Keeping students safe

Published 12:46 pm Monday, October 30, 2017

WINDSOR – The most important concern for parents when they send their children off to school every day is to make sure those kids are safe in the classroom.

And in keeping with that, for Bertie County Schools, it means the annual security check at all 10 county school locations.

Tuesday, that routine check had some important participants: Bertie County Sheriff John Holley, Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper, and Board of Commissioners chairman John Trent.  This in addition to BCS Safety and Security Director Danny Perry, BCS Maintenance Director Matthew Bond, and School Resource Officer Bonnie Powell.

“All the exterior doors are supposed to be locked – that’s to any school – and every interior door has to be in position to be locked in case of a lockdown,” said Cooper.

Bertie Sheriff John Holley chats with a classroom teacher at Bertie High School as part of the security check.

Earlier this month on Oct. 12 when there was an attempted prisoner escape at the Pasquotank Correctional Institute in Elizabeth City, local EMS had Elizabeth City Middle School, Pasquotank County High School, and Northside Elementary School locked down within less than five minutes. That lockdown continued well past dismissal time.

“If any of these schools get a notice like that, they can be locked down – interior and exterior – in minutes,” Cooper continued. “The more you can limit an intruder’s mobility or ability to move around at the school, the quicker (law enforcement) can react and take care of the problem.”

“And if they already in, this (lockdown) will limit their access to any other parts of the building,” added Powell.

The inspections began with an early morning exterior door check at first Bertie High and Bertie STEM High Schools, since they share the same campus on US 13 North of Windsor. A similar inspection followed at Bertie Early College High School on Governor’s Road.

In teams of three, the groups traverse the entire perimeter of the grounds, checking every single door.

Following shootings from Columbine in Colorado, to Sandy Hook in Connecticut, officials have to raise concern and dialogue on school safety in school communities across the nation.  Parents often press school boards and superintendents for information and improvements in their school safety plans, security procedures and emergency guidelines. School leaders must be prepared to proactively communicate about school safety and to do a “check-up” on their strategies to make sure what they’re doing is consistent with recognized best practices.

At the high schools, while several interior doors were not secured, all were in a position to be locked, and 100 percent of the exterior doors were in the locked position.

At the Early College, the only unsecured exterior door was an athletics supply room.  To insure all interior doors were secured, BECHS principal Wanda Cofield called for a lockdown drill which did not include evacuation (Code Orange).  The inside doors of the school were secured within minutes.

In the post-operation review, Perry suggested a meeting sometime this fall (November) with the BCS Safety & Security committee and local law enforcement.

“Let’s have the superintendent get all staff members at the high school in the auditorium or gym to review this, because people may not know the severity of this like we (law enforcement) do,” suggested Sheriff Holley.

“If this ever goes down, it’s going to be something (big) going on,” he added.

“This is what we need to be doing,” seconded Commissioner Trent. “Let’s get everyone up to speed.”

Holley says if it ever reaches a critical (Code Red) situation, law enforcement will undertake what it has been trained to do.

“This (meeting) will make our job a lot easier,” Holley said. “Because when we get that call, we know we have to move in and take him out. If someone has a gun, they’re most likely going to shoot back if they have the opportunity, and that’s a civilian situation we have to avoid.”

Classroom doors open inward – not outward – and lock from the inside, providing teachers and students security if an intruder is ever in the hallways. Some employees carry two-way radios, enabling them to communicate at all times with the push of a button. Administrators, like principals, are able to watch the school’s security video on their mobile devices. Barricade cones sometimes line the edge of the school’s parking lot, keeping cars from pulling up close to the entrance.

Teachers say all the security makes them feel safe inside the school, and parents say they feel better about dropping off their kids knowing the school has such substantial security measures in place.

“If you look at what’s going on today, it’s not negotiation anymore, it’s send in the law,” said Trent. “That needs to be explained to staff.”

Holley says his officers and others try to keep hostage exercises as real as possible, but most people have no idea the chaos that can erupt quickly.

“There are people running around, people screaming, making all kinds of noise, people getting shot; they just really have no idea,” Holley said.

Cooper says a key is coordination and cooperation, and suggests a weekend exercise on actual school grounds.

“We need to actually do it: take a weekend and have a response from all the agencies that come in, so everyone knows their role,” Cooper acknowledged.

Interim Bertie Superintendent Del Burns will be advised by Perry and his committee on future safety and security measures the schools can take.

Beyond the safety and security, the next most important factor is preventing a tragedy.