Schools Leaders, Sheriff: Security Already a Priority

Local schools and the sheriff’s office were taking steps to prevent mass shooting incidents like the one in Texas well before Tuesday’s tragedy in the Uvalde elementary school.

A lone gunman armed with a rifle killed 19 second, third and fourth graders before being shot by a Border Patrol agent Tuesday. The mass killing is the second largest elementary school shooting in the country’s history. The largest killing occurred at Sandyhook Elementary in 2012, when 26 people, including 20 children and the killer’s mother, were gunned down.

Sandyhook kicked many school systems into high gear in terms of security. Whiteville City Schools and Columbus County Schools have been working to improve security for years, according to representatives from both systems. Sheriff Jody Greene said during his 2018 campaign that school security was a priority.

In Whiteville, Superintendent Marc Whichard called Uvalde “another senseless, tragic event,” but the system will use lessons learned in Texas to continue improvements at all five of the city campuses.

“As with any incident, we consistently evaluate what we can do better to secure our campuses, while balancing the need for access by visitors,” he said. 

The renovation and construction at the new Whiteville High School facility integrated some safety improvements, but the system has been at work for years to upgrade protection for students and staff.  

“Whiteville City Schools has taken measures over the past several years to increase campus security,” he said. Among the improvements are upgrades to fencing, lighting, and security cameras. The sheriff’s office provides School Resource Officers (SROs) on campus.

Entry doors lock with electromagnets, and cameras are used to provide staff with a “visible analysis” of anyone seeking entry to the schools. 

“This is not an all-inclusive list of our measures,” Whichard said.

“Safety is our top priority and we strive  to create a safe and orderly learning environment every day,” said Kelly Jones, spokesman for the county schools. 

Superintendent Deanne Meadows met with Greene Wednesday morning to reaffirm existing safety protocols, Jones said.

“We will continue to follow established procedures related to entry points at our schools,” Jones said. 

The county schools are also working on improving entry security at each campus. A $500,000 grant U.S. Dept. of Justice grant will replace aging doors and put monitoring devices on every entry point in every school.

The alarms will alert resource officers and administration anytime a door is opened or is not closed immediately, Jones said.  

“We will also conduct training exercises with the CCSO in the near future that will help enhance our school safety plan,” he said.

When he took over the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Greene said he was shocked to find out school resource officers were armed only with handguns, and had minimal training and equipment.

“Things have changed in recent years,” he said. “The threat has changed.”

Greene said he worked to get additional training for all SROs, as well as improving their equipment. A large scale training exercise is planned for later this year that will involve multiple counties, he said.

“We have to realize that if something like this occurs, we will need assistance,” Greene said. “We need to improve communications. We need to think ahead. 

“Where are you going to take the injured? We only have 22 or so beds at our emergency room. We’re going to need the help of other counties, and they will need us if happens to them. I want all area agencies to work together.”

In the meantime, Greene said, SROs are on heightened alert in the unlikely event that Uvalde sparks a copycat. He also encouraged parents and students to let school staff and SROs know immediately if they suspect something is wrong, regardless of the situation.

“It’s a different world out there,” he said. “We have to work together to protect our children. There’s nothing more important than their safety.”

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About Jefferson Weaver 1186 Articles
Jefferson Weaver is the managing editor of columbuscountynews.com and news director for WTXY radio. He can be reached at 910.632.4965, or by email at jeffersonweaver@columbuscountynews.com.