Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 15, 2013

Tazewell law, school officials explore options for safer schools

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

TAZEWELL, Va. — Police and school administrators are exploring new ways to make Tazewell County schools safer.

School Superintendent Dr. Brenda Lawson said law enforcement officials are working with the school system to keep the county’s schools safe.

“We have been working with the sheriff’s department since the incident in Connecticut, and we are pleased with the results,” Lawson said. “The state police, Sheriff Brian Hieatt and his department have been wonderful. They have a visible presence in our schools, and we appreciate that.”

Major Harold Heatley with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office said deputies have been increasing their physical presence at local schools.

“We have already started getting out and checking all of our schools regularly,” Heatley said. “Obviously, we try to get as many deputies as we can at all our schools be they in towns or in the county. We have been doing unannounced visits to check the security of the school, check with the principals and just to pull our vehicles onto the school grounds and sit there. We have done some physical security assessments of the schools and given them advice.”

Heatley said deputies have also gone to the schools in plain clothes to check in with administrators.

“We have deputies going to the various schools regularly,” Heatley said. “Last week, when there was the incident in California within nine minutes we sent plain clothes detectives — so as not to alarm anyone — at the sheriff’s direction to meet with all of the principals to make sure they were aware there had been another school shooting and to make sure they didn’t have any problems.”

 Heatley said Sheriff Brian Hieatt is also spending the week in Richmond as part of the meeting of the Governor’s School Safety Task Force, which was created by Gov. Bob McDonnell to analyze and improve school safety and security procedures across the Commonwealth.

“He is there with the governor as part of the Governor’s School Safety Task Force,” Heatley said. “He was sworn in a 1 p.m. and went through a bunch of briefings. His first actual committee meeting will be Friday. They will also have legislative briefings he will be going to today, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”

Lawson said the school board has also been discussing other possible security improvements to area schools at the local level.

“I have been talking to the board and we have been assessing each school,” Lawson said. “We have secure access entrances and teachers doors that automatically lock, but that is something we continue to do. We are looking at getting steel doors with limited glass in them. These things are expensive, but the cost is minuscule compared to the safety of our students. There are things we will be talking about as the year goes on. We will do anything we can to make our school facilities safer.”

Frequently practicing safety drills with students and teachers is another measure Lawson said local schools are taking.

“It is important to practice our crisis management drills and emergency drills,” she said. “We want school staff to be very familiar with our drills. I have had a lot of discussions with parents about this. We can’t make promises something won’t happen, but I can assure our parents we will do everything possible.”

On the state level, Lawson said Virginia’s General Assembly will be considering a bill requiring school resource officers in all public schools during the legislative session.

“There is also a bill in our General Assembly requiring resource officers for all schools,” she said. “I am going to propose to our board — if they are interested — in making a separate category for school safety in our budget and apply for assistance to fund resource officers.”

Heatley said the sheriff’s office would be willing to provide more resource officers at local schools.

“What we’ve done is provided four options for the members of the school board and members of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors,” he said. “Those range from a school resource officer at every school to volunteers and virtually everything in between. Our position is that we stand ready to help in any way our governing body directs us. If the board of supervisors wants an armed school resource officer in every school, we are willing to do that. We have even talked about the cost of training and preparing if Virginia law were to change allowing armed administrators and teachers. ”

Heatley said funding would be the biggest obstacle to providing additional resource officers.

“We have provided them with a list of cost for salaries and equipment,” he said. “We have done the same thing with volunteers and obviously there has been talk about arming administrators and teacher. We don’t control the money for all these things to happen. No matter what option is chosen, there is going to be a cost incurred. Those costs must be covered by the board of supervisors, the school board or the state. We are here and will do whatever we can to make our schools safe for our students.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com