School safety was at the top of Rick Smith’s agenda Monday morning, as local schools opened their doors for the first time following Friday’s Connecticut elementary school massacre.
The actions of a shooter who murdered his mother, 20 children and six adult staff members in a Connecticut elementary school before turning a gun on himself prompted a handful of phone calls from concerned parents, wanting to know about measures in place to ensure the safety of students and staff in Hamilton County schools, Smith said.
“Our job is to support our students, families and each other,” he said. “We certainly want to support people, and we want to do it in a compassionate and caring way. This has obviously resonated across the country in the past couple of days, and it will resonate here locally. We need to be sensitive to that. I expect parents to be very concerned because of how unfortunate it was that what happened Friday involved both adults and students. It is a terrible situation, and it will cause all of us to look at situations like this and prepare for the future.”
Smith said the school system has had lockdown procedures in place since Sept. 11, 2001.
Schools regularly conduct drills to simulate the response if an intruder was in a building.
But simply having a procedure in place does not mean it is the best possible means at responding to a future possible crisis, Smith said. The superintendent added that as more details became available in the aftermath of Friday’s shooting, re-evaluations to the school system’s safety policy could take place.
“Until you’re confronted with the reality of something this serious, you never really know if what you’ve got in place is what should actually be there,” he said. “We’ve got to do the best job we can, and I know our teachers and administrators are already doing that every day. We’ve got to continue ensuring student safety to the best of our ability.”
Currently, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office provides about 25 school resources offices, or SROs, in local middle and high schools.
No SROs are currently placed in elementary schools.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said that he had instructed SROs and officers conducting patrols near schools to adopt a heightened sense of vigilance Monday. But Hammond added that he did not anticipate major changes being made to law enforcement’s current presence in local schools in the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy, partially because of a lack in program funding.
Still, Hammond said that low funds would not prevent officers from re-evaluating contingency plans for responding to a possible school emergency.
“The public sees the SRO program as a very positive one, but it’s expensive, and it takes tax dollars to fund,” Hammond said. “So we’ll constantly be looking at the way we do business. There’s always new techniques and suggestions, and that’s an ongoing thing. That’s part of police planning . but what you can do immediately after a situation like this is not much.”
Hammond added his personal opinion that national focus in the wake of the school shooting should shift to issues such as mental health and societal values, rather than gun control.
“We’re training kids in movies and video games to be expert killers,” he said. “When you desensitize them with blood, gore and guts, and you’ve got a mental health problem on top of it, you’re just helping to create these types of problems.”
In an Associated Press report, Gov. Bill Haslam said he expected the tragedy to have an impact on discussions in the General Assembly next year regarding gun control and mental health.
Among the bills expected to be met with contentious debate this session is a measure that would allow employees to store weapons in their vehicles while parked at the workplace.
“Your first response is to be sick to your stomach,” Haslam was quoted saying. “I was with people all weekend who kept coming back to that. I think it’s something the American people are having a hard time getting past, and I hope we don’t get past it fast.”