By Rachel Shirey
JONESBORO — While the nation heals from Friday morning’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Clayton County is taking steps to ensure the safety and future of its own children.
“The school shooting happened in Newtown, Conn., but it could certainly happen in Clayton County as well,” outgoing Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said.
However, the Clayton County Public School System has protocols implemented to keep school children safe, and a security system that reduces the likelihood of threats such as school shootings, officials said.
“We take it very seriously, but I’m sure they did there, too, and somebody was able to circumvent their system,” said David Waller, Clayton County Schools spokesman. “And unfortunately, I can’t honestly say with a straight face, and of course you wouldn’t believe it if I did tell you, our kids are 100 percent safe in our schools.”
Clayton County commission Chairman-elect Jeff Turner said he thinks placing School Resource Officers (SRO) into elementary schools is a necessary step to ensure student and staff safety, regardless of cost.
The incoming chairman said he will also push to make sure police officers and sheriff’s deputies have the most up-to-date training available to handle similar active shooter situations.
“There is going to be a cost involved, but there is no cost that I am concerned about when it comes to keeping our kids safe,” Turner said.
He added, “I always want to be proactive in everything I do because I don’t want to wait around to see if this kind of thing is going to happen in Jonesboro.”
However, Waller said, “I don’t know if it is practical or feasible to put a SRO in elementary schools. I guess the question is, do you want armed guards in your child’s elementary school? Do you want them walking around with an armed police officer? It’s kind of a balancing act. We don’t want anything to steal their innocence or to force them to grow up too quick. We don’t want to do anything that might panic or concern them. So I really think it’s one of the issues that we’ll need to discuss.”
Beyond the issue of whether SRO’s are wanted, Waller said school officials can’t discuss current safety protocols with the public. That’s to prevent someone from bypassing the system.
“We have drills with the teachers and the teachers are trained on these other procedures,” Waller said. “We normally do that kind of training when students aren’t around so we really haven’t had an opportunity to do that, but we will the first day they come back from semester break, which would be Jan. 7 and is a teacher work day. I would fully expect that we would take that opportunity to review those procedures.”
Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day, a former principal at Suder Elementary School, said the district has been particularly good about having plans in place for school lockdowns in the past. Day said district procedures call for schools to be put on lockdown even if there is an active shooter in the vicinity of the school but not on the school campus itself.
“If there was an intruder in the building, we had a code phrase that we would get on the intercom and say, and our teacher knew that if they heard that phrase, then they had to lock the door, turn off the lights and get everyone in a corner of the room where they couldn’t be seen,” Day said.
However, the mayor said she was not sure if the school system still used the code phrase system in the schools. She retired from the school district in 2006.
Waller said the challenge is that just about any system can be bypassed by a machine gun, but that their schools are as secure as any building can be.
“I would say the kids are certainly as safe in our schools as they are at home,” Waller said.
However, Bell said the first steps toward school safety start with the community and, more specifically, parents.
The commission chairman urged parents to talk to their children about what happened in Connecticut.
“It’s time for our society to take a hard look not just at the gun battle, but violence in our society in general,” Bell said.
Clayton News Daily reporter Curt Yeomans contributed to this report.