Middle Georgia Schools Examine Security

With five bomb threats during the last two weeks at Peach County schools, and then with the nation's second-deadliest school shooting Monday in Minnesota, area educators and law enforcement officers said Tuesday they are refocusing on school safety.

"We called all the principals and reminded them to be alert of anyone in their buildings," said C.B. Mathis, director of facilities and safety at Peach County schools. "You don't ever know."

Crawford County officials also said Tuesday they were implementing new school safety measures in the wake of the Minnesota shootings, which claimed 10 lives.

Pete Golden, Georgia Emergency Management Agency school safety coordinator for most Middle Georgia schools, said all schools in the state are required to have safety plans approved by GEMA detailing how they would respond to different scenarios, ranging from natural disasters to intruders on campus.

Most schools, including Peach, Bibb and Houston, do a good job with those plans, he said. But in many instances, school systems could do better, especially when it comes to training teachers and testing their system's plans, he said.

"Most schools do the planning part, but it gets weaker when it comes to training staff or doing exercises," he said.

The majority of schools never do any drills, he said.

"We have a code red for intruders or school shooters," Mathis said of a signal alerting teachers and the principal to call and alert everyone over the intercom of the incident occurring. Peach schools test the drill twice a semester, Mathis said.

In a code red, teachers would lock their classroom doors and move students away from windows and doors to the back of the classroom while help arrived, he said of their plan. The school system actually practices this scenario with all students. Also, officials often run the drills with the Fort Valley Police Department and sheriff's office after school so officers can learn the layout of the school and everyone can work together practicing a plan in case of a real situation.

"We hope (the real thing) never happens," he said. "But if you don't have some sort of scenario drill, you won't know how to react."

Mike Van Wyck, assistant superintendent for student support services for Bibb schools, said the system's schools also have practiced lockdowns during the last week to see what would happen in the event of an emergency. Bibb officials also use code yellow and code red drills, worst-case scenarios, at the schools.

"I think you prepare every day - focus on safety every day," Van Wyck said. "(The Minnesota school shooting) helps us focus more on being prepared and gets our safety plan back to the forefront."

Van Wyck said that while officials practice their plans with staff, their next step is to coordinate with school police, city police and other law enforcement to practice all scenarios, he said.

"That will have to be the next step - a large, full-scale drill," he said.

Houston County School Resource Officer Sgt. Porter Wood said each Houston school has its own safety plan and it's up to that school to test it.

Every classroom has a safety plan flip chart on how to respond to every possible scenario, and school officials work with city and county law enforcement on drills to be prepared.

"We can't afford to have an attitude of it could never happen here," Houston schools spokeswoman Beth Burris said Tuesday. "We have to be prepared to go into action in a moment's notice."

Crawford County Sheriff Kerry Dunaway said in a news release Tuesday that he met with Superintendent Iwanda Dickey to discuss the Minnesota shootings, and they decided to immediately implement school safety measures.

Dunaway said he had no indication of any impending local trouble, and he declined to reveal details about the school safety measures. But he added, "We can say that students and teachers will notice a more visible presence of sheriff's deputies in the schools."

GEMA officials said if school systems rehearsed their school safety plans regularly with staff and even students, it could help them identify potential problems, like intercom systems that may not work in some areas of the schools, or training substitutes and new teachers in the plans and allowing public safety officials to visit schools and learn the school layouts.

"Some schools put their safety plans on a shelf somewhere and some can't find it," Golden said. "It's a life-saving device and needs to be treated as such."