TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – It’s no doubt as kids head back to class to begin the school year, safety and security will be top of mind for district leaders, their parents and students themselves.
The Uvalde, Texas mass shooting at Robb Elementary in May, during which a gunman killed 19 students and 2 adults, has been a wake-up call to put a renewed focus on safety in schools.
The call to action as described by Kenneth Trump, a leading national expert on school safety, is to plan, prepare and practice.
Trump, of no relation to President Donald J. Trump, has testified multiple times to Congress about safety in schools. He has also written books about and analyzed the highest-profile school shootings in the country.
“The common thread is that they involve allegations of failures of human factors, people, policies, procedures, training,” Trump told News Channel 11 in an interview.
Trump says there is a skewed focus on physical security measures like locks, cameras, metal detectors and the like. He argues they can too easily become “security theater,” giving a false sense of safety if preparation stops there.
“Our first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body,” he said. “Any security technology is only as good as the weakest human link behind it. We have to invest in people with time, training, planning, preparing and practicing. And on recognizing warning signs during threat assessment and supporting kids to prevent a tragedy in the first place.”
School systems in the Tri-Cities are ramping up their working relationships with local law enforcement, including Washington County, Tennessee Schools. Leaders recently met with FBI agents, emergency management and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office about school security.
“We want to just make a collective, concerted effort to get as many different sets of eyes on our buildings, the outside, the inside, and our procedures. For everything we do to keep our kids safe day in and day out,” said Jarrod Adams, COO of Washington County Schools.
In Johnson City schools, an active shooter drill in July got everyone involved: the school, police and the hospital.
“We do practice what we would do if we had an intruder or someone in our schools buildings. Teachers practice that in faculty meetings during tabletop drills,” said Dr. Steve Barnett, Superintendent of Johnson City Schools.
The drill was over a year in the making. The school system created the scenario within their own facilities but kept the exact circumstances secret from responding agencies to allow them to react on the ground.
For Kingsport City Schools (KCS), a safety task force meets on an ongoing basis to discuss protocol and procedure.
“What can we learn from other situations, other issues? Those kinds of conversations really never stop for us,” said Dr. Andy True, Asst. Superintendent. “How can we bring in the experts when it comes to school safety? How can we involve our community partners? Kingsport police, fire, first responders, mental health?”
The school system determined when it comes to security technology, camera upgrades were desperately needed in all KCS buildings. The board over the summer appropriated significant funding for camera surveillance system upgrades.
“We want to take our existing cameras that need upgrading, upgrade servers, memory those things. That’s going to come in at three quarters of a million dollars,” said True.
True said district leaders want to continuously “stay at the table” when it comes to discussing safety protocol.
“School safety is everyone’s job, it’s an inside job,” said Trump. “It’s something that is part of the school culture where everyone plays a role.”
He added school leaders need to focus on three things:
- Situational awareness and training
- How to make quick decisions under stress
- Pattern recognition and spotting the abnormal
Trump stressed the responsibility of keeping kids safe in schools cannot be left to security technology and an SRO. He urges everyone in the school and outside the school to play an active role. Teachers and students should report to an official if they notice major behavioral changes in a student or concerning comments about harming themselves or others.
“We need to encourage them to follow their gut feeling, recognize those abnormalities and patterns, and act upon it. And, make sure when they tell somebody, they do something in a timely manner,” said Trump.
“We stress that it is all hands on deck. The old saying is ‘your chain is only as strong as the weakest link.’ Making sure everybody, all the adults, all the students in our schools are aware that we all have a collective responsibility to help keep each other safe,” said Adams.
Trump and the district school leaders also emphasize the importance of mental health resources, counseling services and emotional support for students in schools.