JONESBORO — Clayton County Public Schools officials are urging parents to take an active role in school safety, starting at their front doorsteps.
Authorities locked down five schools in the past four weeks in order to address perceived on-campus weapons threats. They reported confiscating two toy guns, a BB gun and two real guns — one of them loaded — from students ranging from elementary to high school levels.
The school board approved creating a school police department last spring, and it has increasingly invested in providing schools with resource officers, security doors and walk-thru metal detectors and hand wands. The district also manages its iWatch Clayton mobile app to receive anonymous tips on criminal activity.
However, spokeswoman Vicki Gavalas said those measures alone are not enough to ensure the safety and security of students and staff at local schools. She said officials plan to address the issue at an anti-violence community awareness event April 21 at the Juvenile Justice Center in Jonesboro.
“This is not something the school system can do by itself,” she said. “This requires a consolidated effort by the community.”
Gavalas pointed to the district’s latest scare in which school resource officers found a gun on campus March 21, when an “unauthorized show-and-tell” went a awry at Pointe South Elementary.
Three different children were allegedly found in possession of toy guns at the school. She said authorities were alerted when a student reported it to an adult at the school.
In keeping with protocol, she said, the school was placed under a 21-minute lockdown. She said the students were disciplined but not criminally charged.
“Real or toy, guns are not allowed at school,” she repeated.
Gavalas praised students who were willing to inform adults about the toy guns, but she stressed the role of parents in such situations.
“It really exemplifies that adults need to be accountable at every level,” said Gavalas. “The situation could have been averted had someone checked the children’s backpacks before they came to school that morning.
“You can’t take that chance,” she continued. “If a child at that age thinks it’s OK to bring toy guns to school, how are they going to discern at a later age if it’s OK to bring a real gun.”
She said the district is implementing additional security measures — mostly at high schools and middle schools — due to the frequency of weapons being brought onto campuses lately.
Gavalas said she was pleased to learn a surprise security sweep of some schools Tuesday turned up no weapons.
She said a multi-agency cooperative netted one drug arrest at one high school and an investigation of drug possession at another but no guns.
“We did random unannounced sweeps at several high schools, both in lockers and in parking lots,” she said. “It’s part of the additional security measures we’re taking.”
The district’s police department partnered with units from the Clayton County Police Department, Atlanta Police Department, Clayton County Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Gavalas counted nine drug- and weapons-sniffing canines among the agencies. She said two-unit teams swept parking lots and hallways at Riverdale, Drew, Lovejoy, Mundy’s Mill, Mount Zion and Morrow high schools.
Officers found loose marijuana at Drew and Mundy’s Mill high schools.
One student admitted to putting drugs in a locker and was arrested, she said. In the other case, marijuana had been thrown on thefloor in a hallway near a bank of lockers while officers were conducting the sweep. She said police are investigating to find the source.
“These will continue randomly throughout the system,” said Gavalas. “We’re serious about maintaining a safe environment for students and staff.”
While officials have been concerned about school safety, even hosting a school safety and security forum last fall, there has been increased worry over the recent incidents where students were allegedly found in possession of both real and toy guns.
Resource officer arrested a Riverdale High student allegedly possessing a loaded Taurus 9mm on campus Feb. 28.
School police Chief Clarence E. Cox III said staff responded to what was, by first appearances, a typical school-yard fight between two students when the handgun fell from the waistband of one fighter.
He said the school was on lock down for about an hour as officers assessed the threat. The weapon was recovered and the juvenile allegedly in possession of the handgun was arrested.
Lovejoy High was locked down March 12, around 11 a.m. for 20 minutes in response to a perceived threat of a weapon on campus.
Gavalas said resource officers learned that two students were allegedly in possession of a firearm. She said a tip came from a teacher, who was told by a student who overheard two students talking.
Officers found the unloaded .22-caliber semi-automatic firearm hidden in a locker and arrested two male students who face charges related to possession of weapons and disruption of a public school.
North Clayton Middle was placed under “soft” lockdown around noon March 13 for about 30 minutes as resource officers investigated a student allegedly found with an unloaded BB gun.
Gavalas said authorities, who were tipped off by students at the school, seized the weapon and arrested the student. The juvenile was charged with possession of a weapon on campus, carrying a concealed weapon and disruption of a public school.
Officials reported the arrest of a Mount Zion High student March 14 for possession of a “toy handgun revolver.”
Gavalas said authorities placed the school on lockdown for about 15 minutes just before school was to let out at 3:30 p.m. She alleged resource officers found the toy gun in a student’s backpack, confiscated the item and arrested the student without incident or injury. The district is pursuing prosecution.
Cox said students are starting to feel more comfortable with speaking to school resource officers.
“I feel that in one respect, our system is working,” said Cox. “With the Pointe South incident, that’s an elementary child. In my mind, the parents should know what the kids are bringing to school.
“I’m confident that, the good lord keeps blessing us, but we’re doing good,” he added. “We’re doing everything we can to encourage people to be safe.”