School officials and law enforcement in Oconee County are taking steps to ease community concerns brought about by Friday's tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The public school system and Sheriff's Office Monday released statements to assure parents they are working together to increase officer visibility in and around schools this week and review security measures.
Mark Channell, assistant superintendent for student services, described the partnership with the Sheriff's Office as "strong."
Though there are no full-time school resource officers, deputies regularly visit schools during the day and check facilities at night, he said. They work with school officials whenever a need arises, and periodically conduct drills, such as active shooter trainings, on school campuses.
"We feel very good that our Sheriff's Department knows our buildings, they know what to do," Channell said. "We've worked on a plan together and so if something happened -- and I hope it never does -- but if something happened, we would know how to respond."
Increased visibility of law enforcement
Sheriff Scott Berry reported on the Sheriff's Office Facebook Page that he and Chief Deputy Lee Weems met with principals of every public and private school Monday and also discussed security with Oconee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jason Branch.
"In addition to the fixed presence at each school, deputies in unmarked cars, along with Troopers with the Georgia State Patrol, augmented the presence at schools with random patrols and school checks," Berry wrote. "I am not at liberty to discuss specifics, and I will not do so. However, the safety of each student, teacher, professional and staff at each school is important to the Sheriff's Office and our School Leadership teams."
Berry urged citizens to call 911 immediately if concerns of a threat should ever arise.
The increased presence of law enforcement was a welcome sight for many parents.
"Seeing your deputies at my daughters' schools today brought me to tears: tears of heartbreak for Sandy Hook, tears of gratitude for law enforcement protecting my children, tears of fear of the evil in this world and tears of thankfulness my children are safe," one woman remarked.
Others said they'd like to see more.
"I think there should be armed security and a nurse at every school," one man wrote.
Various commenters on the Facebook threads also debated gun control and whether schools should consider allowing administrators and educators to carry concealed weapons, topics that have been dominating national conversations as of late.
What do you think about the efforts of school officials and law enforcement? Share in the comments below.
School safety a priority
Mark Channell said the school system has been "proactive" over the years in developing and continually updating emergency plans.
"Back in 1999, this school system developed a security plan with a lot of stakeholders -- the Sheriff's Office, emergency management, fire departments, parents and other groups of people -- and developed a system-wide plan that basically drives everything that we do," he explained.
That plan was most recently updated in 2008-09, he said. But individual schools' facility-specific plans-- illustrated in the form of flip charts -- were updated this past summer with input from Georgia Emergency Management Agency officials.
Details of those plans are kept confidential for security reasons.
Employees participate in drills that prepare them for the unexpected, according to Channell. One such drill recently took place at Oconee County High School, he noted.
"We're always looking for ways to make our schools as safe as possible," he said.
School leaders reach out to parents
Several principals have reached out to parents through emails.
Oconee County Primary Principal Julie Patrick stated in her email that all classrooms at the school are equipped with emergency call buttons and manuals. Exterior doors are locked during the day except for one in the front of the school, she explained, and cameras monitor the front and back entrances and exits.
"Tragedy can strike at any time, anywhere but I am certain that our school staff would respond just as bravely as the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary did on Friday morning," Patrick wrote. "We love your children and will protect them as if they were our own."
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