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Our Views: School safety is always a priority
Hall County administrators were right to take recent threats seriously
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

People of a certain age remember a time when children felt safe in their homes, their neighborhoods and their schools.

But those days are gone. We are now in an era when many homeowners install security systems and parents don't let their kids wander outside unattended.

It's hard to say whether the danger is more real or fear of it more prevalent. News stories of child abductions and molesters have filled newspapers and airwaves at an alarming pace.

In particular, this change in mood is evident in our schools. That sense of safety was shattered on April 20, 1999, when two students at Columbine High School in suburban Denver went on a shooting rampage, leaving 13 people dead. That and several subsequent tragedies have changed the way Americans think about school security.

Now visitors are seldom allowed to wander in and out of a school building without authorization. Doors are kept locked, and school resource officers patrol campuses in the attempt to head off any violent acts.

But even the best efforts can't prevent all tragedies. On Feb. 27, a 17-year-old opened fire in the school cafeteria at Chardon (Ohio) High, killing three classmates and wounding three others.

This is why school officials now react to the slightest hint of a threat, as they did two days later in Hall County.

West Hall Middle and West Hall High schools were locked down the morning of Feb. 29 after a text message was received about a "gunman" headed to one of the schools. Alerts were issued and students were kept in classrooms for nearly two hours until it was determined that a cellphone autocorrect feature created that ominous word.

Monday, a threatening note found at North Hall High School raised concerns, though no lockdown was called when it was determined not to be a danger.

In both cases, public reaction varied. Some chided the school system for what they feel is an overreaction to vague threats. Others are thankful school officials practice caution. And there are those who don't think the schools react quickly or strongly enough.

School officials face tough decisions in encountering such threats. Do they take them seriously and risk disrupting instruction time over what may be a hoax? All it takes is one kid who didn't study for an algebra test and is bold enough to issue a bogus threat to throw the entire school into chaos.

On the other hand, what if no action is taken and the danger is real? No one wants another Columbine or Chardon on their conscience. And while school is vitally important, nothing trumps the need for safety.

That's why some school systems, including Hall County, are offering rewards for information on such threats, whether the risk is valid or not, in hopes of deterring them.

There are legal concerns as well for schools that don't act decisively. A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against officials at Virginia Tech, site of a deadly 2007 rampage that left 32 dead, including the gunman. The suit brought by parents of two of the slain students alleges administrators committed several missteps as the shooter remained at large, then tried to cover up their actions afterward.

Since that incident, colleges nationwide have created warning systems that include phone, email and text alerts, as it is much harder to protect students on a spread-out campus than a single elementary or high school building.

The common thread is that safety can't take a back seat to convenience. A missed exam or lesson can be made up; lost lives cannot.

In hindsight to the West Hall incident, it may have seemed a bit over the top to lock down the school over a scrambled text message. But put yourself in the administrators' shoes: What would you do? It's easy to second-guess until you have to make the call.

School officials face a number of difficult calls on safety. When serious weather hits as students are arriving or preparing to leave, what should be done? Turn them loose into what may be a dangerous storm? Keep them hunkered down in the halls until it passes?

Every situation is different and administrators often have little time to decide, knowing that the lives of hundreds of young people may be in the balance.

Even then, all tragedies can't be averted. A determined gunman or killer tornado is hard to stop, and even the most sophisticated warning systems and security efforts can't prevent every violent incident. That's why we should take every measure we can. It's all we've got.

We're glad local school leaders put safety first. It only takes one deadly incident to turn a school, and a community, upside down.