In the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday that left 21 people dead, including 19 children, local school officials say they will review their policies while also touting the robustness of their current safety protocols.
“We remain vigilant when it comes to safety,” Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said. “We’ll continue to do everything we possibly can to try to keep our schools as safe as they can be, and not turn them into mini penal colonies with razor wire and metal detectors everywhere.”
While many school districts across the country “had gone numb to safety during the pandemic,” he said, “we stepped it up at that time because it was our opinion that people that were under as much pressure as they were during pandemic created an even greater sense of necessity for ensuring that we were safe.”
Locking doors and emergency alert systems
For example, staff began checking to see whether exterior doors were locked, reporting back on at least a weekly basis, he said. The number of doors found to be locked “pushed the high 90 percents.”
The gunman in Texas is believed to have entered through a door that was left propped open by a teacher, Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said during a news conference Friday.
In Hall County, even the front doors are locked, said Andy Betancourt, head of safety and security for Hall County Schools. Each school has what he called “access control,” a high-tech doorbell with a camera and intercom.
He added that many Hall schools now have emergency alert systems. With the push of a button, a teacher can send out an alert to the school resource officer, administrators and law enforcement. Principals are equipped with walkie talkies that have the same function.
In Gainesville, schools have a lobby area with a second door that must be unlocked by staff, what Chief Operations Officer Adrian Niles called “security vestibules.”
“You can’t come into our school and just directly go to a classroom,” he said. “You come into a secure area and then you’re buzzed in.”
Emergency preparedness and lockdowns
Schools in Hall County and Gainesville have emergency preparedness plans, which are flexible and differ from school to school.
Officials from both school districts withheld some of the details of these plans, citing safety concerns. For instance, Hall County officials declined to provide lockdown training videos to The Times.
Hall County Schools has three lockdown levels: interior, exterior and full lockdown. In an active shooter situation, a school would enter full lockdown. Teachers would ensure that classroom doors are locked (doors are required to be locked at all times), turn off the lights, and everyone would gather away from the door and remain silent.
“The full lockdown is making every room appear empty,” said Eric Radich, purchasing and risk manager for Hall County Schools.
An interior lockdown might be implemented if a student is injured or there is an angry parent in the school. Everyone stays in their classrooms, and no one is allowed to enter. If a crime has occurred in the area, the school might impose an exterior lockdown. It’s business as usual inside the school, but no one is allowed to go outside.
Gainesville schools use both hard and soft lockdowns, Niles said, though he declined to provide details, again citing safety concerns.
Students in both districts participate in emergency drills each month, which include lockdown drills, though officials did not recall how often.
Teachers also receive training from school resources officers.
Police and security on campus
Hall County Schools partners with the Sheriff’s Office, stationing an armed deputy at each middle and high school campus. Elementary schools do not have school resource officers. When asked whether that might change, Schofield said, “We’re not going to make any knee-jerk reactions.”
“It's something we've considered from time to time and quite honestly, the couple of million dollars, we don't believe at this point has been an expenditure that makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Additionally, the district contracts nine security guards at its high schools whose main duties are monitoring cars that come and go and surveilling the campus. The school board recently bumped their base pay from $10 to $15 an hour. They are not armed.
Gainesville City Schools has a deputy from the city police department at each one of its schools, Niles said, and they are hiring two more.
Betancourt, the head of security in Hall, said SROs are trained at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, though he did not provide specifics.
Cpt. Jason Smith of the Sheriff’s Office, who oversees the SRO program, could not be reached for comment, nor could the GPSTC.
Hall County Schools has ramped up mental health efforts in recent years, using a three-tier model for addressing mental health concerns or behavioral issues. In the first tier, each student is paired with what the district calls a “trusted adult.” Students in the second tier may receive more one-on-one with a counselor or in group sessions. Students who may be suicidal or engaged in self-harm fall into the third tier, and they are paired with outside agencies.
The school district will receive $1 million over the next five years, which it has used to hire what Tamara Eterrling, director of student services, called student interventionists, workers who are trained to help students in the tier-three category.
The district also piloted mental health screenings in four of its schools this year, with plans to add seven more next school year. Elementary students are screened by teachers. At the higher grade levels, students fill out a questionnaire.
“We've doubled down on mental health training,” Schofield said. “Helping Teachers deal with boys and girls that are dysregulated and having those challenges. We continue to try to create the culture of when you see something, say something.”
These efforts are aimed less at identifying students who may become violent. Those behaviors are usually more apparent, Etterling said, and educators are expected to act on any concerns.
In Gainesville, Niles said, “I believe that one of the greatest things that we've done is that we've got a very capable and willing staff that's available and open to students. … That's one of the greatest things that we've accomplished and that we continue to build on.”
At least a couple of Hall County lawmakers say the shooting has raised or renewed issues that need to be explored, including school safety, mental health and law enforcement response.
Legislators “can look at increased funding for safety and security for public education,” said state Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “I would like to see more funding into the diagnosis and treatment of mental health.”
In general, raising the legal age to buy a gun to 21 “would put another filter in place, but the people who want to get guns can buy guns illegally no matter what their age,” Hawkins said. “And if they have intention to harm, it’s pretty hard to stop them.”
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, said he has been approached by a school board member who told him in the wake of the Texas tragedy that “we’ve got to do something.”
“I agree, but we’ve got to look at getting all the facts of what happened before we make decisions,” he said.
Dunahoo supports “constitutional carry,” or the right to carry a gun without a permit, having introduced a bill in the legislature this session.
“Everywhere I go, you want me there if bad breaks out,” Dunahoo said.
U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Athens, couldn’t be reached for comment.
On his Facebook page this week after the Texas shooting, the 9th District representative called the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ searchable database including 1 billion firearm records an “illegal gun registry” that “is a direct assault on Americans’ Second Amendment rights and must be dismantled immediately.”
Mike Ford, his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 election, said, “I’m very saddened about (the tragedy). This whole school shooting thing … is becoming crazy. I don’t know that there’s much that can be done in the way of legislation to prevent these things from happening.”
However, he believes the background check system needs to be fixed.
“When there’s a denial, the FBI doesn’t not check on it,” Ford said, adding he believes the FBI should follow up or “clean up the records if there’s a records mistake.”