The more than 30 participants in an April 5 Parent Connect meeting, “Creating Partnerships for School Safety,” gave the message that Carroll County wants safer schools now. Answers to school safety don’t lend themselves to that timeline though, as communities struggle for solutions.
“Trust us. We never stop thinking about this. It never leaves our thoughts. It’s a situation we don’t have an answer to,” said Principal Marc Quesenberry as he closed the meeting in the school auditorium. “I can say because of what’s gone on, this school is safer than it has been in previous years. We are doing everything we can. We are learning every day. It’s a balancing act. Your comments will help us. We’ll talk about the information and try to make it work.”
The meeting opened with a question on how officers prepare. Gardner said officers’ training with active scenarios is a constant process and the Department works with school safety committees with cooperation between local tactical teams and members of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
“It’s an evolving thing. We are all the time with someone coming up with a new idea (for training),” said Gardner. “When I first started in Carroll County High School the policy was to stage everything outside. This was pre-Columbine. That all changed with Columbine High School. Officers now are trained if you have one or two (responding), you go to the sound of gunfire. That’s what we are trained to do.”
He said some drills allow personnel to learn the layout of different school buildings. Gardner said if safety was taken to the extreme, local schools would take on the character of the River North Correctional Facility, which wasn’t the original plan for community-based public schools.
“If I had my wish list, I’d want an SRO in every school (full-time),” Gardner said. “That’s not going to happen for financial reasons but I’d love to have it. I don’t know a single one of these guys sitting up here with me and with the Hillsville Police Department who wouldn’t go into a building. Not a single one of them wouldn’t give up their life. Nobody trains to stay outside anymore.”
He said the drills are carried out with HPD and the Virginia State Police and other counties. One of the discussions SROs locally and elsewhere discuss is what to do after a shooting.
“By this I mean after the first hour, you’re going to have one hundred to two hundred police officers there. Where are you going to put them? Where are you going to put family members? That’s a part of it. Critical incident management after the initial response. None of us know the answers to everything. I wish we did.”
One participant pointed out shooters are not a random person off the street and said the relationships built by SROs and students meant it was less likely to happen. Gardner pointed out because of the size of the county this cooperation is essential because everyone knows to come with departments from Galax for instance, being able to get to certain schools faster. He also inferred media should examine its reactions to these events.
“The amount of vultures who are coming to take advantage of your children and they stick a camera in their face and do interviews is also coming. You need someone to help you manage them. Somebody to help you segregate people so you have control (initially) over who is talking to them. Taking advantage of a kid in a situation like that is wrong.”
When asked what it would take to increase SRO officers, Gardner noted Montgomery County considered a proposal raising more than a million dollars through a tax rate increase which was voted down. He said they needed to consider once an officer was hired, it takes a year for certification before working in a building by themselves (Virginia requires a minimum of 360 hours of training after graduation from a police academy.)
“It’s a salary plus benefits for whoever person that is. Someday that’s going to be a possibility,” said Gardner. “We get our salary funding from the compensation board in Richmond. They tell me this is how many people in your area. This is how many road positions, dispatchers and this many investigators.”
He said the scarcity of grants, which predominately are awarded to larger areas in Northern Virginia, also complicates funding. Grants typically pay only for entry-level salaries. Supervisor Rex Hill encouraged participants to lobby legislators from across Virginia in addition to local representatives, who are aware of the problem. There are also state laws regulating what can be carried on school grounds.
Participants appeared angry they regularly receive calls about a variety of subjects through the System’s all-call network but received no word until they read in The Carroll News a King, North Carolina man, charged after speaking of a desire to commit a school shooting, was followed by North Carolina police into Virginia on March 22. The man drove past Fancy Gap Elementary and Hillsville Elementary School.
One participant said, “You can’t live in fear but this put me in a fear,” to Gardner, who explained the timeline of the incident. Another said the article sent her “anxiety level through the roof.” She asked what was the plan by the System and the Department to make parents aware?
Another participant said “Communication is lacking and it’s making parents very uneasy, especially when you read these things in the newspaper and see what’s going on in other schools.” Others noted that rushing to get information out without adequate verification increases anxiety and chaos.
“Yes. I want our schools safe, but this is not (just) a school problem. This is a community problem. What about when we walk into Walmart, the movie theatre or church? This is a problem which could happen anywhere we go,” said another. “I want them to be looking for that person instead of calling and saying this person might be in the area.”
Others said another part of the problem was the growing numbers of children whose home life suffers from parental drug abuse, with “more and more kids coming to (school) to be loved and not just learn,” children who are too scared about what’s going on at home to tell anyone.
“It takes all of us for outreach. People in the churches, in Boy and Girl Scouts… to build relationships with those kids,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mark Burnette. “If a kid is not comfortable with you they’re not going to tell you.”
Gardner said adults need to listen to what children say. Others noted it was important to change student mindsets, and eliminate the concept of “snitching.” It was pointed out that “tattling” is to get someone in trouble and “telling” is done to help somebody.
The meeting was sponsored by Carroll County Public School Division (CCPSD) and held at Carroll County Middle School. The presenters included Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner and School Resource Officers Corporal Kevin Kemp, Corporal Mike Combs, Deputy Steve Woods, Deputy Gator King, School Superintendent Dr. Shirley Perry and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mark Burnette and Principal Marc Quesenberry.
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.