If there was any positive result from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December, it was the efforts of public school districts nationwide to re-evaluate their school safety measures in hopes of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.
Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson called the weekend following the shootings a “true moment of reflection.”
“Sandy Hook was one of those opportunities for us to reflect, really look at our strategies and assess at a deeper level if there were other things that we could do. We recognize that when you dissect the Sandy Hook event – they did everything right,” Jackson said. “We want to learn from them in terms of how we can improve what we do and strengthen what we already are doing.”
Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools has armed school resource officers in all of its middle schools and high schools. The officers also rotate to visit elementary schools during the week.
The Nash County Sheriff’s Office has put in place student resource officers at Nash Central, Red Oak and Southern Nash middle schools. Edwards and Parker middle school students are the city’s responsibility, and thus are handled by the Rocky Mount Police Department. The only city SROs are those at Rocky Mount High School. The other three high schools are supervised by the Nash County Sheriff’s Office.
The Nash-Rocky Mount school board has appropriated $200,000 to bolster security efforts further through adding identification badges and more security cameras.
Administrators also are looking for ways to reduce reaction time in case a gunman comes on campus.
“One of our top strategic priorities is a safe and orderly school environment,” Jackson said. “From the time the students walk out of their front doors to the bus stop to the time we drop them off and they go back to that door – we want there to be a focus on ensuring that the students are safe. As an organization, I want to have parents comfortable that we are going to send the students back to them the same way they sent them to us.”
The men and women of the Rocky Mount Police Department and Nash County Sheriff’s Office serve as school resource officers at all of the district’s middle and high schools.
They’re on the front lines.
“I call it a calling,” said Nash County Deputy James Pearson, the school resource officer at Nash Central Middle School.
Having started out working as the school resource officer at the former W.L. Greene Alternative School, Pearson said he has “seen a lot.”
“I had every gang member in the county over there. When one of the gang members got shot, some of the boys would come in dressed in black. I really had to be on my toes and talk to the guys and try to find out what happened in the community – who got shot and killed,” Pearson said. “I tried to keep the rival gangs separated at the school.”
No problems exist like that at Nash Central Middle School, Pearson said, and most of his day revolves around securing the campus and patrolling the halls as well as responding to any calls from the school’s front office.
“On a normal day, I first make sure all the cars get in safely and the children get off the buses safely,” Pearson said.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, Pearson said he makes sure all of the school’s outer doors are secure immediately after school starts.
“The only entrance you are coming in is that front door. We want to know who comes in and who goes out of these buildings,” Pearson said. “Once we get everybody secure, I walk around the school to show my presence. I’m always out and about during class changes and making sure everybody is OK. I’m at the lunches and making sure they go safely.”
If a parent or visitor comes on campus, they have to sign on to a computer and register in the front office to receive a visitor badge as they do in all the schools.
Like all schools in the district this year, the most serious threats Pearson said he has had to respond to are fights.
While several of the system’s school resource officers immediately go into action when a tip comes in concerning a student is carrying some kind of weapon, Pearson said those incidents rarely occur at Nash Central Middle School.
“We all have a great working relationship out here,” Pearson said. “If I hear something going on, I talk to my principal. If he hears something going on, he talks to me. We all try to give each other the heads-up and keep the school safe and secure.”
Lt. J.W. Breedlove of the Nash County Sheriff’s Office said the school district’s relationship with law enforcement is the best it has ever been in 25 years.
“If the principal was not on top of things, it would be utter chaos because these kids would take over – because that is what they do at home,” Breedlove said. “This is the only structure some of these kids have.”
The school resource officers are constantly training, and Breedlove said the role is “definitely something you have to want to do.”
Jackson said the Rocky Mount Police Department and Nash County Sheriff’s Office truly are partners.
“We have developed such a relationship over the years that we understand what the other’s needs are before they need it,” Jackson said. “That is the true indicator of a community that is really focused on doing what is right in making sure our schools are safe.”
In February, the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education voted to appropriate $200,000 toward school safety, including installing video cameras at the front entrance to every school, issuing identification badges for all staff, replacing existing doors and upgrading the locks on all classroom doors.
The Nash-Rocky Mount school board members, administrators and staff believe safety begins at the classroom door, said Dr. Eric Cunningham, the district’s associate superintendent of facilities and operations.
“We have already started classroom door enhancements, and some schools have already been completed. We are optimistic that we should have this finished before the end of the current school year,” Cunningham said. “We are currently in the process of bidding video access systems for all schools. The operations and human resources departments have also started planning for the roll-out for identification badges – including a policy requiring all employees to wear these badges.”
The identification badge requirement will be in place next school year, Cunningham said, while the security upgrades to external doors will be made during the summer.
The second group of safety priorities is now part of the district’s capital improvement plan as set forth by the school board, Cunningham said.
Among the projects in the second phase will be installing even more security cameras and intrusion alarms, revamping exterior door security access, wiring in Voice to Internet Protocol to each school’s intercom and beefing up visitor controlled access.
“The school district will need over $4 million to complete these additional upgrades,” Cunningham said. “The safety of students and staff is without question the top priority for our school district.”
The school district also is exploring controlled access for each individual building on each of its campuses that have multi-building designs.
“In order to go between buildings, one would be required to enter a code or swipe a pass to enter a building,” Cunningham said. “All of these improvements are part of the district’s capital improvement plan, and priorities will be set forth by the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education.”
School safety is one of several priorities the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education continues to deal with, said Evelyn Bulluck, the school board’s chairwoman.
“Today’s society demands that we look very closely at how we operated in the past and make significant changes. We live in a society where people resolve disagreements with violence rather than dialogue,” Bulluck said.
“Therefore, changing the way we do business is a must.”
The safety initiatives the school district has proposed are just the beginning, Bulluck said.
However, Bulluck said those basic steps do not meet all of the district’s needs.
“The badges, video cameras and security doors are first steps,” Bulluck said. “Our staff needs to know who is in our buildings and that those people should be readily identifiable. This just makes common sense.”
The school board chairwoman said she has mixed emotions on the issue of school resource officers permanently stationed at the district’s high and middle schools while only routinely stopping in at elementary schools.
“I want our children safe. I am not sure that SROs are necessary in each elementary school,” Bulluck said. “With the proximity of our schools, an officer (or deputy) could be on site in a matter of minutes.”
Bulluck said she is not opposed to having the school resource officers work full-time at the elementary schools if the funding was available, but having them at the middle and high schools is crucial.
Nash County Commissioner Robbie Davis said it is sad that in today’s world such high security upgrades are needed.
“However, it is where we are, and we must do it,” Davis said.
“We’re going to have to do it in increments. No matter how much you can do, you can’t stop something from happening.”
Some people are just going to get done what they set out to do, Davis said, and the goal is to mitigate those occurrences as much as possible.
“We are glad to see the school system taking an active role in it, but I think we are a little behind the curve,” Davis said.
“I would much rather spend those funds on new technology in our schools, but this is the world we live in.”
In regard to further conversation between the school board and commissioners regarding additional funds to be directed toward security upgrades, Davis said those upgrades are not a charge the commissioners have.
“As an elected commissioner, it is our job to provide as much money as we can to the school system each year,” Davis said. “Then, it is up to the elected school board members to prioritize those funds accordingly.”