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Student safety comes first

The Monday, Feb. 19 lockdown of all public school buildings in Gates County was indeed a scary time for local students, their parents, and for school staff.

However, in light of a school shooting in Broward County, Florida one week prior, a grisly event that claimed the lives of 17 innocent individuals, Gates County officials did not hesitate when making a decision to take action last week in the face of what was then a threat from an unknown source was made on social media.

Gates County Interim Sheriff Robert Jordan told this newspaper that last week’s threat was made directly against several schools in nearby Pasquotank County. However, he said the threatening message included Gates and Chowan counties. He immediately went to work on a plan to lockdown all schools and post armed law enforcement officers, to include help from the NC Highway Patrol, on each campus.

Dr. Barry Williams

Dr. Barry Williams, Superintendent of Gates County Schools, said he was “all in” with that plan. Additionally, Williams directed Central Office staff to make phone calls and send out two letters he authored on Monday to parents of Gates County schoolchildren and other stakeholders in the school system in an effort to advise them of what was taking place.

“In the current climate, we cannot take any threat lightly nor can we ignore a threat upon awareness,” said Dr. Williams. “As the Superintendent of a school district it is my job to provide a first rate education to students in a safe conducive environment. I will lockdown the schools each and every time to protect my kids once I receive a call of imminent danger.”

The Superintendent followed up with another letter on Tuesday, Feb. 20. In that letter – sent to all parents, teachers, students and community members, he wrote:

“We understand situations such as this are concerning to parents, students, and the community. We want you to be aware that district officials and school administration exercised extreme diligence and took immediate and proper actions required by law and in the best interest of our students and our faculty. We will continue to work in partnership with law enforcement to maintain a safe learning atmosphere at all Gates County Schools.

“Gates County Schools maintains strict policies designed to protect the safety and well-being of our students. All schools in the district have developed Crisis Safety Plans through collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Management and School Resource Officers that students and faculty have practiced through fire drills and lockdowns. Monday’s event was a clear example of how the plan was put into effect and created an environment in which students were safe and secure.

“Thank you for your continued support of our students, staff and school district. I encourage you, parents, students and staff to be vigilant and report any issues of concern to district officials, school administration or law enforcement. Together we can continue to ensure a school environment that is safe, secure and conducive to learning,” the letter concluded.

Williams said each of the schools in Gates County use a “buzz in” system. That means someone wishing to enter the school is met by a secured door and their admittance only comes after they are properly identified by office staff through a buzzer-speaker at the front entrance. Video cameras are also in use at each school campus in the county.

“We are in the process of modifying our security in our schools for added protection,” Dr. Williams said. “We are also in the process of installing more buzz in systems at the high school.”

Dr. Williams feels that even more security measures need to be in place.

“I think it is important to install metal detectors, implement more school resource officers in the schools who constantly walk the halls, patrol the grounds and are vigilant throughout the school day,” he stressed. “These added measures take money, but school safety is a non-negotiable.

“I have personally talked to Governor Roy Cooper on the status of mental health issues and safety concerns,” the Superintendent added. “If students are expected to perform well on their studies and focus higher learning, they have to feel safe. I will continue to seek funding, ask for funding and never waiver the safety of my students for anything”.

After the incident on Feb. 19, Dr. Williams received a thank you from the State Superintendent Mark Johnson “for taking threats seriously and protecting the students in Gates County.”

“We have good people in Gates County who will go the extra mile to assist with student safety,” Dr. Williams noted. “The Sheriff’s Office, led by Interim Sheriff Robert Jordan, and SRO (School Resource Officer) Ray Campbell did an excellent job on Monday.

“(Gates County) Emergency Management Director Billy Winn has provided the school system with professional development on school safety,” Williams continued. “He is on call 24-7 for the schools. Our school employees handled the Monday situation extremely well, from my assistant Ms. Cathy Riddick to the school principals and Mrs. Stephanie Riddick. Mrs. Lola Rountree, our voice over the phone system, was ready to communicate information upon facts. All teachers followed protocol and every employee did a good job and we were fortunate nothing happened.

Additionally, Dr. Williams has made a contact with the retired Superintendent of the New Town Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy. He plans to visit Gates County to speak on “Mistakes Made During a Tragedy” A date has yet to be confirmed for March.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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