Hall County and Gainesville school leaders worked Thursday, Feb. 15, to address the concerns of students and parents after 17 people were fatally shot Wednesday, Feb. 14, at a Florida high school in the nation’s deadliest school attack in five years.
“It’s on everybody’s mind as they go back to work and back to school today,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. “My wife and I sent our youngest back to school today, and I’d be less than genuine if I said that it wasn’t on my mind.”
Wednesday’s shooting was the nation’s deadliest school assault since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.
It was also the 17th incident of gunfire at an American school this year.
“Nothing can prepare a community for this kind of senseless loss. This tragedy serves as a reminder that it can happen anywhere, and therefore we must never become complacent,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said in part of a written statement. “There is nothing more important that the protection of our children, and we will continue to make every effort to prevent this brand of evil from ever visiting our community.”
Of the 17 incidents, one involved a suicide, two involved active shooters who killed students, two involved people killed in arguments and three involved people who were shot but survived. Nine involved no injuries at all.
Hall County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Joe Carter, who oversees the school resource officer program, said the department evaluates its safety plans on a constant basis.
“We are vigilant. We have children in the school system, also. We’re keenly aware of the issues going on in America and are constantly doing everything we can to be as prepared as we can to make sure that we maintain a safe learning environment for our kids in Hall County,” Carter said.
Schofield said that in nearly 20 years as a superintendent across multiple school districts that when tragedies like the one on Valentine’s Day occur that people have questions.
That’s why he emailed faculty and parents Thursday expressing sympathy for the victims of the shooting in Florida and to inform them about safety measures in local county schools.
“We will continue to utilize resources for security cameras, locked entry doors, safety training and equipment, additional counseling resources and school resource officers,” he wrote. “Additionally, we continue to always strive to know exactly who has access to our buildings, and why they are there. At times we are criticized for taking this so seriously: It will continue.”
In an interview with The Times, Schofield said he heard from several teachers Thursday acknowledging that classroom conversations about the shooting in Florida were taking place on a deep and meaningful level.
“For a lot of parents and students, the first question is, ‘Why?’” he added. “What in the world is going on in this world that we live in and is my school safe? Could that happen here?”
Schofield said that Hall County applies significant financial resources to providing safety at local schools, from security cameras and active-shooter trainings to identification cards, drug dogs and random searches.
“We’re going to do everything within our power to minimize the chance of that ever happening in our schools,” he added.
There will be 13 armed school resource officers with the addition of Cherokee Bluff High School, with one stationed at every county middle and high school. All officers at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office get active-shooter training annually.
“We do a weeklong block of training with all of our SROs during the summer, and a lot of that’s geared toward particular issues. Some of it is general firearms, but a lot of it’s geared toward the active-shooter situation and other problems that might be unique to a school environment,” Carter said, which include children with mental health issues and the development of a child’s brain.
Having an officer there every day leads to better relationships with the students, where they would feel comfortable sharing information with the officers, Carter said.
In 2013, the National Association of School Resource Officers awarded Hall County with the Safe School Leadership Award.
“Nothing else matters if we’re not doing everything we can to keep our kids safe,” Schofield said. “We take safety as seriously as we should. That being said, we can always get better.”
A particular area for improvement is communication among students and faculty about perceived threats, which is why the county school district operates an anonymous tip line.
“Almost always somebody knew something and wasn’t talking,” Schofield said.
There is one thing Schofield said he has been hesitant to install: metal detectors at school entrances.
“That just feels so prison-like,” he added. “My hope and prayer would be that we never have to get there. But who knows? Maybe someday …”
Meanwhile, Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams said City Council recently approved the hire of a fifth school resource officer. These officers have access to rifles and other resources stored in safes at Gainesville middle and high schools in the event of a shooting.
Additionally, Williams said the school has a “great partnership with the Gainesville Police Department and the city.”
And in the aftermath of Wednesday’s deadly shooting, Williams said, “As a district, we are discussing and reviewing our safety plans, as we do annually.”
Schofield said the mass shooting and deaths of students at Columbine High School in suburban Denver in April 1999 had changed the landscape and made everyone realize that this kind of violence can occur anywhere.
“The world certainly changed with Columbine,” he added. “I would compare it in the school world with 9/11. It was not what you would expect, and it was massive and it was shocking.”
Reporter Nick Watson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.