BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Policies. Procedures. Patrols.
While these items are all becoming the focus of safety talks surrounding the Greene County School System, the question of placing law enforcement officers in all the county schools remains under debate.
School Safety was the key focus of discussion during Thursday's meeting of the Greene County Education Committee.
But talk of structure and the possible presence of security officers in the schools also met talk of budgets and the need to keep a friendly environment in the schools.
The emotional impact of the loss of 20 young lives and six staff members in Newtown, Conn., at the hands of an armed, apparently unbalanced young man, landed a hard hit on the nation that has prompted many security-related discussions locally and nationally.
Instead of reacting immediately, however, Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk announced the coming formation of safety committees to evaluate all aspects of safety in the county school system.
"I believe our schools are very safe and very adequate," Kirk said during Thursday's meeting of the Education Committee.
While her comment was related to an earlier discussion on reasons for children to attend home school, the statement quickly opened the door to commissioners' questioning how the Greeneville City School System can afford to place police officers in every school, as announced earlier this week. (Please see related article on Page ???????)
Since it was announced that officers would be posted in every Greeneville school, beginning Monday, Jan. 7, Kirk said she has received many phone calls from the community encouraging the county to take the same step.
She also noted that, in Greeneville, it is not the school system placing the officers. Instead, it is the Town of Greeneville and the Greeneville Police Department that are working to find a way to cover the costs.
"That's a good feeling, to have somebody there," said Commissioner Hilton Seay, a former high school principal and chair of the Education Committee.
The Greene County School System already places a security officer in each of the county's four high schools during school hours, Kirk noted.
She added that principals do appreciate this measure since high schools are statistically more likely to encounter safety issues.
The county school system has 13 other facilities, including elementary schools, middle schools and an alternative school, in which security officers are currently not present on a regular basis, the director said.
FORMING SAFETY TEAM
"A healthy school climate is the number one factor that keeps children safe," Kirk said.
She described "healthy" as a "safe, calm, loving place."
"We don't need to be barricaded; we just need to exercise normal precautions," she added.
She said she is currently working to form a safety team that will include four principals, an assistant principal, law enforcement representation, and county commissioners.
This team will review daily procedures and basic safety procedures, develop protocols, conduct walk-through safety checks, and analyze the possible need for facilities improvements and/or additional personnel, the director said.
Board of Education Chairman Roger Jones also noted that he intends to form a board Safety Committee that will also include county commissioners.
Kirk's safety team would report to the school board's safety committee, which will also review the system's safety from the board's point of view, he said.
This committee would then make any recommendations to the full Board of Education (BOE).
Kirk also announced that she has met with Sheriff Steve Burns to discuss what the school system and the Sheriff's Department can accomplish within their current budgets.
She stated that she is working to provide Burns with a folder containing every school's floor plan, a copy of which will also remain at the system's Central Office.
In addition, she said Sheriff Burns will be reviewing the system's current safety communications and lighting, and has promised increased patrols around schools.
Moreover, she said that process-servers (those who serve documents, etc.) will aid in monitorinig school grounds as well.
Details on the frequency of patrols and monitoring are not yet clear, she added.
Sheriff Burns was not present during Thursday's meeting.
Kirk also provided the committee with a chart listing the system's 17 school facilities that detailed whether each facility had a safety entrance, buzzer system and/or security cameras.
Lacking security entrances are Glenwood Elementary School, Nolachuckey Elementary School, South Greene High School and West Greene High School, as well as the T.H. McNeese Educational Center, according to the chart.
A security entrance is one in which visitors must pass through a front office before being able to access the rest of the school.
However, Kirk noted that the Board of Education and the County Commission have authorized funds for building security entrances at West Greene and South Greene, with both projects soon to be under way.
Buzzer systems are currently installed at all the high schools, at the educational center, and at Chuckey-Doak Middle, Glenwood Elementary, and Nolachuckey Elementary, according to the chart.
Security cameras are in place at all locations except Camp Creek and McDonald elementary schools.
"I hope the public is going to realize and acknowledge what the school systems are having to do beyond the reading and writing and arithmetic," Seay said.
"Anything goes wrong [academically], they blame teachers for it. Hopefully this will change the public's attitude."
Since the events at Newtown, Kirk said she has contacted all of the system's principals to request a review of schools' entrances, exits and safety procedures.
In turn, many principals have reached out to parents and guardians in reassurance, as well as to encourage them to join efforts to increase safety by following procedures.
County Commissioner David Crum, a committee member and a detective with the Greeneville Police Department, praised parents for their reaction to an incident in September in which an individual crossed school property while carrying a BB gun that witnesses mistook for a rifle.
During the resulting lockdown of the school, Crum noted that parents not only reported to others and police what they had seen, but did not rush the school or impede officers.
Crum emphasized the important role he said parents and students can play in reporting suspicious circumstances.
He praised students for being more open and tolerant to others than in the past, as well as for setting goals and aspirations that prompt them to want to strive for a safe and friendly environment in which to learn.
"These safety discussions are not new," he reminded the committee. "They've been going on for a number of years. It's a progression."