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Dawson County Schools hold safety workshop
Concerned parents give constructive feedback
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Superintendent Damon Gibbs addresses the audience on safety measures currently in place in the school system. - photo by Jessica Taylor

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Parents, school faculty and members of the sheriff’s office came together for a school safety workshop March 8 at Dawson County Junior High School where they had a chance to hear current safety measures in place as well as offer their suggestions to make Dawson County Schools safer for students. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Last week’s informational school safety workshop at Dawson County Junior High School served two purposes: To inform the community of current safety procedures and brainstorm ideas for the future that will be presented to the board of education.

“Realistically what we’re here to do tonight is to hear from our community and what you folks want to see us implement in our schools,” said Superintendent Damon Gibbs at the March 8 workshop. “What we’re going to do after those meetings is compile all that information and take some recommendations along with some costs… to our board of education [to] make some decisions on some safety things we can implement in the future.”

Over the past few years, Dawson County Schools have implemented measures to keep each campus safe, including rekeying all buildings two summers ago and switching faculty keys to electronic badges.

“We don’t want keys lost and that sort of thing. If we have someone lose a badge we can deactivate that thing in about three seconds,” said Gibbs.

Access points have been reduced by 90 percent across the campuses, and normally there is only one door unlocked at the front of the school, which leads to a secure vestibule and the school’s front office. The exception is the high school, which has a guard shack to sign in visitors before they reach the front office.

Gibbs also discussed the school resource officer program, which currently has a staff of only five SROs for seven schools.

 “Your voice will be important as we move forward with that initiative if we want to expand that program,” Gibbs said.

In another effort to be proactive in the past few weeks, the school system has administered 40 badges to keep in every police car so that any officer will have access to all campuses.

And a new app for the school system has been in the works for nine months and was finally unveiled during the workshop. It contains a feature where individuals can report safety concerns.

The 1Dawson app can be downloaded for free in the Apple Store or Google Play or downloaded through the Dawson County Schools website.

The app shouldn’t be the first line of defense for serious threats, however.  Police should always be notified first in case of an emergency.

“The very first thing that you see is ‘Contact Us/Safety Concerns.’ As you know we’ve had a couple of students arrested in the last few weeks about and charged with terroristic threats,” said Gibbs. “The first of those was actually contacted – the student told their mother when they got home from school so it was outside of the school day when that threat was known. That mother didn’t go on our website and leave a message for somebody to get to the next day, nor should any of our parents.”

The school system also rolled out the “See Something…Say Something” program, which can be accessed under the main banner of the Dawson County Schools homepage. There, students, teachers and parents can report anything they see that seems suspicious. The message will be sent directly to Gibbs’ office where it will be routed to the appropriate department to be dealt with immediately, according to Gibbs.

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Fire Chief Lanier Swafford explains the importance of “Stop the Bleed” training that school faculty and staff have received. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Fire Chief Lanier Swafford also addressed those in attendance to talk about the school system’s current safety plan.

In 2016, as required by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the Dawson County Emergency Services worked with the school system and updated the school safety plan. Realizing the complexity of the old plan, the new plan has been simplified.

“The main reason we wanted to make it simpler was not to take anything of value out of it but make it user friendly for those who were required to use that system safety plan,” said Swafford.

The new plan was tested in October 2017 at an active shooter drill located at the high school. Representatives from each school, the sheriff’s office and emergency services were in attendance as well as the GEMA Homeland Security School Safety Officer for the area who evaluated the plan.

“I can say that drill went very, very well. I, along with the sheriff’s office and GEMA, was impressed with the readiness of those present and how those reacted to the drill,” Swafford said.

The county has also implemented the “Stop the Bleed” initiative last fall and has trained hundreds of faculty and staff how to use combat tourniquets to stop the bleeding in emergency situations.

 “It’s been proven…that folks died not because actually of the shooting but because of the techniques that were used,” said Swafford. “Nobody stopped and stopped bleeding. Folks bled out.”

The initiative is much like CPR in that it’s a basic skill that anybody can be taught according to Swafford.

“To me that’s very, very important because some things we may not can stop but how we react to them…how we prepare and react is critical,” said Swafford.

Breakout Sessions

The meat of the meeting came from the community feedback during the breakout sessions for each of the schools. Concerned parents, educators and students were given the opportunity to ask questions and provide suggestions for further safety measures.

In the Dawson County High School session, parents came ready with suggestions on how to make the campus safer and less accessible to strangers.

“Do we use outside security audits to prove that the plan is good or not?” asked a concerned father.

GEMA is the only one who has looked at the plan and seeking an outside opinion might be something the schools should look into, said Assistant Principal Brody Hughes.

“You need an outside entity that’s not involved in this to test your security protocol. All of us on the same side that have seen the plan are biased by that plan. You need somebody to look at it from a shooter or other point of view that needs to be looked at,” the father continued.

The Performing Arts Center was a big topic of discussion as it is easily accessible with little security in place after school hours.

“Once you’re into the PAC, as you’re past that gate you can access the entire campus because you can go out that back door to the drama department and you can get in any part of the building you want to walk into,” chimed a mother. “I know for a fact. I’ve done it. I’ve done it multiple times.”

Suggestions included those renting out the facility be required to supply security for the duration of the event. It was also noted that after school functions at the facility does not require security which is something SRO Josh Rogers said they are currently working on.

“In the past, just to be frank with you, it has been budget constraints,” said Rogers. “As of now I am mandated to be at all afterschool functions no matter how big, no matter how small.”

Since the high school has implemented the guard shack, concerns were raised about the guard and whether he has training for emergency situations.

“If that’s our number one gate at the school, it ain’t worth two cents,” said one parent who was frustrated with the guard not paying close attention when signing in visitors.

“The guard shack stops cars. I don’t know what the answer is but anybody can walk up the street and get on to campus,” said another woman.

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Parents talk with Dawson County Middle School Assistant Principal Kim White and Counselor Brian Flath on ways to stop active shooters during the breakout sessions. - photo by Jessica Taylor

During the Dawson County Middle School breakout session, the topic became quite heated as parents tackled with the controversial notion of arming teachers and providing incentives for teachers who carry.

“Would you feel more comfortable if you were armed or would you feel more like that was a burden that you had to carry?” asked a mother.

Another worried mother agreed with allowing teachers to carry on campus and imagined herself in the teacher’s position.

“I know if it were myself I would feel more comfortable because the bottom line is, these people are getting in to these schools. Whatever they’ve gotten in place they’re getting in and they’re shooting our children,” she said. “If I hear guns going off, I’m going to feel helpless. My first thought would be escape…let’s get everybody out. My second thought would be ‘how can I defend my babies?’ I can’t defend my babies against a gun. I would be helpless. I feel like if I were a teacher I would feel empowered to be able to have a weapon to protect my children.”

There were also those in the room who were opposed to teachers carrying, suggesting that there were many other options that could be utilized such as clear book bags.

An educator and mother spoke up about the diametrically opposed objectives she has been grappling.

“I know that when I heard teachers talking about this they are legitimately committing to picking up a gun and shooting to kill and it may or may not be an intruder. It may be one of our children,” she said. “I have a great conflict in my heart going to work every day with those two diametrically opposed 180 degree objectives in mind. Shoot to kill. Love them and lead them. That is a real issue for me personally and I think it is for many teachers.”

DCMS Counselor Brian Flath mentioned that the idea of arming teachers is a very controversial topic at the moment, with people equally in favor or in opposition to the idea.

Even an NRA instructor and vet in attendance said he didn’t particularly want everybody in the room and in the school carrying, “but if it came down to it I would love for everyone to have one.”

“I think this conversation just opens light to the struggle that when a decision is going to have to be made there are multiple viewpoints. I mean I think that’s obvious in this room so this decision I know is not going to be taken lightly or easily,” said DCMS Assistant Principal Kim White. “Please know that when it comes to Dr. Gibbs and it comes to the board and it comes to the leadership that they really are always putting kids first when they make these decisions and whether or not you agree with – if they end up letting them or not letting them – we’re going to have multiple things in place to protect your children.”

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Robinson Elementary Principal Page Arnette talks to concerned parents about procedures in place at the elementary school to keep the students safe. - photo by Jessica Taylor

In the Robinson Elementary discussion group, parents made several suggestions for the school system to consider, including no adults going into a school with a backpack or duffle bag and installing keypads and entering pass codes in case a staff member drops their key badge during an emergency.

One parent suggested that the school system invest in high quality level four body armor to adequately protect officers in the event of charging an active shooter. SROs are currently wearing handgun weighted body armor which is ineffective against more powerful weapons. He also mentioned investing in SWAT shields that can be hung behind the doors.

“If there is an active shooter, a teacher can step into the hallway, defend the students that are trying to get to those open doors and if they need to they can charge the active shooter because they’ve got the right rating on the shield that will stop the bullets,” he said.

Meanwhile in the Black’s Mill Elementary discussion, mothers took the opportunity to ask Principal Cindy Kinney how lockdown drills are handled.

“Have teachers or staff spoken to students about the lockdown drills? Because not all parents I feel like could really explain it and also we weren’t notified that the drill was going to happen so we weren’t able to give our children a heads up on it,” said one mother.

Kinney responded saying that she typically doesn’t announce when the lockdown drills will happen and tells the students it is “practice to keep us safe.”

“We’re very careful at the elementary level how we word it with our students because we want them to be prepared and know the procedures,” said Kinney.

A full list of the suggestions and comments will be made public at a later date.