published Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

School districts get together for safety summit

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the School Safety Summit at The Factory in Franklin, Tenn.
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the School Safety Summit at The Factory in Franklin, Tenn.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Law enforcement and first-responders should be actively involved in school safety planning long before a 911 call is ever placed, school security experts said Tuesday.

School district leaders, law enforcement officers and experts on mental health and emergency preparedness gathered at a school safety summit to discuss current safety plans and the need for possible improvements in the wake of last month's Newtown, Conn., school shooting that left 20 students and six adults dead.

More than 120 of the state's 137 school districts were represented here, though officials from Hamilton County Schools were not at the table.

Security experts offered basic tips on securing buildings from an intruder attack, but noted that school safety measures also should take into account natural disasters, disease epidemics and bullying alongside high-profile threats such as an armed intruder.

And police, fire crews and emergency management officials should be proactively involved in assessing school safety issues.

Security consultant Bill Modzeleski said schools need to take a holistic approach to safety. He noted that 98 percent of school-aged homicides occur outside the schoolhouse, so school leaders shouldn't only prepare for targeted attacks like in Connecticut or Virginia Tech. And seemingly small things like bullying and teasing should be considered major safety concerns.

"This can't be only about what happened in Newtown," said Modzeleski, a former associate assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. "This can't only be about placing security guards to make sure nobody comes in the front door. Because if we only protect the front door and not the rear door, if we only protect the front door and we don't change the culture of the school, we're not going to be successful."

If security upgrades are in order, local districts will likely drive those decisions. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the education department will continue to provide guidance in reviewing the safety plans of all school districts. But it's unlikely the state will proscribe any wholesale safety changes.

"I think ultimately this is locally driven," Huffman said. "And I think every local school and every local community has different needs."

The school safety summit gave districts a chance to learn about the safety practices of other Tennessee school systems, Huffman said, as well as sit down with law enforcement to brainstorm best practices.

Since the Newtown shooting, lawmakers here and across the country have pitched new safety measures for schools, including adding more school resource officers and arming school teachers or administrators. On Tuesday, Gov. Haslam reiterated his hesitance to arm teachers, though he said he wouldn't make a decision until he's seen a bill from legislators.

Haslam said the SRO and armed teacher proposals don't mitigate the need for law enforcement agencies to get involved in protecting schools.

"Ultimately, even if we have an armed SRO or an armed administrator, that's one person in one place," Haslam said. "They're not going to be able to protect everything. So still there's going to be a call out to law enforcement to come in. So I think they really have to have a voice in saying what's practical and what really will make a safer environment."

Many principals and district leaders have worked with law enforcement agencies for years, staging drills and reviewing safety plans. And all districts by law must submit comprehensive safety plans to state officials.

"It's not like suddenly we're creating safety plans," said Robert Greene, director of Athens City Schools.

Because his district is geographically small and police can respond within minutes, Greene said Athens has no school resource officers. But the 1,550-student system is now considering making physical changes to better secure entrances.

In the wake of Newtown, he said he came to the safety summit to find new ideas on best practices -- an idea that is still on many parents' minds.

"Parents want to know," he said. "It's just, 'Tell me what you're doing.'"

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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