One of the Dawson County School System’s biggest goals is to achieve “Excellence Together” and to be an exemplary school district preparing students for success. One big piece of achieving this success is to provide a learning environment where students, teachers and staff can feel safe and be protected at all times.
Tony Wooten, Safe Schools coordinator for the school system, said that the system’s approach to school safety is a multi-layered, multi-hazard approach that is aimed at preparing the schools in the district for any type of emergency, from natural disasters to fires to active shooter scenarios.
“We don’t want to just focus on one thing, we want to make sure our kids are safe on every aspect,” Wooten said. “I know that active shooter situations are kind of the main topic right now, but there’s other hazards that we’re prepared for too that are just as likely.”
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For visitors to even set foot inside one of the district’s schools, there are several steps they must go through first. All of the schools are secured with locked doors, and anyone entering the school must be buzzed in by the front desk.
Once a visitor enters the front office, he or she must be checked in before being allowed into the school hallways, and the system notifies front desk personnel if a visitor is a sex offender. The high school has a welcome center in the parking lot, allowing a staff member to ask drivers coming in why they’re visiting the campus.
Each school has tinted windows on the outside of the building, so the front desk personnel don’t feel pressured to buzz in anyone that they shouldn’t be letting into the school. School staff wear ID badges, and all seven of the schools in the district have their own Student Resource Officer (SRO).
According to Wooten, the school system has made several upgrades to its safety equipment in the past few years and plans to add even more in the near future. This has included a recent upgrade to the camera system, and a new measure this school year will be the installation of emergency buttons in each classroom.
“We’re having emergency buttons inside every classroom and the teachers will have the ability to wear a wireless microphone that also has a safety button on it that alerts,” Wooten said. “Those alerts go to principals, to the resource officers and to the school safety coordinator, so anytime that they feel there’s something that they need to let us know about they can just hit their emergency call button and they have the wearable mic.”
The P.A. systems in the schools are also part of the package with the emergency buttons and wearable microphones, Wooten said, allowing a school the ability to go into lockdown at the touch of a button if needed.
“If a teacher sends something like that and we’re able to validate that it’s threatening we can go ahead and hit a button at the kiosk that would send our school into a lockdown and the P.A. would step-by-step tell you what to do in a lockdown,” Wooten said. “The faster we can lock down, the safer our students and staff are in the event of an emergency.”
Communication is paramount when it comes to ensuring the safety of the children and teachers in case of an emergency, Wooten said.
“We’re making sure our communication is as fast as we can — we can let everybody know as quick as we can so they know we’re in a situation we feel is unsafe,” Wooten said. “Communication is key to let everybody know what’s going on.”
Another facet of this communication is another upcoming project that the school system will add this upcoming school year: portable radio upgrade and base radios for each school office.
“We have a channel on that where all of our principals, SROs and some of the district personnel all have the ability to go to that channel and talk about anything safety-related,” Wooten said. “And we’ll have a base radio in every front office of every school so if we see something, say a tornado on the ground in our county or a neighboring county, we can talk to every school at once.”
The school buses are also equipped with radios, he added, allowing the district to communicate with every bus driver. The district also monitors field trips, so even when the students are out of the county the system can watch out for weather and other threats in the area where the students are.
The school also utilizes Gaggle, a software that monitors the students’ emails through the school devices to alert the district if any threats of harm or self-harm are made by a student.
“We have Gaggle that monitors the students’ emails through our devices so if they say anything that’s a threat or self-harm then it alerts us so we can follow up on that immediately,” Wooten said.
The schools in the district also take part in severe weather, fire, active shooter and lockdown drills, and Wooten added that the schools and the district have all held tabletop discussions allowing personnel to work through every step of what they should do in case of an emergency.
In the end, Wooten said, the most important thing is making sure that measures are in place to not only react in case of an emergency, but also for each school to be well prepared for any emergency ahead of time.
“What we tell parents is that we do as much as we can on the preventative side as well as the reactive side; we’re not just focused on one side but we’re trying to make sure we’re preventative and prepared if something does happen,” Wooten said.