Back-to-school safety demands a mix of technology, training and staff
This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.
At North Carolina’s recent back-to-school safety summit, state Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) talked about trying to balance “gadgets and gizmos” with the personal skills that help staff and students feel safe at school. Vendors lined the hall at the Gastonia Convention Center with devices to fortify schools against armed attack: walk-through weapons scanners, lockdown systems, panic alarms and even body-armor backpacks.
While the threat of a shooting always looms, everyone who works with school safety spends most of their time on the kind of things that don’t grab headlines:
- Controlling traffic as cars, buses and pedestrians converge on schools.
- Dealing with students’ emotions and conflicts that can lead to fights and bullying.
- Being ready for the range of medical emergencies that crop up even when violence isn’t involved.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for instance, is buying 175 more defibrillators that can restart a stopped heart. “Last year we had a student at a basketball game between two of our schools that collapsed on the floor and his life was saved because we had AEDs on hand at the school,” said Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz.
The Union County Sheriff’s Office has hired four more school resource officers and a captain to oversee the newly-designated School Safety Division. The school system is two years into a three-year plan to station an officer at each school, relying on the sheriff’s office and officers from Monroe, Waxhaw and Stallings. This year only four schools are left sharing officers, says Lt. James Maye, the sheriff’s office public information officer.
Officers who work in schools “are a mentor, they are a counselor, they’re just whatever they need to be that day,” Maye said. “We hope and pray that the day never comes where that school resource officer has to protect that school from an active threat, but we’re constantly preparing and training for if the moment does come.”
Area districts continue to invest in technology and training to try to avert disaster. Gaston County Schools is fortifying the vestibules at a half-dozen elementary schools, adding walls and doorways that can keep someone from getting further. Iredell-Statesville Schools is rolling out a Rave panic alarm app to help school staff alert law enforcement and other first responders of emergencies.
Safety investments can be risky and rewarding
CMS spent $1 million on panic alarms about four years ago — and months later officials said they got burned by a system that didn’t work consistently. That’s the challenge for all districts: So many products are marketed with big promises, and officials have to judge which will deliver.
The panic alarms, as well as a previous superintendent’s decision to order $442,000 worth of clear book bags that were never distributed, would have to be chalked up as failures. But Schultz says CMS has gotten a good payoff from two recent decisions: Installing walk-through weapon scanners and participating in the Say Something network for collecting anonymous tips.
Both were launched in the midst of the 2021-22 school year, which saw district and state records shattered when CMS found 29 guns on campuses. Last year, with all middle, high and K-8 schools using the scanners, there were seven — and Schultz says only three were on campus during school hours.
This year CMS will continue to use the scanners and Say Something. It’s also putting more security cameras in elementary schools and providing each classroom with a kit that includes first-aid supplies and devices to keep an attacker out of the room.
And Schultz said he’s keeping an eye on a new development that’s generating some buzz: “Some of the camera systems on the perimeter of buildings actually identify a drawn weapon. And while we don’t have that right now, that certainly has piqued my interest.”
As for panic alarms, Schultz says CMS is still trying to decide whether it’s worth the effort to try again with a better product. For now, he says, the district is focused on making sure its intercoms and walkie-talkies work well and all staff are trained to use emergency communications systems.