The tragedy on Friday struck many across the nation and led to, as in the past, many in public education to reflect on the events and what is being done to try and best prepare should such an event ever happen at a local level.
“It's a tragedy; my heart just breaks,” Aiken County Public School District Superintendant Dr. Elizabeth Everitt said. “We think about safety every day and do our best to keep our students and faculty safe.”
At both the state and local levels, there are policies and procedures in place to best prepare for a number of emergencies.
In Aiken County, the school district sends out a crisis response handbook to each school that includes a number of different drills. There are drills for fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and one that has been implemented for nearly the past 20 years – unwanted intruder, or lock-down drill.
“It's one of the most common that we prepare for,” said Director of Administrative Service Randy Stowe.
“Our schools conduct an unwanted intruder/lock-down drill every year, which can range from a soft lock down, in which the exterior doors are locked, and we monitor the front door, to a hard lock down, in which the individual classrooms are locked until law enforcement clears the building. The Aiken County Sheriff's Department and other local public safety agencies helped design our procedures and have participated in many of our drills. We also coordinate our crisis-response drills with the county emergency preparedness office.
“This is in addition to the other list of safety considerations that we have in place, such as having school resource officers in our high schools, locking exterior doors when possible, (having) security cameras in some buildings, having all visitors sign in at the office, school personnel carrying radios for communication and so forth.”
Aiken Elementary principal Becky Koelker said they take the issue of student safety very seriously.
“We keep all doors locked except for the one to the front office. No matter who they (visitors) are, they have to sign in,” Koelker said. “We're pretty security conscience. I think we're well prepared, but I don't think anybody can be well prepared for that.”
Aiken County also has a phone system that will call parents for reasons ranging from emergencies to snow days. Stowe said the district also is looking at adding text messaging to the service.
He added that the district had some procedures prior to the Columbine, Colo., shootings, but after that, help came in from the state and federal level on how to best prepare.
Since 1990, the state has enforced the Safe School Climate Act and, on an annual basis, the S.C. Department of Education sends out a checklist for school districts to use to refine and revise their own safety plans.
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais sent out a release Friday, stating, “On behalf of educators throughout South Carolina, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Sandy Hook Elementary. I pray God will give these families comfort in the days and weeks ahead,” he said. “South Carolina educators and school resource officers work hard every day to ensure safe school environments. Today's tragedy is a reminder that we live in a world that is not free of violence. We must also be mindful of our surroundings and report suspicious activity to school leaders or law enforcement authorities.
“To the parents and guardians of South Carolina: hug your children a little longer when they arrive safe at home from school,” added Zais. “And say an extra prayer for the community of Newtown tonight.”
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