TRENTON, Ga. — The central office sits across the street from a cow pasture, but by August Dade County Schools could be one of the most high-tech and protected districts around. Surveillance cameras coming to the high school are so powerful they can make out the letters on a license plate in the parking lot. They're motion-activated, can zoom and rotate.
A $60,000 radio system already in place instantly connects dispatchers to principals, bus drivers and maintenance workers.
The sheriff's office will be able to monitor both in real time, enabling faster response times and making the need for a 911 call in an emergency almost obsolete. These systems together will have cost the school system nearly $400,000.
This isn't a violent school district but parents and school leaders worry -- like all have after a gunman left 20 children and six adults dead at a Connecticut elementary school.
And while the rest of the country searches for safety solutions and considers everything from more resource officers to arming teachers, Dade County finds itself at the forefront of the issue. School leaders were thinking seriously and proactively about beefing up security long before the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook.
The rural nature of the county has in some ways made security upgrades easy work. Equipment can be purchased quickly and plans can be laid with little red tape. Relationships were built early and remain strong.
The fire department, police, SWAT team and emergency management are all working with the school system, staging drills and reviewing plans. The schools have given law enforcement schematics and video inside every building so responders know the halls and classrooms long before an emergency. Experts say this kind of cooperation is imperative if schools are to remain safe.
But much of Dade County's work was launched by the superintendent, a former member of the U.S. Special Forces, who is translating his personal interest in security and safety into practice at Dade County's four schools.
Superintendent Shawn Tobin started studying school safety during his first year as an assistant principal in 1998. Working in metro Altanta, he was thinking more about gangs and student-on-student violence. It was before Columbine and before measures like intruder drills became commonplace.
Since then he's pored over government reports on school shootings, researched overseas terrorist attacks on schools and visited with community members in Columbine, Colo.
But the superintendent's sensibilities about safety date back even further, to his time in the U.S. Army Special Forces. His peacetime service took him to Alaska, Korea and Honduras, where he helpedtrain local troops.
"In the military, you know you're always a target," he said. "And you think about safety constantly."
Now in Dade County, Tobin and all four principals check in with a military-inspired radio check. On the radio, Tobin uses lingo like "copy" and "check."
He's worked to tear down barriers between schools and local law enforcement. They're all at the table when considering various scenarios: natural disasters, disease epidemics, chemical spills and an active school shooter. Dade's drills and plans far exceed what's legally required of school systems.
"Our number one concern is the safety of our schoolchildren," Sheriff Ray Cross said. "We've thought about everything you can imagine happening in the county."
With school resource officer sat the middle and high schools, the sheriff's office would likely be the first line of defense in many emergencies. That's why this kind of cooperation is more crucial than ever.
"School system expertise only goes so far," said Gary McGiboney, associate superintendent at the Georgia Department of Education and an expert on school safety. "You have to depend on the expertise of the first responders. That's their experience. That's their training. Schools have to reach out to them to learn from their expertise. There has to be cooperation there."
While some larger districts have made big gains in protecting schools, it's often easier for smaller systems to make quick changes, said McGiboney, who was formerly head of security for metro Atlanta-area DeKalb County Schools.
Take Hamilton County Schools, for example. Fewer than one-third have video surveillance systems. Only 19 schools have digital radio systems, which are used like walkie-talkies to communicate on each school campus. Some other buildings have even older analog systems.
In Dade, by contrast, "simply because they have less schools makes it less complicated and easier to do," McGiboney said.
Paying for safety
In the past, school surveillance cameras had been used mostly to investigate vandalism or catch kids breaking the rules. But Dade County's new, sophisticated equipment will be installed with the worst-case scenario in mind: an armed madman, a student with a gun or even a terrorist.
Tobin knows these cameras alone won't prevent an attack.
"But at least if an intruder were to come in you'd be able to locate him or her or a group of them," Tobin said.
The total $400,000 cost of the video and radio technology is about the annual cost of hiring seven or eight teachers -- a steep bill for such a small school system. But the equipment is funded through a local 1-cent sales tax, which can only pay for capital purchases and not salaries. Tobin noted that some 60 percent of that sales tax is collected from residents of other counties.
And officials here believe it's a worthy investment.
"I think it's a good thing to spend our money on," said school board Chairwoman Carolyn Bradford. "It lets the kids know and it lets the parents know we're trying to be safer."
The radios -- purchased after school leaders were disconnected in the wake of the 2011 tornados -- carry signals across the county and are the same model used by the sheriff's office. That allows schools to instantly talk to law enforcement. A bright orange button triggers a silent alarm. Law enforcement can then respond by locating a radio's position with GPS technology.
The new cameras will be similar to those used at the Dade County Courthouse. Schools here already have some cameras, though they aren't as advanced. In the case of an emergency, dispatchers can patch into the system surveying the danger before entering a building.
Other school systems have implemented similar systems and more are considering it after Sandy Hook. But it's by no means the norm.
"That's not rare," McGiboney said, "but it's not common either."
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 ...