The connected campuses of West Hall middle and high schools provide a lesson in how Hall County Schools is handling security measures implemented over the past six months.
“As always, the best approach to securing our campuses is communication — training staff, students and community members to report anything that looks out of the ordinary,” West Hall Middle Principal Ethan Banks said.
The school system has allocated about $700,000 in new funding for school safety measures since a deadly shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“So far, the new security measures have been very well-received,” Banks said, adding that new eye-level entrance cameras help officials monitor who is visiting the school.
This new safety technology also includes a silent alarm network and other emergency communication systems that were added to all schools after a successful pilot project in the spring, as well as new stun guns for school resource officers.
And the state is chipping in about $240,000 for the school district to improve security of its facilities over the next few years.
“The new measures — including additional security cameras and monitors at front entrances and electronic locks, where visitors must be ‘buzzed in’ to access the building — have been very effective at furthering security on our campus,” West Hall High Principal Ley Hathcock said. “We have revised and are continually reviewing and practicing our safety protocols, looking for any areas to improve.”
Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said there was a time when parents felt inconvenienced having to sign in or show identification when picking up their child from school.
But those days seem gone.
“I just am not hearing that anymore,” Schofield said.
There are school resource officers at each middle and high school in the county district. Additionally, a policy is no longer in place that once required officers to wait on backup before responding in a shooting incident.
Hall is also adding a desk station at elementary schools where there is not a dedicated resource officer so law enforcement personnel from other schools, or even those on patrol in the area, can stop in, check on things and complete some work as necessary.
“Certainly, we’ve made significant improvements,” Schofield said. “But the most important thing that I hear is a higher and higher level of vigilance and awareness on the part of everybody involved — whether that’s parents, whether that’s teachers, whether that’s administration.”
Hall also conducts regular active-shooter trainings and, in June, school resource officers, teachers, staff and administrators participated in an educational workshop hosted by the National Association of School Resource Officers.
The Alabama-based nonprofit advocates and teaches practices in school-based policing, and a major part of the training included identifying and understanding behavioral and mental health crises before they escalate to violence.
“If we don’t do everything that’s possible to keep kids safe … everything within reason, then we just need to close the doors,” Schofield said. “So we’ll do whatever it takes to keep these schools as safe as we can.”
Hathcock said improving communication is “equally important as the new (security) additions.”
“The high level of communication within and between our schools … provides an effective level of operational continuity between the two campuses,” he added.
“As far as our ‘joint campus,’ (Hathcock) and I are very fortunate to share a similar mindset when it comes to working with one another to coordinate efforts in the event of an emergency situation,” he said. “Our administrative teams have two-way radio capabilities so that we can communicate with one another, and the close proximity of our schools allows for coordinated efforts in those regards.”