Aiken County School District officials plan to meet with the county’s law enforcement directors in separate meetings next week to discuss school safety concerns, said David Caver, the district’s deputy superintendent.
He noted that North Augusta Public Safety completed a walk-through at North Augusta High during the holiday break.
“We want to see what they have to say about that, what changes they might suggest to the procedures we already have,” Caver said.
He will talk with the Sheriff’s Department and Aiken Public Safety about possible plans for walk-throughs and their advice on strengths and weaknesses.
If the aftermath of the horrific shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, “We’re looking at how we can make our schools safer and more secure,” Caver said. “We’re also looking at existing safety plans we have in place.”
Planning for the district’s 40 schools have to be individualized, because they are so different. Byrd Elementary School is the district’s newest facility, which provides a traffic pattern in which visitors have to come to the front office and go to the front desk.
Aiken High, however, was completed nearly 60 years ago, and its acreage once housed two schools.
The current North Campus was the former North Aiken Elementary School until the late 1990s.
Aiken High can be accessed through any number of points. Yet, the school has a master plan that would have provided far more safety opportunities.
A referendum that failed with voters in 2010 would have brought, in part, an entirely new facility.
A new wing now under construction will impact security to some extent, as it will replace a number of aging mobile classrooms.
A remodeling of the main campus entrance a few years ago does bring visitors to a lobby with a secretary and the School Resource Officer’s office.
More recently, South Aiken High School revamped its main entrance with two sets of doors.
“It creates a flow where you have to go into the office and visitors have to sign in,” principal Bryan Skipper said. “We’re open like Aiken High is, and someone can come on the property from any direction.”
South Aiken’s School Resource Officer makes periodic tours around the perimeter. Those exteriors that don’t have students coming in and out remain locked.
The S.C. State Department of Education sent out an email Friday, announcing that State Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais will visit three Aiken schools Monday – Oakwood-Windsor Elementary School at 10 a.m., J.D. Lever Elementary at 11:30 a.m. and Aiken High at 1:30 p.m.
Zais has visited Aiken schools previously since he was elected in 2010.
On Thursday, Zais participated in a meeting of the S.C. Senate Education Committee. He told senators that school districts who chose to do so could employ SROs at all schools through their existing budgets.
Zais also supports the idea of extensive training and vetting of school employees, authorizing them to be armed in schools. Mark Keel, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division chief, said he would never promote such a school safety program.
“He (Keel) is a professional, and I would agree with him,” Caver said.
So do two Aiken County legislators, S.C. Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, and S.C. Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken.
“The superintendent knows about education,” Smith said. “The SLED chief knows law enforcement, and I’ll come down on his side on this.”
Clyburn and Smith also endorse the value of SROs and would like to see them in all public schools throughout the state.
“The state is responsible for taking care of its children,” Clyburn said. “If we (the General Assembly) mandate SROs, we ought to put out the money, even if we have to cut something else. Safety is going to come first.”
Smith concurred, stating that one child is worth such an expense.
“I will be a strong advocate to be a part of the finances,” he said. “The other way would be the local taxpayer. There’s no magic bullet. It has to come from somewhere.”
Caver and other district administrators are looking at having more camera systems, where the front office would buzz in visitors. South Aiken has 20 cameras throughout the campus, but no auditory option. Skipper would welcome more cameras when funding allows that.
As alarming as it sounds, school safety cannot fully prevent tragedies, Caver said.
Although the extensive security measures at Sandy Hook didn’t prevent a determined, troubled young from entering the school, the safety procedures may have helped avert an even worse result, Caver said.
More than a decade ago, the school district participated in a large-scale drill – involving a shooting suspect and multi-jurisdictional law enforcement officers. Caver remembers it well, the coordination of the agencies and the schools.
“Our awareness was heightened, and some of the procedures we started using are still there,” he said. “We’re going to talk to law enforcement to plan another multi-jurisdictional drill and see what we can learn from it.”