Protecting thousands of students is no easy task.
Whether installing modern security technology or implementing mental health support, each year Hall County and Gainesville school systems continue to find ways to enhance safety for staff and students.
“We understand that moms, dads, aunts, uncles and foster parents are sending their most valuable resources every day,” Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent, said. “If we can’t do whatever we can to keep them safe, it doesn’t matter how good our programs are. We take safety very seriously.”
Both systems have renovated vestibules in multiple buildings, routing traffic into these entrance areas to limit access to other parts of the schools.
“Someone has to put eyes on you and let you in,” Schofield said. “Obviously doing this at the beginning of the day is impossible, but we have a lot of adults at the front.”
Adrian Niles, chief operating officer at Gainesville City Schools, said all of the district’s schools and facilities now have card reader checkpoints. This gives employees access to their respective schools when locked.
Hall County is also expanding a card access system at school buildings. Schofield said the doors automatically lock and unlock during certain times of the day, and only staff members can enter.
An updated intercom system is in the works in Hall schools that will be able to send out emergency notifications. If the pilot is successful, Schofield said more may be installed this fall.
At two facilities, Hall County is testing grid mapping, which Schofield said is as a reactive tool designed to make law enforcement’s job easier during a catastrophe. Schofield did not disclose which two facilities are being tested.
One of the challenges Schofield said he has noticed with potential threats is that first responders don’t always know the layout of a school.
“Someone on the radio says, ‘Go to the blue hallway,’ but they might not know where that is,’” he said. “The grid mapping system takes campuses and puts them on a grid.”
Instead of describing where the danger is, first responders will know the exact location on the grid.
In addition to having school resource officers at all campuses, Niles said Gainesville City Schools will install and upgrade security cameras throughout the district.
Niles said the district will use Raptor Visitor Management System, which screens, monitors and maintains a record of all visitors on the campuses.
While physical enhancements are important in schools, Schofield said Hall also continues to look for ways to address mental health issues with students and staff.
Last year all certified Hall teachers received Stewards of Children training, which gives teachers the tools to learn how to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. This year, all classified team members will undergo the training.
Scholfield said this supports the school system’s team members in “identifying and supporting the challenges students are facing in their homes and personal lives.”
He said the training also helps prepare teachers for noticing when to intervene or when a situation is beyond their skill sets.
Hall is taking another step to protect the well-being of students y launching several anti-vaping initiatives, including the Catch My Breath Program.
Schofield said this is one of many recommendations from the Hall County Schools Ad Hoc Committee on Vaping. The committee formed in early 2019 to educate Hall students about the health risks of vaping.
Catch My Breath Middle and High will be implemented this fall.
Schofield said this program is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” model, which addresses health in schools.
The curriculum consists of four 30- to 40-minute lessons along with in-class activities, teacher education, online resources and take-home materials for parents.
“This tells them why it’s so dangerous and why we’re taking it so seriously,” Schofield said. “We have seen a significant number of students addicted to nicotine. Kids need a safe space, somewhere they can go to get help.”
Gainesville also has focused on the mental health of students with new services.
A new Student Success Center will open on the Gainesville High campus this school year, and its mission is to “wraparound” students with services including: mentors, behavioral and mental health support, college and career activities as well as a food pantry and clothing closet. A food pantry is also available at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy.
Other key components of the initiative include youth mental health first aid training, which gives teachers and administrators the tools to identify students in need and connect them with resources.