Sampson Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Pope presented the county Board of Education with the findings of a recent school security and safety assessment and evaluation conducted by the sheriff’s office and school resource officers (SROs).
According to Pope, back in the spring the school system’s SROs conducted a security assessment of each school facility, drawing on information in the state Department of Public Instruction’s Assessment for Safe and Orderly Schools, which Pope described as containing good information but missing some aspects of security.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Pope. “A lot of it is just needing a refresher on stuff you already know.”
Pope shared that the school system was already doing many things right including having already established an open discussion between the school board, school staff, and the sheriff’s office about safety concerns, having a school board and school staffs that show a genuine interest in school security and prevention, and having already started the process of the of upgrading the school system’s video surveillance systems.
A grant for additional SROs has also been pursued and is still currently pending, added Pope, noting that the county school system would benefit from at least a couple more SROs. “We’re about two few.”
School board chairman Telfair Simpson asked how many more SRO positions could be obtained if the grant were to be awarded.
Pope replied that if the grant were to come through there was a possibility of bringing four more SROs into the county school system.
As for improvements the school system can make to its current security, Pope stressed that the school system needed a designated safety coordinator and a safety committee.
According to Pope, the safety coordinator would serve as the point point for all things security-related in the school system and would help update and create uniform system-wide crisis plans.
As for the committee, Pope suggested it be made up of a variety of Sampson County Schools’ personnel including one board member representative, a principal, a couple of teachers, and various other kinds of school staff members. These committee members would work to identify and make recommendations for school safety and security enhancement.
Pope also stressed the need for uniform security and safety policies for the entire school system that are created with input from law enforcement, fire departments, and EMS personnel.
According to Pope, the last system-wide crisis plan for the county schools0 was created in the late 1990s, and at the time, it was one of the first in North Carolina and served as a model for other school systems throughout the state.
However, it is now in need of revision. “A lot is outdated and a lot of the facilities have changed,” Pope pointed out, adding that “policy needs to come from the top down.”
As an example of the kinds of problems that can result from schools creating their own security plans and procedures, Pope referred to the colored cards that are often slid under doors to indicate various safety or emergency statuses.
“If we go in and there’s a blue or yellow card slid under the door and not a green or red card, we’re all going to look bad,” said Pope, describing how officers might not know what the colors of a specific school’s cards mean, especially if each school has its own color code.
Some of the policies that Pope pointed out need to be in place include one requiring classroom doors to be locked and closed at all times, one prohibiting the propping of exterior doors, and one implementing crime prevention through environmental design in future renovations and construction projects.
“Keeping the doors locked is the most economical thing you can do from the offset,” said Pope, bringing to the school board members attention that all one has to do to learn the patterns and schedules of schools is simply observe the school for a couple of days.
In the event that a dangerous person enters the school, “they’re going to take path of least resistance,” he continued. “If those doors are locked, they’re going to keep moving through.”
Another way that Sampson County Schools can improve its access control is to look into getting access card readers on school doors.
Showing board members one hooked on his shirt, Pope explained that “the great thing about these cards is that if one is lost you can go in and delete that card number instead of having to re-key the all the doors…It also gives more control over what time staff can go enter the school.”
In speaking of staff, Pope also suggested that staff members be reminded about the importance of them being in the hallways and the other populated areas of their school, calling more adults in such areas “a deterrent.”
“It’s usually really good at beginning of year…but around Christmas it tends to drop off. They need to be reminded that it needs to be done throughout the year,” said Pope. “There’s a lot less chance of something happening when there’s more eyes and ears around.”
Along with this recommendation, Pope paused to praise the job that the county schools’ staff has already been doing. “You guys are very fortunate with some of the staff you’ve got here…There’s lot of talent in house you can pull from.”
Lastly, Pope addressed the design of the three newest high schools in the area, two in the Sampson County Schools system and one in the Clinton City Schools system.
“I may step on some toes with this and if I do I’m sorry but Midway High School, Union High School, and Clinton High School are not designed for security,” Pope explained, specifically honing in on the many glass doors that are located at the front of the school.
“Architects are concerned with beauty, functionality,” Pope noted. “Their emphasis in a lot of cases is not on security and prevention.”
“We can’t help what’s already been done but we can control what happens from here on out,” he continued. “You need to look at replacing all the glass doors with solid steel doors…steel doors are going to give you more time.”
“We no longer live in a time where I can just stop in and eat lunch with my child,” added Pope. “We don’t have that luxury anymore.”
Board member Glenn Tart inquired about the sheriff’s office stance on arming school employees.
“That’s a question for the sheriff,” replied Pope, mentioning that such a move would bring with it liability concerns for the school system and that it would be something the school board and their attorney would want to discuss and give careful thought to.
“If school system were looking at that, there would be a massive amount of training involved,” stressed Pope.
Detailed security assessments and evaluations for each of the county schools will be provided later but only to school officials, Pope added, noting that for reasons of security those documents would not be public record.
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.