Issues Facing morgan County

School Safety

It was a normal sunny day when the call came over the radio: Gunshots reported at Hartselle Intermediate School. There are no words that can describe or prepare you for that moment. Years of training went to work and policies and procedures that had been practiced, evaluated and practiced again were relied on. In the end, the shots were from a military funeral nearby but the response was real, live.

Our police department was met with the idea that children, your children, our children were in harm’s way as they raced to the school. We were left with the “what if”. In law enforcement we plan for and pray against the “what if’s” of life. Unfortunately, as we have all seen, this scenario continues to unfold across our country with varying outcomes. As I type this, an active shooter is being reported near a school in Panama City, Florida. This is our new reality.

Our schools are a very important asset to our communities. Our schools are a part of who we are and how we identify ourselves. Every law abiding citizen has a role in making our schools safe. In the illustration above, multiple citizens acted on what they heard and allowed our procedures to play out. Regardless of the outcome, their decision to act was crucial to our response. In short, Law enforcement can’t do it alone. Everyone should report activity that looks suspicious, every time. It will take the community to respond to the need for adequate school safety and make it work. We need law enforcement officers in every school in Morgan County. The Sheriff’s Office does not have the staff or budget to make that a reality as it currently stands. The County, the school boards, the elected officials, the communities and the State must come together to properly fund sufficient school safety measures.

Thankfully, they are doing just that. I have spoken to the superintendents and other local leaders, together we understand the life and death issue that we must address. An example of this is the fact that the Governor has recently launched a School Safety task force and the issue has become a key component of state and local elections. This is the emphasis needed to help equip local law enforcement and school systems.

As you look across our county, state and nation multiple ideas are being pushed as “the answer” to school safety. Unfortunately, I do not believe an issue this complex can be solved with a 1 or 2 point solution. From prevention to response, school safety must be built upon a comprehensive approach. One that addresses mental health, building design, SRO funding, safe rooms, routine training and on-site policies that are followed, consistently...and these are just the beginning.

Currently, the School Resource Officer (SRO) is the number one, instantly deployable option to begin the path to safe schools. They utilize law enforcement training to provide on-site threat assessment and instantaneous response when needed. However, beyond simply being present, the SRO program consistently evaluates the preparedness of the building, faculty and staff. In Hartselle, we routinely test the policies we have in place. We attempt to enter buildings unnoticed, we check to see if entry ways are secure, we check to see how far an unidentified visitor can go in the building before being confronted by building personnel and many other scenarios that are not meant to be public information. Additionally, we have conducted active shooter trainings for the educators in our city. The School Resource Officer (SRO) program in our schools is critical to the safety of our students, staff and guests.

I have been involved with this program for the last 15 years. It is one of our best defenses against school violence. Having well trained SRO’s in our schools is the best response to any potential threat of violence. However, what many may not realize, the program goes far beyond simply having an officer present. True security is found through layers of proactive testing and evaluating. Throughout the year we put our policies and processes through rigorous testing. Whether it’s our secure entry points, response times or school personnel we evaluate to see if our Policies are followed and if the policies meet the needed level of security. 
These are the preparation steps that we can control and they will continue.

This will be the same for the SRO Program through the Sheriff’s department. The process begins with the selection of the appropriate candidate to be an SRO. It is a unique working environment where the stakes could not be higher. Whether staffed by active or retired law enforcement the bar is set high and the standard must be met with excellence. Beyond the SRO, the policies and procedures will continually be evaluated with building personnel and central office staff to ensure we are prepared.

As Sheriff, I am committed to partnering with our County Commission and School Systems to:

  • develop effective funding to provide sufficient SRO presence
  • provide ongoing program evaluation and threat assessment to test the layers of our safety protocols
  • support and foster in school programs that address prevention
  • initiate appropriate reporting and notification so that the public has the best information available
  • institute Prevention and Response training for our school building personnel

I wish securing our schools was as simple as saying: we will do this or we will hire them. Unfortunately it is a dynamic issue that requires equally dynamic solutions. I believe my 15 years of dealing with the security of our city schools will be invaluable as we enhance our SRO program. I will do everything in my power as Sheriff to see that both your children and mine come home at the end of the school day.

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