A hush fell over the library’s auditorium as names and tributes of students and faculty killed in the Parkland, Florida, shooting on Feb. 14 were read off to the audience.
In the background, CNN coverage of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School aftermath played on the screen.
The auditorium did not remain silent for very long. Within moments, a conversation about the safety of Clarke County schools began.
Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement hosted a panel discussion at the Athens-Clarke County Library on Tuesday, Feb. 27, in order to begin a conversation on preventative measures that can be made locally to ensure that events similar to the Parkland shooting do not occur in the community.
The program’s panelists included ACC Police Chief Scott Freeman, Clarke County Schools Superintendent Demond Means, the local chapter of Moms Demand Action representative Shannon Lawhon, and District 118 Rep. Spencer Frye.
Mayoral candidate Richie Knight said he walked away in tears after spending three hours touring Cedar Shoals High School last week.
“The weaknesses in our school buildings, from a safety standpoint, are purely frightening,” Knight said. “We have security guards who aren’t trained or down because they are sick or they have positions out in the field. We have security cameras that don’t work or aren’t monitored. We have teachers who have never done active shooter drills and don’t know where to even begin.”
Making local schools safer
Many parents and community members are asking themselves one similar question after the Parkland incident: ‘Are our schools actually safe?’
Clarke County schools are currently contracting Safe Haven International, a non-profit campus safety organization, to conduct security audits to improve school safety, security, and emergency preparedness, Means said.
“They do security audits throughout the world, and they are currently in Clarke County doing audits in each of our sites,” Means said. “Eventually, they will sit down with ACCPD and members of the Clarke County school district as to what we can do to ensure our schools are even safer than what they are right now.”
In 2017, there were five reported cases of Clarke County students bringing a weapon to school, one of which was a loaded gun.
The superintendent said the bottom line is there are too many guns that students have access to.
“As an educator who is responsible for educating children in our community, I’m just worried about the access to guns in general,” Means said.
Lawhon addressed the responsibility of gun owners to secure firearms and minor’s access to weapons within their households.
“Nearly 2 million children in America live in homes where firearms are unsecured. Seventy percent of students know where their parents keep the weapons. And according to another study, 35 percent of minors have confessed they’ve handled the weapon,” Lawhon said.
Freeman said ACCPD is currently prepared for any event where there is an active shooter.
Every ACC police officer is trained to respond for an active shooter response in “every segment of our community,” Freeman said.
ACC police hold active shooter training drills on a regular basis at various county locations, including Clarke County Schools.
However, Clarke County students do not practice active shooter drills, despite the school system frequently conducting fire, tornado, and lockdown drills.
“We will not do active shooter drills with students,” Means said. “That is not mentally and socially appropriate. We do conduct soft lockdowns and a hard lockdowns.”
Means said the county hasn’t been “vigilant” in regards to lockdowns, but he has asked school principals to become more consistent on conducting drills.
Currently, the department has 254 law enforcement personnel, including resource officers, in each of Clarke County high schools and middle schools.
The county schools’ resource officers, though often present at the school, do not discipline students.
“We have an agreement with the school system that police officers are there but do not serve as administrators on disciplinary matters. We only involve ourselves as police whenever there’s a criminal matter,” Freeman said.
Call for Action
Freeman and Means listed the laws and regulations needed to ensure that a school mass shooting could not occur anywhere in Clarke County.
Freeman said Georgia’s law enforcement primarily needs the rights to seize weapons in exigent circumstances with judicial review. In addition, he said the department needs to have immediate access to students’ records in order to potentially identify red flags.
In the case of the Parkland shooting, Broward County officials received at least 18 calls about Nicolas Cruz’s behavior from 2008 to 2017, including concerns about his mental state and access to weapons. Boward County Sheriff’s Office said there were at least five tips concerning Cruz “plann[ing] to shoot up the school.”
Currently, ACCPD has limited access to certain records due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Additionally, Means said the school district needs financial support from the state legislature to hire more school personnel such as educators, school resource workers and counselors to identify problems fast and effectively.
“It’s critical for our teachers to have low class sizes. When you have large class sizes, you’re unable to identify the student who is struggling,” Means said. “If we want to get to the real problems of these issues, the real cause is that children need help. Children are asking for our help. They are begging for our help.”
Frye listed many gun restrictions that state politicians are in the works of producing or considering, including a liability policy for gun owners, and a bump stock and assault weapon ban.
“None of these are going to be ‘the hammer to smash it down,’ but they are common sense situations. They do not infringe on other people’s second amendment rights,” Frye said. “Let’s have some common sense about what we do and the way we treat our children, our family, and each other. I think we’re then going to see this fade in the background.”
AADM will hold a follow-up meeting on Wednesday, March 14 to discuss the topic further.