sustainability of the school system's heightened security. He said, "As tends to happen in America, by New Year's Day, we'll be talking about something else."
Quick said the school system may have to spend some money to make schools more secure.
"The answer to the safety of our students can't be, 'We don't have the money,'" he said. "This is not just a money grab. This is something important."
The school board also approved a plan to assign autistic and other special-needs students who now attend McIver Education Center to two new facilities for the 2013-2014 school year.
Special-needs students in kindergarten through eighth grade will enroll in a new building on the joint campus of Falkener Elementary School and Hairston Middle School, and students in ninth grade through age 22 will enroll in a new wing at Ragsdale High School.
Guilford County Schools planned three new autism wings as part of its $457 million construction program, funded by bonds approved by voters in May 2008.
In 2009, after advice from the Guilford County Schools Exceptional Children Department, the school board decided that two larger facilities would serve special-needs students better than three smaller ones.
Most of the school board's discussion of the staff assignment plan for the new special-needs facilities concerned transportation. Several school board members questioned the busing times for the plan.
Guilford County Schools Transportation Director Jeff Harris said he had analyzed the transportation times and concluded that, although some students will have longer rides, overall, special-needs students will spend less time on buses under the plan the school board adopted.
New school board member Linda Welborn suggested sending school buses on interstate highways to save time. The state allows school systems to do so, but Guilford County Schools doesn't. She said, "I'm thinking we could get on the expressway if we weren't in peak hours."
Harris replied, "I'd prefer not to."
School buses are speed-capped at 45 miles an hour.
Harris said that slow-moving buses on highways create a hazard.