published Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Hamilton County schools focus on safety, normalcy

Rick Smith, Hamilton County schools superintendent, discusses school safety Monday.
Rick Smith, Hamilton County schools superintendent, discusses school safety Monday.
Photo by Alyson Wright /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Parents pray, fret as students return to school

Before kissing her kindergarten daughter on the head, Brenda Rogers bowed her head Monday morning in the hallway of Fairlyand Elementary.

"Dear God, please watch over our babies today," she prayed.

Rogers had struggled with keeping her daughter at school Friday after hearing of the horrific slaying of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn. And Monday, she looked for any excuse not to take her.

She said teachers and parents didn't mention the shootings or safety Monday morning. But Rogers said the school felt different. She sat in the parking lot a few extra minutes after leaving her daughter. Several dads hung around the front steps.

"We just all knew," Rogers said.

Robin Thompson grew so distressed that she pulled her two teenage children out of Rhea County High School on Friday. She said she'll have them complete high school equivalency programs at home.

"We should not have to live in fear," Thompson said.

She wants to see school security resemble that at airports with more metal detectors and armed officers.

But Tracey Korynas, who has children at East Lake Elementary and East Lake Academy, said she doesn't want to see schools over-react to the Connecticut shooting. She volunteers often at schools and thinks they are safe.

"I feel like if they try to put too many hardships on a school as far as locking up a building or covering up windows, it's actually going to make these children more fearful to be at school," Korynas said.

Local schools welcomed increased police presence, reviewed safety protocol and kept more doors than usual locked on Monday.

While the Hamilton County school system made no broad changes, principals and teachers did take extra steps to ensure school safety and reassure families on the first day of school since Friday's massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Superintendent Rick Smith said schools reviewed their lockdown procedures and strategized whether and how to discuss Friday's mass shooting as police and sheriff's officers upped their presence at several county schools.

The scene was repeated from coast to coast as the nation fell back into the familiar, if newly raw, routine of dropping off children at school.

Smith said the Hamilton County school system worked to make Monday as routine as possible in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in American history, in which 20 students and six adults were gunned down Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Elsewhere across the country, a handful of schools were locked down throughout the day as extra vigilant administrators and police responded to any report of suspicious activity, The Associated Press reported. Some schools held a moment of silence and flew flags at half-staff.

At least three schools were on alert in Ohio after threatening comments were made on Facebook and Twitter. In Ridgefield, Conn., swarms of parents picked up their children and police were at each school after a report of a suspicious person at a nearby train station. In Philadelphia, officers rushed to a high school after security officers mistook a student's umbrella for a gun. And in Tampa, Fla., the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office questioned students after a bullet was found on a school bus, according to the AP.

Smith characterized Chattanooga as a "user-friendly" community in which people can easily walk in the front door of a church, a mall or even a school. But Friday's shooting might be a wake-up call that it's time to re-examine common practices.

"We're going to do our best to make sure that we take care of our kids to the best of our ability and to make sure they're as safe as we can make them on a daily basis," Smith said. "Certainly, I think things like what happened Friday will be a wake-up call to communities across this country."

Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences will allow only one exterior door to be opened, will station a parent volunteer to man a front desk and will keep all classroom doors locked, according to a note sent home to parents. Heritage High School Principal Ronnie Bradford requested that parents stay vigilant, notifying administrators of any irregularities. And a Chattanooga police officer checked in on Red Bank Elementary School on Monday.

Red Bank Principal Haley Brown said teachers are making sure they end their practice of propping open exterior doors during recess time, and staff will continue to train on safety and lockdown procedures. Though some parents called in with safety questions, Brown said the day went smoothly.

"Otherwise it was business as usual," she said. "The kids have been great. We didn't see anything serious."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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