Some schools to have extra officer presence
Long before the first bell rang at schools across the county last week, school officials and law enforcement worked to make this school year even safer than the last.
Despite a severe lack of funding, the Haywood County School Board has worked to make school safety improvements without spending money from enhanced personnel training to added security on campuses.
The massacre at Sandyhook Elementary School in Connecticut last December brought the issue of school safety to the forefront, making school administrators take another look at possible areas of improvement.
"Most of the changes that we have done and are doing are training changes and upgrading the way that we examine our campuses," said Dr. Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of Haywood County Schools. "We've not done anything monetarily profound because the money is just not there."
One of the most significant changes parents will notice this year is added law enforcement security at Bethel and Riverbend elementary schools.
In April, school board officials made a proposal to county commissioners requesting additional funds to improve school safety, including hiring more school resource officers. However, the extra positions would have meant raising property taxes and the proposal was ultimately withdrawn.
In response to the lack of school resource officers, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher came up with his own solution. He requested the use of an empty office at both Bethel and Riverbend elementary schools for law enforcement use as a way to provide additional security at the county’s most outlying schools without spending extra money.
The request was unanimously approved by the school board at its most recent meeting in August.
Superintendent Anne Garrett said the space was currently available at both schools.
“This is a good partnership and we certainly appreciate these opportunities,” she said.
The offices will be available for deputies to use 24/7 for day-to-day administrative work and will not be open to the public unless an appointment is scheduled.
Christopher, Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes and Patrol Capt. Jason Smiley will be holding regular office hours at Bethel Elementary one day each week.
“Someone will be in that office at least three days each week,” Christopher said.
While they won’t be acting as school resource officers, he said deputies will be able to stop by the schools during their regular shifts and talk with students, walk through the buildings and simply have a presence on the campuses.
“It provides a higher level of visibility and security that those schools didn’t have before. This is our way to be able to fill the void of a school resource officer,” Christopher said.
In addition to added physical security, many elementary schools in the county have implemented a buzz-in system for visitors, requiring the person to speak through glass with school personnel before entering the school.
Nolte said the best way to improve school safety without spending money is to provide extra training for school personnel.
A bomb threat at Tuscola High School last October put the school's safety plans to the test when students were evacuated from the school as they were heading to their first class of the day.
"In situations like that you have controlled chaos, and it went pretty well. We sat down with law enforcement after it occurred to talk about what we wanted to change and improve," Nolte said.
Clyde Police Chief Gerard Ball has offered several training seminars for principals, teachers and school personnel discussing what to do if an active shooter came to a school campus.
During the spring, law enforcement went through each school in the county to take a look at school security issues, Nolte said. Principals have been provided with a school safety checklist and have been instructed to conduct a walk-through of the school each semester.
Each school has also updated their safety and crisis plans and have provided law enforcement with a floor plan of each school.
Keeping students safe is of the utmost importance to the school system, Nolte said.
"We understand that we cannot prevent ill minded people from doing bad things. But we are very determined to respond quickly and to mitigate or limit anything that happens and have the best plans we can to address it," he said.