DOBSON — “The security in Surry County Schools is good.”
That is the assessment that Sheriff Graham Atkinson gave to the SCS Board of Education at Monday’s monthly meeting.
Over the last weeks of 2015, the sheriff and his department ran security drills at 18 of the 19 schools in the system — not including the Surry Early College, which is part of the Surry Community College campus.
“We have finished conducting lockdown drills,” said Atkinson. “Over time they have become progressively more intense. The schools have responded outstandingly.”
A few years back, Atkinson worked out a plan to help local schools be prepared in case of a dangerous person on school grounds.
“I’m not only the sheriff, I’m a parent. I have nieces and nephews in Surry County schools.”
The first time the sheriff ran the drills, the principals were alerted to what day the drills would occur so the staff and faculty could be prepared.
Once the employees got into the habit of following protocol, then the sheriff stopped announcing what day and started surprising the school.
In a crisis situation, it is hard to think, so people need practice so that the steps become automatic, Atkinson believes.
Like athletes in the big game, “people are going to react the way they’re trained,” he said.
Atkinson has spoken to several other sheriffs across the state and said that he doesn’t know of another one that has such a great working relationship with a school system concerning safety.
The latest step up for the drills was planning out 18 different scenarios that could happen so that each school faced a slightly different threat.
Atkinson told the school board that his main concern was to walk a fine line. “We want it to be enough to provoke an appropriate reaction without terrorizing the students.”
Atkinson said he used people he knows such as a close friend and a retired deputy. The volunteers, varying from young to old, men and women, would skulk around the school. Maybe the person was just hanging around the parking lot or was trying to enter a side door and avoid the front entrance.
At one school, the person tried to lie to get into the school. When the staff refused entry, the person dropped a backpack at the door and ran away as if it might contain a bomb. In another case, the sheriff enlisted the aid of a student at the school to bring in an unknown package.
“Every single drill that we did I was totally impressed with,” the sheriff told the board.
The sheriff’s department knows the schools’ safety protocols, but the school employees still were able to do their job and keep the campuses safe, he said. So the real bad guys, who don’t know all the training, are really going to struggle.
People are the best security, Atkinson said. Technology is fine, but schools can’t rely too heavily on it. For the last scenario, the camera system happened to be down that day, which turned out to be a good wrinkle because that could happen in a real crisis, too.
Dr. Travis Reeves, SCS superintendent, said that the principals even made suggestions of things to push the schools harder, like times of the day that might be more chaotic and more vulnerable.
High schools are harder to protect because many kids drive themselves to and from school, and some have classes off their main campus.
Reeves said North Surry, for instance, has wings and there are 14 doors where a keyless entry system would help make sure only students are passing through.
Still, the sheriff believes vigilance is the key to preventing a tragedy in this community.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.