Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 15, 2012

Local officials reviewing school safety procedures

KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — Area school administrators and law enforcement are reviewing safety procedures in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Friday.

Rick Ball, assistant superintendent of Mercer County Schools, said these incidents are often hard for parents to talk about especially with younger children.

“First and foremost, our hearts go out to these families; a tragedy like this is unfathomable,” Ball said. “When you have something like this, you think of the families and children and how heinous it is. This is a tough issue and a tough situation for parents to deal with. We encourage parents to reassure their children during this time.”

Ball said there are security measures in place in every county school.

“We always do a review of security procedures at the beginning of each new year,” Ball said. “Most principals review those throughout the year with their staff to fine tune any issues. All of our schools have one main door we use as an entrance throughout the day, and we keep all of the other doors locked. During this time, we are being introspective and analyzing ways to keep our schools secure. All of our schools have security cameras and all of our classrooms have lockout capabilities. All classrooms have a call out buzzer or phones to contact the front office.”

Greg Prudich, president of the Mercer County Board of Education, said school officials do not reveal many details of their security plans to the public to protect children.

“Every school has lockdown procedures and emergency plans in case of these situations, but we don’t reveal many of those details because we don’t want potential assailants to know those plans,” Prudich said. “For the most part, our schools are the safest place for our children. Administrators discuss these safety plans on a frequent basis and make sure to go over their plans with their staff to keep the plans current and ensure all teachers know the plan. All visitors to our schools are required to report the office immediately and receive a visitor’s pass. School officials know to ask all guests what their business in the school is.”

Prudich said officials cooperate with local law enforcement on safety measures.

“We interact with law enforcement to develop our plans,” he said. “When PikeView Middle was build, we led the sheriff on a tour of the school to get safety advice. Law enforcement have blueprints of all the schools in Mercer County to know about entrances, exits and rooms. All schools have windows and doors and if someone is determined enough, there is a way they could get in unless we start building castle walls around our schools.”

McDowell County School Superintendent Nelson Spencer said communication is essential to school security.

“We have a lot of teachers who have undergone crisis prevention intervention training for these type of scenarios,” Spencer said. “We ask people to communicate to us if an incident like this could occur and communicate it immediately so we can prevent it. Schools are traditionally the safest places for children, and I know these incidents are shocking and make parents apprehensive.”

Spencer said the the McDowell County school system has recently consulted with professionals for upgraded security measures.

“We have an officer who works directly with law enforcement about these issues,” he said. “Over Thanksgiving we had a mock shooting scenario where law enforcement came into the schools and ran through different issues. We have law enforcement in both our high schools. We had a safety audit completed this summer on all our schools, and we are in the process of developing school safety teams at each school to help implement these security measures. Already, we have card access for people to enter the buildings. After school starts, only school staff and teachers can gain access to the building through the card readers. A teacher at one school can only use her card to open the door at her school.”

Major Harold Heatley, chief deputy of the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement undergoes tactical training on how to respond to school shootings.

“I have trained with most of the tactical teams in this area, and we train for situations like a school shooting or a bomb detonation,” Heatley said. “One of the things we’ve done in light of these events is to ask all of our deputies to drive by our schools and look to see if anything is out of place.  You try to prepare as best you can, but how can you prepare for something like this? Nothing prepares an officer to see the body of a small child. We cry as much as anyone. I can’t imagine how the parents, officers and school staff must feel, what they are going through.”

Healtey said the public should take all threats made to school seriously.

“If anyone has information about an incident like this or threats, they need to report them to law enforcement,” he said. “Take threats seriously. If there is a suspicious package or a suspicious person hanging out around our schools, contact law enforcement with as much information as you can so we can respond to this and do what we have to do.”

Christine Kinser, an assistant superintendent with Tazewell County Schools, said all safety plans in place at county schools are annually updated and approved by the school board.

“Each school is unique in the size and shape of the building, how many floors and things like that so each plan must be different,” she said. “This is something we pray never happens. We try to remain alert and vigilant about these incidents. Each school talks with their local law enforcement about these situations. Law enforcement sometimes use our buildings to run through these scenarios. We work very closely with our law enforcement and emergency response officials.”

Kinser said parents should emphasize safety to children in light of the incident.

“I think children need to know they are safe with their teacher and safe in our schools,” Kinser said. “Parents need to reinforce that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. We certainly send our condolences and pray for them at this time.”

Marsha Mead, licensed professional counselor, also said parents should talk with their students about the shooting.

“Parents can talk to their children about the odds of (a similar school shooting) happening here,” Mead said. “It almost certainly won’t happen here.”

Senior Editor Bill Archer contributed to this report