Public Safety & Homeland Security

Schools Taking Holistic Approach to Campus Safety

'You’ve got to look beyond someone coming in the school and doing something bad.'

by Lauren McDonald, The Brunswick News, Ga. / June 7, 2018

(TNS) - Glynn County Schools police chief Rod Ellis says it often — there’s more to school safety than stopping the bad guy with a gun.

Instead, a holistic approach must be taken to best ensure that students are safe in school, Ellis says. That is the mindset that has been applied to the ongoing district-wide effort to improve local school safety.

“You’ve got to look beyond someone coming in the school and doing something bad,” Ellis said Wednesday. “You have to look at the whole gamut.”

School safety is a national conversation that has been especially amplified this past year, after a former student killed 17 people on Feb. 14 with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Other school shootings have happened since, including one in which 10 people were killed and 10 wounded in Sante Fe, Texas on May 18.

The shootings prompted school districts across the country, including in Glynn County, to reconsider safety protocols and to make improvements.

After the Parkland incident, Glynn County Schools officials began a system-wide review of safety plans and procedures.

Steps have already been taken to beef up school security and update the technology and other security measures. More changes are expected to be made before the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Virgil Cole, superintendent of Glynn County Schools, said the school system prioritizes being proactive.

“This has always been a forward-thinking district as far as looking at safety,” Cole said.

Glynn County Schools is one of 30 school systems in Georgia with its own internal police department.

“Everybody’s scrambling to do that now, and Glynn County has had it,” Ellis said.

Ellis has implemented a “rings of security” concept that he became familiar with while being trained in Israel for three weeks in 2013. The approach focuses on the multiple, overlapping elements of security that need to be in place to best keep school campuses safe.

The outermost ring consists of cyber-security, social media monitoring and other technology. The inner perimeter ring consists of physical barriers. The final, innermost ring is the human element — school staff and students — who Ellis says are the real “first responders” in an emergency situation.

Ellis has worked with a former U.S. Secret Service agent to create a threat assessment team for the school system.

“Another strong thing we’re working on is the threat assessment team, where if we did have someone at risk we can stay on top of that, engage that person and manage that threat, not just let that go,” Ellis said.

New video cameras and public address systems have been and are continuing to be installed in schools. And by the start of next school year, every elementary and middle school should have electronically-locked doors. Visitors will have to be buzzed in to enter.

“We want to have all our schools at the same level,” Cole said.

A lot of attention has been been paid to Glynn Academy, Ellis said, as its open campus layout lends itself to many safety challenges and provides for too much unfettered access.

The Glynn County Board of Education discussed a plan Tuesday to fully fence off Glynn Academy’s campus — a process that is nearly finished — and to install electric gates to close off the Mansfield Street portion of campus during the school day.

City approval will be required before those gates can be installed.

Ellis said he plans to continue emphasizing safety training next year for both staff and students. At the end of the last school year, he met with every school secretary and conducted training on how to respond in the first 30 seconds of an emergency.

“They’re at the forefront,” he said. “They’re the gatekeepers on everything that’s done in that school … You need to make sure everybody is trained up, from the custodians to the food service people, to everybody.”

Jim Pulos, assistant superintendent for operations and administrative services for Glynn County Schools, has led the effort alongside Ellis to improve school safety district-wide.

Continued training is crucial, he said.

“Many times, it really comes down to everybody understanding what role they play in this,” Pulos said.

Every school has reviewed its own school safety plan and discussed needed updates and changes, Pulos said, including to the way fire drills are handled.

“(In Florida) it was a fire alarm that was activated, and then everyone emptied out into the halls,” he said.

A whiteboard in Pulos’s office lists the many concerns he has when it comes to school safety.

“I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing we haven’t done everything that needs to be done, if something were to happen,” he said. “… Our parents entrust us to make sure when their kids come to school that they’re going to be in a safe environment.”

Pulos said school officials are also considering how to improve access to mental health resources for students.

The school system is taking a comprehensive approach to address the safety at every level, Ellis said.

“You have to think beyond the bad guy with the gun coming through the front door of the school,” he said. “… It’s a full circle for safety.”

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©2018 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)

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