The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 20, 2013

Schools enact more security measures

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— A mass killing involving four or more victims happens once every two weeks on average in the U.S., according to a USA Today study published after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

In a matter of minutes on that chilling New England morning, Newtown joined Littleton, Colo., and Blacksburg, Va., as towns now associated more with mass shootings than their scenic communities and tranquil campuses.

A link to mental illness with the shootings at Columbine High School or Sandy Hook has not been proven, but the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, 23, was diagnosed with a severe social anxiety disorder as a teen. Two years before he fatally shot 32 people, Cho was court-ordered to receive outpatient psychiatric treatment.

In 2011, Jared Loughner, 24, who killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., had depression in high school and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. A year ago, James Holmes allegedly killed 12 moviegoers and injured 58 in Aurora, Colo. His defense attorney said the 24-year-old is mentally ill.

Alabama response

In a state-by-state report four years ago and updated in 2011, the National Alliance for Mental Illness dropped a “D” grade for the quality of mental health care available nationwide.

Alabama was among 20 states to earn a below-average grade after NAMI noted a 36 percent drop in the General Fund’s mental health budget from 2009 to 2012. Alabama was also classified as having fewer psychiatrists in relation to population than a majority of states.

NAMI reports that in any given year, one in four American adults incur a mental disorder, while the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates one in five children have a diagnosable mental illness.

Given these bleak numbers and diminished funding for mental health, Alabama officials in education, law enforcement and politics met in Montgomery earlier this year to discuss ways to lessen the odds of a school shooting.

Following a joint hearing by the state Senate and House education policy committees, a school security report was released April 16 with recommendations for active shooter and intruder drills, criminal punishment for bus trespassers and providing school boards with the opportunity to hire certified school resource officers.

The report also advised an increase in funding for Virtual Alabama, an Internet-accessible tool that allows law enforcement and school officials to view existing infrastructure data and imagery. The report also stated school systems should form a school safety task force that meets regularly.

Teacher gun bill

Among 1,176 bills introduced during the Alabama Legislature’s general session from early February to late May, 114 local bills were passed, including a bill sponsored by state Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, to arm teachers and volunteers in Franklin County.

The bill, which only applies to the Russellville and Franklin County school systems, makes it optional for teachers to become reserve police officers or sheriff’s deputies. The legislation assigns the responsibility of training and supervising the volunteers to local law enforcement.

Supporters of the teacher gun bill argued some school systems in Alabama cannot afford SROs and that there are schools in rural communities 30 minutes away from law enforcement agencies.

SROs

Although both school systems in Limestone County provide some form of mental health counseling to its students, city and county school officials are evaluating ways to improve school security through secured classrooms and entryways, badge identification for visitors and video surveillance.

Limestone is among the few school systems in the state that have obtained enough funding to provide certified resource officers at every site within the system, while Athens City Schools has a regular police presence and a centrally located police headquarters only minutes from every campus. Currently, the city school system does not have an SRO program.

Limestone County Schools already has certified and trained resource officers assigned to its six high schools and the Career Technical Center through a 50-50 funding partnership with the County Commission. Beginning in August, the 13 school sites in the Limestone system will have an SRO on each campus, compared to last year when seven of the 13 campuses were staffed full time with officers supervised by the Sheriff’s Office.

Steve Croley, a resource officer for the past 10 years at West Limestone, Tanner and Clements high schools, said during a law enforcement roundtable held earlier this month that SROs can help keep a campus safe while also forming a trust with the students and being an extra resource on campus.

“Like many adults, some students view law enforcement officers solely as enforcers of the law,” said Croley in his SRO biography. “By establishing a daily rapport with their school's SRO, students not only gain positive role models, but also a better understanding … of the many other duties and responsibilities (of resource officers).

“SROs will gain a better perspective of the young people in their schools. By carefully assessing the needs of individual students, SROs are more aware of the development of unhealthy or destructive behavioral patterns.

In many cases, it is possible through early intervention, to redirect negative behaviors before they cause a student to be referred to the criminal justice system.”