School safety remains on the forefront of many parents’ concerns in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and yesterday’s shooting in Atlanta. Mount Airy City Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Little said parents with children in the city system can draw comfort from increased and improved security on local campuses that began before either shooting incident.
“School security has really been cropping up lately in many talks I’ve given in the area,” said Little. “This (school safety) is a partnership between Mount Airy City Schools, the Mount Airy Police and Fire departments and Mount Airy city government. We’ve been proactive about additional campus safety. The student resource officer (SRO) at Mount Airy Middle School was hired prior to the slayings in Newtown.”
Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson said an important weapon in law enforcement’s arsenal against these incidents is acting and not reacting. He explained that a large part of the programs of SROs seeks to empower youth with knowledge of options to make positive decisions. He said this makes them more productive in their environment and enables them to succeed.
Little said the range of subjects in programs such as The Leader in Me and Positive Behavior Support includes bullying, abuse of prescription and illegal drugs and social media. He said he feels the foundation of school safety is creating a healthy climate where students feel they belong and that they can succeed.
“We are expanding our Pathways program from the middle school to the high school,” said Watson. “They are at a pivotal portion of their lives and Pathways is our local version of the national Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. Our program is unique and focused on what our youth are having to confront. We give them the tools to better cope and succeed.”
Watson said the usual paradigm for law enforcement has shifted to prevention by heading off problems.
“Traditional law enforcement has been reactive,” said Watson. “We need to look ahead and put things in place to mitigate inherent dangers every day. School safety is one area where this is especially true. It has to be a forward-looking process. Reacting will never let you get ahead. You’re always trying to stay above water with that approach.”
Little said the district and department have made random lockdown drills more intense in the wake of recent school tragedies. He said the weekend following Sandy Hook, he and Watson met and quickly agreed in increasing police presence during various times in local schools. He said this also should add a level of comfort for parents and teachers.
“Parents can see the efforts we are making,” said Little. “Teachers and students can also see we’re trying to create the safest environment possible.”
Watson’s and Little’s approach also draws on the cooperation of Mount Airy Fire Chief Zane Poindexter and his department with the increased and intensified lockdown drills.
“We want to make sure actions during a drill are automatic,” said Watson. “We have to be sure the staff and students know what to do and we meet afterwards to have a total safety audit on each campus to evaluate what we did right and where we need to improve.”
Little said one of the most powerful things about the process is the teams sharing their insights after the drills and deciding on the next steps to make things more safe. He said funding requests sent to city commissioners for various projects to improve safety have come from these assessments. He said Watson’s and Poindexter’s teams have been a valuable and different “set of eyes” seeing problems and solutions from different perspectives.
“It is important these drills be performed until it is habit,” said Watson. “It (responses) needs to be to the point there’s no thought process. It’s instinctive. That’s when everyone’s response is effective.”
Watson and Little both agreed officials also must balance safety with cooperation. He said diversity is also a good safeguard because other participants will “pull” the effort back off of a tangent and keep the effort focused. He said all the parties involved are stakeholders who want to see students prosper.
“Schools are designed to welcome the community and as far as I am concerned that is not negotiable,” said Little. “That’s not going to change. This is the heart of the Mount Airy City Schools. We take safety very seriously in the Mount Airy City Schools and the safety of our staff and students is priority number one, and I want parents to know how hard we’re working with experts to do so.” He said the schools had done well in recent safety audits.
“We have to protect our youth, our investment in the future and take safeguards. If they feel safe, more attention can be shifted back to the classroom,” added Watson. “That’s why it’s important to work together. I want to reaffirm my department and the school system are working together and this is no short-term effort. We will continue to work together and will continue to assess, evaluate and re-implement improvements for safety.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.