News & Happenings

August 6, 2018

Local educators, law enforcement, upping safety following rash of school shootings

By Patrick McCreless, Star Staff Writer, The Anniston Star

Updated Sat Aug 04, 2018 3:39 PM CDT


The training began with a bang.

The scenario on Wednesday was that a gunman was shooting students and faculty in Wellborn High School. When police officers from departments across Calhoun County entered the building, dummy firearms at the ready, they faced a scene that could have been pulled from a haunted house:

Actors lying motionless in pools of fake blood.

Random screams and calls for help.

Men and women with realistic-looking injuries huddled in classrooms.

The officers were calm and professional regardless of the faux carnage. They took out the pretend gunman quickly, then canvassed the school for other potential shooters and survivors. Within minutes, medical first responders were brought in under armed guard to assess the wounded and get them to ambulances.

The training scenario was part of a three-day program offered by the Louisiana State University's Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education — the first time the in-depth program had been offered to first responders in the county.

It probably won't be the last.

"Unfortunately, it's just the way things are now," said Randy Reaves, director of safety and security for the Calhoun County school system, as an actor was wheeled on a gurney from Wellborn High behind him to an ambulance.

School shootings are a phenomenon that have become more prevalent in American society in recent years. As such, police and educators in the county say they've seen their thoughts bend more toward safety each year and have pushed for improved procedures and equipment to reduce shooting deaths. And this year is no different, with schools opening this week across the county with new safety technology, policies and techniques to prevent the unthinkable.

The need

Reaves said lending Wellborn High for the Wednesday training program was a no-brainer, given the rise in school shootings.

"This is something that you say, 'why wouldn't you want to participate,'" Reaves said. "You can't get more valuable training than live, on-site training."

Sam Shurley, lead instructor for the program, said the federally-funded training couldn't be more important for communities.

"I think this is the most important public safety training that exists today," Shurley said. "Our biggest goal is we present them with a successful way to do something to save lives ... so if something like this happens, they're able to work together."

The training follows another rash of high-profile school shootings that happened across the United States this year, like when 17 people were gunned down at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February.

Reaves said the latest round of school shootings has him and other administrators and faculty in the county school system thinking more about safety and ways to improve.

"Right now we're in the process of hardening our schools to control access into school buildings," Reaves said.

Reaves said some of the county's high schools had doors that were unlocked and could be easily used by intruders.

All of the county's schools have security cameras, but many are old, Reaves said.

"We're in the process of upgrading our old cameras to high-definition ones," he said. "That should all be done this year."

All of the county system's schools also practice safety drills periodically each year. The training, including what took place Wednesday, is something Lesa Cotton, health services director for the county school system, never thought she'd have to do when she started her career 26 years ago.

"We already had similar training for school nurses this summer," said Cotton, who played a victim in the Wednesday training. "We're all thinking of ways to make things safer."

Safety upgrades

Mike Newell, director of operations for the Jacksonville City Schools, said the system has always thought about safety, but took it up a notch this year.

"After the Parkland situation, that's when we really started looking at our emergency response protocol," Newell said.

Jacksonville faculty will participate in new active shooter training over the next three days, Newell said. Previously, teachers were trained to keep students in their classrooms, barricade their doors and wait for help if a shooting occurred.

The new training will be more proactive, teaching faculty to escape from the scene if it appears safe to do so, Newell said.

"Statistically, the police over the last 20 years arrive after the event is over," Newell said. "It doesn't make sense for us to wait passively."

Newell said the system has also added new safety features to the city's two schools over the last few months, including more security cameras and a shatter-resistant film over some windows.

"We're also looking at adding additional fencing at the high school and at the elementary school playground," he said.

An attempt to reach the Oxford school system for comment was unsuccessful.

Darren Douthitt, superintendent of the Anniston school system, said safety has been on the minds of faculty, particularly after a gunman shot and killed himself in the Lowe's Home Improvement store across from Anniston Middle School earlier this summer.

"We've talked about making sure our lockdown protocols are in place," Douthitt said.

Douthitt said the city schools all have security cameras and controlled access. The main focus on safety this year will be to get a second resource officer from the Anniston Police Department to patrol the campuses, Douthitt said.

"Right now we just have one because one had to retire," Douthitt said. "We'll have two again this year if everything works out."

Capt. Curtis McCants of the Anniston Police Department said officers would be ready to respond immediately should the worst-case scenario happened at a city school.

"All of our officers will respond to any school incident," McCants said. "It's a very important issue with what's going on these days."

Jerry Snow, central office administrator for Piedmont City Schools, said his system started working with police last year to improve safety after a wave of shootings occurred then.

"We had police come in and evaluate our plans and ask what more we could do to help ... then we made changes," Snow said. "We'll probably do the same thing again this year ... we always work to get better."

Snow said the schools already have security cameras, but want more.

"We're applying for some grants for upgraded cameras," he said. "We went through the schools and found some spots where we need more coverage."

Snow said school shootings always get faculty thinking about ways they can prevent such tragedies from happening on their own campuses.

"You're always thinking about it, but when there is a shooting, you think more about what I can do and how can we get better," he said.

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