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With federal, state reports out, Georgia legislators to prioritize school safety in 2019
DCN Generic school bus

With new federal and state reports on school security now public, Georgia lawmakers are looking to spotlight measures in 2019 to address the safety of students and faculty on campuses.

“School safety will be a very high priority, and rightfully so,” Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said. “We’ve seen violence and death and destruction in school settings as a national trend.”

President Donald Trump’s school safety commission on Tuesday made recommendations in a report that lays out dozens of suggestions to improve safety in America’s schools.

Trump created the commission in March following a Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 students and staff members.

The report covers areas ranging from mental health and cyberbullying to the regulation of guns and violent video games. On the question of whether schools should arm teachers and other employees, the panel said it should be left to states and schools to decide, but the panel noted that schools can use certain federal grants for firearms training.

“Our conclusions in this report do not impose one-size-fits-all solutions for everyone everywhere,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a call with reporters. “Local problems need local solutions. This report seeks to identify options that policymakers should explore.”

Along with DeVos, the safety commission includes leaders of the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. They issued their findings after more than a dozen meetings with teachers, parents, students, mental health experts, police and survivors of school shootings.

While the report doesn’t encourage schools to arm teachers or staff, it says they’re allowed to, and it points them to a Justice Department grant that can be used for training.

Still, the group underscored that having a police officer who works in the school is the best option to respond to violence.

Among its other proposals, the commission urged states to adopt laws allowing “extreme risk protection orders,” or court orders that temporarily restrict access to firearms for people who are found to pose risks to themselves or others. The group recommended against raising the minimum age to buy a firearm, generally 18 in most states, saying there’s no evidence it would reduce killings.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Senate School Safety Study Committee released its recommendations in November after a series of public meetings across the state in the summer and fall.

In its report, the committee said it explored “possible programs, solutions and safeguards to strengthen school safety in three key areas: the prevention of emergencies at or attacks on our schools from occurring in the first place; the physical security of school buildings, facilities, and buses themselves in the case of an actual emergency; and the responses of school authorities, state and local law enforcement and emergency services personnel, students, teachers and staff to active emergencies should they occur on campus.”

The committee recommends increased state mental health counselors and allowing local school systems to use special purpose local option sales tax revenues to fund the hiring of additional social workers or counselors (SPLOST funds are restricted to facilities improvements and other capital development projects).

The committee also calls for a “data-sharing system by which Georgia’s schools, social services, and law enforcement agencies are able to coordinate together to create, share, and curate secure individual student profiles throughout a student’s educational career.”

Dawson County Schools has allocated about $400,000 from ESPLOST funds for school safety measures since the deadly shooting in Florida last February, along with an additional $47,940 provided by the state legislature.

Included in the new measures is an additional emergency lockdown method added to each school’s front office so that the staff there can initiate a school wide lockdown. A “buzz in” system was also added to each school so that the front office is only accessible after establishing communication with the staff and being cleared for entry.

The board also approved the addition of mirror window tints to outside doors and windows and removed the recycling trailers that attracted visitors to the campuses.

The board also created the position of a Safe Schools Coordinator, a post Tony Wooten was hired to fill in June. 

The board created the position in April, stating that the coordinator would be responsible for assisting with the strategic direction of all system-wide school safety services, facilitating the development and monitoring of the system’s emergency preparedness plan, implementing programs and activities to reduce school violence, collaborating with the school resource officers and being a liaison between the sheriff’s office and the school system.

The board of commissioners also approved positions for two new school resource officers so that each school will have a full-time officer. The board of education pays half of the salary for each SRO with the county paying the other half.

Miller said it’s important to allow local school districts to determine what their security needs are and how best to implement safety measures even while “state and federal oversight is appropriate.”

“Local school boards and (governments) should be empowered to put in place proactive mechanisms to ensure the most vulnerable, our kids, are properly protected,” he added. “I’ve always been a proponent of Second Amendment rights, but child safety is critical.”

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said the study committee’s recommendations are a starting point for discussions in the legislature.

The House also launched a school security study committee this year, but has not yet released a report or recommendations from its four public meetings.

Dunahoo said the legislature will be looking at the “big picture” in 2019. 

“I think it’s a going to be a big part of what we do in the House,” he added.

Dawson County News staff writer Jessica Taylor contributed to this report.