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Hall County returns to school; safety remains 'top priority'
West Hall Middle School Resource Officer Tom Wilson talks with a group of students during a class change Wednesday. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

Wednesday marked the first day back in school for Hall County students after news of the Connecticut school shooting that claimed the lives of 26 students and school staff spread throughout the nation and world.

Since the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., student safety has remained at the forefront of the discussions for both school and law enforcement officials. Hall County is no different.

On Tuesday, Hall County School Superintendent Will Schofield sent an email throughout the school district, assuring the recipients of the “ever-present priority” the system puts on student safety.

Schofield, in his message, highlighted components of the emergency and security preparedness plan, including close and constant coordination with local law enforcement, “continually updated school-level safety plans,” and school resource officers at every middle and high school.

On top of what is already in the books, the newly elected sheriff, Gerald Couch, plans to meet with school officials to review, and potentially update, those plans. The date for that has not been set.

“We have tentative plans to sit down with members of the school board and representatives from the school services unit and everybody collaborate and see if there’s anything that needs to be modified, talk about things we’ve done right, talk about anything we might be able to learn from Newtown or any other incident along those lines,” said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, spokesman for the Hall County  Sheriff’s Office.  

But schools are already talking about safety procedures. In fact, officials said, it’s a conversation that takes place daily.

“It’s not just reaction to what happened in that horrible, horrible incident in Connecticut,” said Gordon Higgins, spokesman for Hall County Schools. “It’s just something you need to do periodically.”

A major part of that plan is having a constant police presence in the halls.

Since 1999, the sheriff’s office has placed school resource officers at each high and middle school. Through the program, trained deputies are assigned to each area school, becoming permanent fixtures on the campuses.

Those officers and school officials, on top of required yearly reviews of security measures, have “ongoing conversations” about campus safety.

“There is a formal time when we review our plans each year in the school system and then routinely talk about it,” said Karla Swafford, principal at West Hall Middle School.

“We pay attention to safety and security. It’s been a top priority of ours long before anything ever happened in Connecticut.”

Schofield did say there would be an “increased patrol presence” at all of the schools as students returned Wednesday, something Wilbanks said is “not uncommon at all” for the beginning of school.

But some groups are calling for changes in school security, however drastic. One week after the shooting in Newtown, the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights lobbying group, called for armed guards at each of the nation’s schools.

School resource officers carry weapons, but school officials said their position in the schools is not intended to be reactive to outside threats, although they are trained to handle them.

Their main purpose is to maintain a presence in the schools, manage large crowds of teenagers, keep the peace within the walls of the school and provide an additional resource for students and teachers.

“We’re a resource,” said Sgt. Earl Roach, a longtime school resource officer for Hall County. “We help (schools) do anything that needs to be done besides the presence of the police officer. That presence is what keeps things safe.”

The school system has no immediate plans to place full-time officers at elementary schools, but said those officers are assigned elementary schools to field incidents on a case-by-case basis.

“Nothing has happened in the environment of elementary schools that says we’re even close to having a conversation that that presence is needed for the same reasons we put them in middle and high schools,” Higgins said. “We didn’t put them in middle and high schools thinking a Columbine-like incident would occur.”

School and law enforcement officials said knee-jerk reactions to events like the one in Newtown can sometimes be ill-advised.

“Our safety plan is not a knee-jerk reaction,” Wilbanks said. “Hall County Schools and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office have been working at this for several years now and, if anything, we’ll simply renew our procedures.”

And, school officials said, regardless of what outside events occur, lockdown drills and safety precautions will always be maintained.

“There are 843 (sets of) parents that trust me every day with those kids that walk through this door,” said Swafford. “If Newtown had never happened, their safety and security would be on my mind today. Had Columbine never happened, their safety and security would still be on my mind. That’s a huge responsibility.”

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