By Keysha Drexel
As schools across the nation and state search for ways to keep students safe in the wake of the Newtown shootings, school superintendents from Over the Mountain schools joined other school officials from Jefferson County to talk about school safety.
Fresh from testifying at a legislative hearing in Montgomery on school safety, Director of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security Spencer Collier spoke to area superintendents about the role of guns in schools.
Collier said while there has been a lot of discussion about arming teachers since 26 people were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, he thinks it is better that law enforcement officers are the only ones carrying guns in schools.
“We believe that the armed ones should be trained law enforcement officers,” he said. “Teachers are trained educators. It’s difficult to ask the teacher to be an educator and then to take on the role of a law enforcement officer where they have to know when to shoot and when not to shoot.”
Even trained law enforcement officers, Collier said, sometimes make mistakes when it comes to guns.
“Twenty-two percent of the police officers who are killed (in the line of duty) are killed with their own weapon,” Collier said. “And they have been trained on how to keep their weapon secure.”
Getting law enforcement officers–and the general public–better trained on how to deal with active shooter situations is one of the goals of the state Department of Homeland Security, Collier said.
Only about 27 percent of law enforcement officers in the state are trained on how to combat an active shooter, Collier said.
Collier said it wouldn’t cost much to have 100 percent of the state’s law enforcement officers trained for active shooter situations.
Collier said educators and the public as a whole have to realize that because of an increase in active shooter situations, law enforcement officers have changed their safety messages.
“The days of law enforcement instructing people to be passive in these type of situations are over,” he said. “When all else fails, you have to take action into your own hands.”
To that end, Collier showed the school officials an active shooter training video dealing with a workplace shooting.
“I’m not here to tell you how to do your jobs or to tell you the right model for your school. You know your schools better than anyone else. But I am here to offer our services and show you how we are training people to deal with these situations,” he said.
Collier also told school officials about Virtual Alabama, a Google Earth-based technology that gives law enforcement officers access to school maps and safety plans to use in emergencies.
“You can’t just make a school safety plan and put it up on a shelf anymore,” Collier said. “As a former law enforcement officer, I can’t tell you how valuable it is to have a layout of the building you’re about to go in and try to secure.”
Schools can input safety plans, interactive maps of classrooms, common areas and hallways, along with real-time surveillance video feeds of the school to Virtual Alabama. That data, along with information on evacuation routes, hazardous materials and emergency equipment at the school, is made available to first responders at a secure site online.
Schools are required to have that data input to Virtual Alabama by July 19.
Hoover City Schools Superintendent Andy Craig said Virtual Alabama is a good concept that Hoover schools will use in the near future.
“We were familiar with Virtual Alabama, and we’re working now to get that system in place in our schools,” he said.
In early January, the Hoover City Council voted to add up to $100,000 to the fiscal year 2013 budget to keep a Hoover police officer in each of the city’s 10 elementary schools during school hours for the rest of the school year.
“We got input from our principals and talked with the mayor and the police chief and decided this was the best thing to do at this time,” he said.
Craig said the school system has a “close, collaborative relationship with our city police, and these types of conversations are ongoing between the schools, the city and the police department.”
Homewood City Schools’ safety plans and other information are already in the Virtual Alabama system, said Bill Cleveland, the school system’s superintendent.
He said Collier’s presentation made him even more confident that having Homewood school data available to first responders is a good idea.
“It’s reassuring to hear the thoughts of a professional in security and safety. We have our current plans in Virtual Alabama because it reinforces what we think is vital–communication. We already have great communication with our city police department and this just gives them another tool to keep our students safe,” he said.
Cleveland said he appreciated Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, for arranging the meeting of the school superintendents with Collier.
“To know that everyone’s getting on the same page and for us all to come together like this is also reassuring,” he said.
Cleveland said sales tax revenue from the city allows the Homewood school system to provide school resource officers at the high school and middle school and a DARE officer at each of the elementary schools.
“We know that if there’s ever a problem, those officers are there at the schools and more are just a phone call away,” he said.
Mountain Brook Schools officials have been working with Virtual Alabama since the fall, said Superintendent Dickey Barlow.
“We should finish our training by the end of the month. We feel like we’re being proactive by reviewing our crisis management plans and making sure they are on Virtual Alabama,” he said.
Barlow said Virtual Alabama gives school systems another tool to help keep students, teachers and staff members safe and said he was glad to get together with other Over the Mountain school officials to talk about the program.
“I really appreciate that meeting being put together, because although we were already working with Virtual Alabama and our safety needs, you can’t hear that kind of information too many times,” he said.
Mountain Brook Schools has one school resource officer for its six schools. Barlow said he and other school officials are talking with the Mountain Brook Police Department to review school safety needs.
Barlow said the school system works closely with the police department and meets regularly to talk about different crisis scenarios.
The school system also opens each of its schools to the police department for training purposes, Barlow said.
“At night or on the weekends, the police go into the schools and do tactical training for how to deal with school crisis situations,” he said. “We think it is an added bonus to have the officers training in the actual schools because it gives them a place to practice and it helps them become really familiar with our schools.”
Mountain Brook police officers are also invited to visit the schools unannounced, Barlow said.
“They do a great job of driving around all of our schools a few times a day, and we invite them to park their cars, come in and walk down the halls anytime they want to,” he said.
Barlow said when the schools have fire drills, the Mountain Brook Fire Department often will come out and evaluate those drills.
“We’re thinking of doing the same thing with our lockdown drills and having the police officers come in and evaluate how we do on those drills,” he said. “The more we work together to prepare for the unthinkable, the better.”
Vestavia Hills Schools Superintendent Jamie Blair said he appreciated the information passed along at the meeting and said he hopes legislators will help school systems with funding to make schools safer.
“It was a good meeting, and I hope now that our legislators will help us find a way to pay for the added police officers and other safety measures we need for our schools,” he said.
At a special meeting earlier this month, the Vestavia Hills school board voted to put school resource officers at all nine of the system’s schools, Blair said.
“We already have four SROs, but we thought in light of what happened in Newtown that it would be better to have a trained officer at each school,” he said.
Until those officers can be approved by the personnel board and trained, the school system is using off-duty police officers to beef up security at each school, Blair said.
Blair said the school system also is increasing the number of security cameras in each school and installing a controlled access system for entering each school.
“It’s basically a system where all visitors to the school have to be buzzed in and can’t just walk in the front door. We piloted a system like this a while back at Vestavia Hills Elementary Liberty Park but when the financial crisis hit, scaled back on those plans,” he said.
While security is being increased at Vestavia Hills schools, Blair said he thinks it is important that schools remain places where students and teachers feel free.
“We’re still a public school. We don’t want to put our kids in a prison or for them to feel like they’re in a prison. We have to err on the side of caution, but we can’t give up our freedom,” he said.