More funding, more training and better coordination among law enforcement, government and local schools are critical to improving safety for public school students across Georgia.
That’s the initial takeaway from the first meeting on Monday, May 14, in Dawsonville of a new study committee on school safety headed by lawmakers from the state House of Representatives.
It’s the first study committee to launch since the close of the 2018 session of the Georgia General Assembly earlier this spring.
“That’s how important this is,” said state Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, the chairman of the committee. “The most important thing we have is public safety. We’re here because of horrid events that happened ... but we’ve been concerned for a long time.”
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle made appointments last week for a similar Senate committee.
In the aftermath of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, the deadliest in America in five years, state legislators moved to budget $16 million for public schools to improve security on campuses.
The funding will be divvied among school districts based on a student enrollment formula.
Hall County Schools will receive about $250,000 in funding from the program, according to Superintendent Will Schofield.
“We certainly are appreciative,” Schofield said. “But it’s not going to change our plan.”
That’s because Hall County is already spending about $300,000 to add silent alarms and other security measures to all its schools.
The district will also add new security monitors at schools, as well as equip resource officers with new stun guns.
Jeremy Williams, superintendent of the Gainesville City School System, said the specific amount of funding his district will receive is unclear but could amount to $80,000 or more.
GCSS is already adding a fifth school resource officer this year.
These officers have access to rifles and other resources stored in safes at Gainesville middle and high schools in the event of a shooting.
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said the school shooting in Florida in February “was one of many things” that prompted lawmakers to approve the funding, giving greater urgency to the demands school districts have to protect students.
Hawkins said he expects lawmakers to address the issue of school safety in the 2019 legislative cycle following recommendations from the study committee.
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, agreed.
“The continued escalation of workplace and school violence is alarming to all law-abiding, God-fearing Americans,” he said.
Giving school systems discretion in how they spend this money to improve student safety is necessary, Hawkins and Miller both said.
“That’s the strongest point I think can be made,” Miller said. “I think that flexibility for the school system and sheriff’s department demonstrates the confidence the state has in (them).”
Meanwhile, the Dawson County School District is anticipating receiving about $50,000 in funding for school safety improvements.
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson, who attended and spoke at the study committee meeting, said that his agency has a good working relationship with local schools, “but we also have some obstacles we need to address.”
These include the need to add school resource officers, as well as securing additional funding from the state going forward.
Johnson said additional training for officers and school personnel during the summer months when students are off would be a positive step forward, as well.
There are 41 laws on the books in Georgia related to public school safety, from prohibitions of guns on campus to anti-bullying measures.
Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent for policy at the Georgia Department of Education, told the study committee that laws are effective in improving safety conditions at schools.
For example, legislation has helped reduce bullying and smoking in public schools, McGiboney said. However, guns on campus, vandalism and computer trespassing are on the rise, he noted.
McGiboney said education officials are focused on bettering the “school climate” to combat security concerns.
This includes everything from behavioral interventions and expanding school-based mental health counseling to comprehensive safety planning and student health awareness training.
“Remember this: School climate is related to school safety,” McGiboney said.
“But there’s so much more to do,” he added.
And it boils down to prevention and intervention.
“School safety is complex, far-reaching and requires multiple agencies and organizations,” McGiboney said. “The human element will always be the most important part of school safety.”