January 31, 2013The Guilford County Board of Education on Monday, Jan 28 began a school board level review of the security of Guilford County's 124 schools following the Dec. 14, 2012 mass killing that left 26 students and staff members dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The review began with the first meeting of the school board's School Security Task Force, which includes school board Chairman Alan Duncan and school board members Nancy Routh, Darlene Garrett, Carlvena Foster and Amos Quick. Foster and Quick were not present for the first meeting.
The school board has committees that serve little, if any, function, because their work, when it can be called that, doesn't reach the school board. The School Security Task Force feels different, having an air of purposefulness. Its stated purpose is to gather information to bring to the school board so that the board can do a soup-to-nuts review of things that affect security and could help prevent a Newtown-type tragedy.
Duncan said the task force will start by gathering information about physical security at each school, emergency plans, mental health assessments of students, counseling and law enforcement needs so that the school board can perform a "reasonable, careful, contemplative study" of what it takes to keep Guilford County students safe.
Duncan said, "A good amount of information is going to have to be provided to allow us to do the work we have to do."
The school board first considered security in the wake of the Newtown shootings at a low-key Dec. 18, 2012 meeting at which Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr briefed the school board on steps Guilford County Schools has taken to beef up security at schools.
Carr said that the administration of Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green contacted all 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.
The Dec. 18 meeting seemed designed mostly to reassure parents of Guilford County students. The School Security Task Force, will be a larger effort to help alleviate a problem present in most school systems: that most schools were designed for a more innocent age.
Some county schools, including Northern and the new Eastern Guilford high schools – built to replace the school's old building that was destroyed by arson in 2006 – were designed with security in mind. As long as all the exit doors are closed, visitors can enter only through the front doors and must walk past the administrative office to access the rest of the school.
Other schools, including older, sprawling high schools, allow access through many doors.
Although newer schools are built with security more in mind, they are also built to meet modern fire codes – which, ironically, require more exit doors, decreasing security.
"The fire code side at this point is completely inconsistent," Duncan said. "At many schools, the door count is very high. There's a logical reason for it, but the point is that it creates many points of ingress and egress."
All Guilford County high schools and middle schools have police officers or sheriff's deputies, called school resource officers (SROs) assigned to the school. A debate is raging nationally over whether or not schools need armed guards.
Sandy Hook Elementary did not have an SRO, although one responded from a nearby middle school after the shootings. Columbine High School in Colorado, where two students killed 12 students and one teacher in 1999, had an SRO, but, according to news reports, he was off campus when the shootings started..
Guilford County Schools has 28 high schools, 15 of which are regular high schools and 13 of which are smaller academies, 22 middle schools and 68 elementary schools. With elementary schools outnumbering high schools and middle schools combined, adding SROs at all elementary schools would greatly increase the cost of the SRO program.
Some local officials have opposed the SRO program, including Quick and Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis, who have proposed replacing sworn officers as SROs with security guards at a lower cost.
Both Greensboro and Guilford County use security guards rather than law enforcement officers in their own buildings.
Duncan said the school board would consider adding more SROs to Guilford County Schools.
"There are going to be limitations," he said. "I think we all recognize that there are going to be limitations on what we can do."
The Guilford County Schools Facilities Department has a $75 million priority list for school upgrades that would be funded primarily by $71.5 million that had been proposed to be spent building a high school in western Guilford County. The school board recently voted not to build the high school. Security cameras are one of the items on the list.
Routh mentioned the cameras and other technological fixes.
"There are repairs needed on some of the lighting on some of the schools," she said. "So we already have some basic things we know have to be done that are maybe on a maintenance list somewhere."
Routh cited the Eastern fire as the greatest school emergency during her tenure on the school board. She said that Eastern's emergency plan worked very well, because all students were evacuated without injury, but that parents and others trying to get to students clogged nearby streets and prevented some emergency vehicles from arriving quickly.
Routh said that, in future emergencies, police or sheriff's deputies should set up larger controlled perimeters.
Carr, who has researched school emergency responses, said similar traffic jams happened at Columbine and the sites of other school shootings.
"The traffic tends to get snarled up as well, and that happened at Newtown, and tends to happen at other places where they have these mass shootings," said Carr, who called the traffic jams a very human response. "When people are scared, and this has happened quite a few times, they tend to literally leave their car and start running."
In recent years, Guilford County Schools, like Greensboro and High Point, has been coordinating emergency management plans for such crises with Guilford County, a process Carr said would intensify.
Task force members said the school board will also review its resources and methods for identifying students with mental health problems who could prove threats
Duncan said, "I think all of us have been feeling that the trend has been that there has been less and less support for mental health."
Duncan said that the school board's security review will take, in addition to the task force meetings, more than a few school board meetings. He said that most of the school board meetings will be public, but some dealing with specific security measures will be closed.