The House Study Committee on School Security held its first meeting at the Dawson County Board of Education Professional Development Center in Dawsonville on Monday to discuss school safety measures with representatives from several north Georgia counties.
The study committee, chaired by state Representative Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, was established by House Resolution 1414 during the 2018 legislative in response to the Parkland, Fla. school shooting in February.
Representatives from Dawson, Fannin, Forsyth, Gordon and Pickens counties gathered in Dawsonville to address the committee and have a frank discussion about what the state can do to address the topic of school safety.
“This is not an effort by the state to interfere with local governments and control of schools,” said Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “Rather this is simply a way to see if we can help local school districts ensure the safety of their staff and students.”
Georgia Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of External Affairs, Garry McGiboney, outlined the 41 Georgia laws pertaining to school safety, as well as the newest additions including mandatory school climate ratings and mental health awareness training for educators.
McGiboney noted that Georgia schools have seen an increase in computer trespass, vandalism and handguns in the past three years and that it is important that schools foster an environment where students feel they can reach out to adults in the school and alert them of potential safety threats.
“If there was one lesson that we all, educators that is, need to learn from Columbine is that schools can have no secrets,” McGiboney said. “If we don’t have a good relationship with the students so that they will tell us what’s going on in the school…we’re operating in the blind.”
Just last month, Governor Nathan Deal unveiled the “See Something Send Something” app to help give students, parents and community members more transparency in reporting safety threats to authorities. The app is similar to the 1Dawson “See Something Say Something” app unveiled by Dawson County Schools in March.
This year the state legislature also approved $16 million of the FY2019 budget to be divided among school districts for local boards of education to fund security measures.
“It will be up to the local boards of education and superintendents to determine how to best use their allotment and that’s the way it should be,” Ralston said.
Dawson County Schools will be receiving approximately $47,000 from the state, which will be used to partially fund security upgrades that the Dawson County BOE approved in April, including hiring a new Safe Schools Coordinator, two new school resource officers and implementing additional security measures to secure school buildings.
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson was present at the meeting with other local law enforcement officials, and said that law enforcement agencies need more funding if they are to provide school resource officers, and added that one school resource officer per school may not be enough to adequately secure the campus.
“Our resources are limited… if any school resource officer is out for some reason chances are that school is going without some type of law enforcement representation,” Johnson said.
For some, additional funding is not the only answer to increased security in schools.
Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby explained that the Fannin County board of education has taken steps to put more security into the hands of school officials.
Just last week the board approved allowing school staff to voluntarily carry holstered handguns on campus, which was met with an overwhelmingly positive response according to Kirby.
In a room full of lawmakers, state and local school board officials and law enforcement, pinpointing just one agency to be responsible for securing schools didn’t seem to be a popular approach.
“Everyone is responsible for the safety and security of our children,” said Dawson County Superintendent Damon Gibbs. “I believe when – as superintendent of schools – when anything happens in the school system ultimately is my responsibility.”
Gibbs argued that changes in the way funding is allocated could help school systems better protect their students, and said that 88 percent of the board’s budget goes directly to paying for employees, leaving little left over to be used for security measures.
Dawson County currently sits on ESPLOST funds of $7 million per year that cannot be used to help fund more security officers and staff, Gibbs said.
“I would argue that there’s no better time to talk about flexibility of funding,” Gibbs said. “We don’t want to use all those funds for people, but a little flexibility and allowing the local community to vote on an ESPLOST referendum that could make that decision on how much flexibility school systems can have.”
Gibbs added that the solution to school safety is not a one-size fits all, as demonstrated by differences in district size and operating structures. What works for Pickens may not work for Forsyth, so the study committee will have to look at security measures on a case-by-case basis.
“School safety is complex. School safety is far reaching. School safety is not just one area,” said McGiboney. “The human element will always be the most important component in school safety – always has been, always will be.”