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Editorial: School safety needs multi-pronged approach
Stronger security, behavioral training among solutions to keeping campuses safe
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Sgt. Chris Jones, left, and Officer Griggs Wall, of the Gainesville Police Department, watch as Gainesville High School students make their way to buses parked out front Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers

Those of previous generations remember the days when the school yard was a place of innocent fun, the constant chatter of children, maybe the sound of ball on bat or a basketball dribbling. The school itself was a public center where parents, kids and neighbors interacted freely and came and went at will.

Those days are long gone in a stark new era when our schools are, out of necessity, becoming armed fortresses. The need for this has become obvious over the last two decades, the locations alone recalling scenes of carnage and tragedy. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe.

In reaction to each, the desperate pleas have echoed the same refrain: How can we keep this from happening again?

To many, the answer is more gun control, but that doesn’t address the millions of weapons already in circulation.

Others say the answer is to arm faculty members. But most teachers aren’t sold on the idea, and few have the know-how to handle an active shooter. And first responders arriving to the scene of a shooting don’t need to find multiple individuals brandishing weapons to confuse their chances of identifying the real threat.

What’s left is to lock down schools with procedures, security officers and protocols that come closer to ensuring the safety of those teaching and learning, and either deter potential terrorists from gaining access or stop them before they can take numerous lives.

It’s half a loaf at best, treating a symptom rather than the disease, but a necessary step to give students, teachers and parents some peace of mind.

Earlier this month, the Gainesville and Hall County school systems addressed plans to spend additional funds approved by the state legislature to tighten campus security. Hall is getting $215,000, Gainesville getting  $81,000 of the $16 million the state is providing. Every district gets at least $25,000, the remaining $11.5 million allocated based on student population.

It’s a drop in the bucket of what may be needed, but a good start toward giving school systems the resources they need.

Hall County has committed $300,000 on its own for silent alarms, monitors and stun guns for resource officers. Gainesville has added a fifth resource officer to patrol city campuses.

It’s a good start, a needed commitment both from the state and the local districts. Next should come the same push from Washington in what should be a bipartisan issue to better address school security nationwide, especially targeting those systems that lack the resources to do so.

More armed officers would seem to be a sensible target. There are about 100,000 public schools in the U.S.; if each had a trained, armed officer to enforce security and respond to dangerous situations, it could help thwart some incidents. But Parkland High in Florida had such an officer who didn’t respond properly when the shooting began, so it’s not a foolproof answer.

And it wouldn’t be inexpensive. If every school district in the country received the money needed, it would cost tens of billions. To fund such needs might require additional tax mechanisms, perhaps even public-private partnerships to foot the bill. While equipment would require a one-time fee, paying trained resources officers would become a more regular expense for which both small and large school systems might struggle.

Some have suggested using National Guard troops to help secure schools, though the logistics and cost of such a plan would need to be fully vetted before put into place.

Another side of this puzzle is dealing with the mental health issues students may present before a situation can turn violent. For that, more know-how and training for all school personnel are a key element.

Last week, Hall County Schools resource officers, teachers, staff and administrators participated in a two-day educational workshop hosted by the National Association of School Resource Officers, an Alabama-based nonprofit that teaches school-based policing tactics. Working with the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, NASRO has developed new curriculum to help educators and law enforcement identify and respond to students with mental illness and behavioral problems.

In most cases where a student is involved in a violent attack, the psychosis behind it grows from isolation, fear and alienation, fueled by the need for attention via social media. When school officials, teachers and others can spot this trend early and intervene, it could prevent them from taking action.  

The angst feeds upon itself. Kids suffering from difficulties at home or facing bullying or judgment from peers see shooting incidents on the news, and that increases everyone’s anxiety. Defusing those situations before they reach that stage is key. That starts with forming relationships of trust that can ease a student’s sense of despair before they cross the line.

“Sometimes you got kids that get upset easily,” said Sgt. Jeff Fleming of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. “If you develop that relationship with them … where they see you as kind of a cool person … they might even actually just calm down and talk to you.”

“It’s good to know how to help them be there to learn instead of feeling overwhelmed,” said Caroline Gable, a teacher at Flowery Branch Elementary.

Making students more aware of such situations also can help them spot potentially troubled classmates and alert school officials in advance.

School leaders are right to take on this problem from multiple angles, both trying to stop antisocial behavior at the source, then working to secure school campuses when all else fails. There is no simple one-step solution to a societal problem that goes this deep, no single law, decree or policy that will magically make it go away.

If talking a student through emotional problems can stop one violent incident, it’s worth the time and effort. If cameras, security checks and resource officers can stop one shooter from entering a school and taking lives, it’s worth the expense.

Schools may never again be the innocent havens of childhood they once were, not with all that’s happened in recent years. But if the boys and girls sent there all can make it home safely at the end of the day, that will be considered a success in an age of harsh reality.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Executive Editor Keith Albertson and Director of Content Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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