School safety under scrutiny

By Stina Sieg | Dec 19, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Tuscola is one of handful of schools in Haywood County that has a law enforcement officer on campus daily. The majority of the district's 16 schools have no constant police protection. This issue and others are being raised in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary slayings.

As people around here continue to process their disbelief over the mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school last week, they also happen to be full of suggestions. They are brimming with ideas — some legal, some not — for how to keep local schools safer, and Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte has heard them all.

Maybe all teachers should be required to carry guns, some say. Maybe all schools should have buzz-in systems, say others.

Policies, however, are not about shift at Haywood County Schools. The district's protocols are "very extensive," Nolte explained, that's not the kind of thing that changes on a whim.

"What we've been telling people is that if we make changes to a system that is really pretty good — not perfect, but really pretty good — we want to make a thoughtful, sound change, rather than a quick, emotional change," he said.

Specifically, each school in the district has a safety and crisis management plan which is reviewed every year by law enforcement and created anew every few years with the help of the community. All schools have communication protocol and lockdown drills every semester, in addition to what are called  "crisis" boxes — literally boxes, hidden around the schools and filled with crisis-management tools, from maps to check-out sheets to phone trees. Through Alert Now, automatic calling system, the district can also connect with virtually all parents at once, giving them critical information.

A few years ago, the school system even held an "active shooter drill" to help teachers, administrators and employees learn how to navigate such a stressful situation. And the list of safety procedures and protocol goes on.

All this planning and infrastructure does have a noticeable gap, however, and it's brought up to Nolte frequently. Between the district's 16 schools, there are only five security school resource officers. Tuscola, Pisgah and Central Haywood high schools and Waynesville Middle each have one, while Bethel and Canton middle schools share an officer. Pisgah and Tuscola do have guard shacks that are manned semi-frequently, but Nolte stressed they are not staffed by law enforcement and would not "be a deterrent to someone with a weapon."

He would be happy to have an officer at each and every school, but his question is simple and blunt: Where's the money to do it?

"To put additional people where we don't have them, we probably need 10 more, and that's a lot of long-term money that we don't see in our public education funds," he said. "So that's something people in the community would have to commit to providing."

And it has to be the community, because state money has been hemorrhaging for years now. Nolte's not talking about some wealthy benefactor funding officers for six months or a year. He's taking about local funds filling this void in perpetuity, not just while the issue happens to be red hot.

As for other popular demands by locals, Nolte tries to be balanced in his response, explaining why things are as they are. As for the idea of all teachers being armed, that would fly the face of state law. The demand for buzzers is understandable, Nolte believes, but probably only practical for elementary schools, not middle or high schools, where teachers and students are moving about throughout the day.

Nolte also stressed that even at an elementary school, such a system is no guarantee of safety.

"They had a buzz-in system at Sandy Hook, but it did them no good at all," he said. "The guy shot his way in."

And that gets to the heart of the sad, scary matter. For all the planning, procedures and safety systems in place, it's impossible to ever have complete control over tragedies of this magnitude.

As Nolte was watching the news last week, he was doing so both as an educator and a parent. All schools everywhere are vulnerable, he knows, and one school's tragedy is shared by all schools across the nation. There is only so much one can do in the face of someone who is angry, unstable and intent on harm.

"There is no comfort in the fact that it occurred somewhere else," Nolte said, of the recent events, "because we know it could have happened in any school, including ours."