The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 3, 2013

County schools’ security study nearly complete

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— Among the safety improvements Limestone County School officials are considering in the wake of recent mass shootings is having restricted access points at each facility, upgrading classroom locks and increasing the presence of school security officers.

County schools have been weighing options for increasing school security at the system’s 13 facilities. A taskforce has nearly completed a school-by-school assessment. The facilities include the Limestone County Career Technical Center, six high schools and nine elementary schools. Six of the elementary schools have their own campuses, while the other three are part of West Limestone, Tanner and Elkmont high schools.

About 75 percent of the sites have been visited by the team formed by the Central Office to examine measures the system might add to improve security.

“We have sent a team through most of the schools, and we’re going to complete a 48-page assessment on each school,” Superintendent Tom Sisk said. “It’s important that we bring a plan to the board about the capital outlays we would incur.”

Increased use of SROs

Sisk said among the improvements being considered are restricted access, better classroom locks and a greater presence by school resource officers, or SROs. System employees also receive continuing education in school safety, and students and teachers participate in lockdown drills.

There are currently seven SROs supplied by the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department. The cost is split by the school system and the Limestone County Commission. These officers are assigned full time at the six high schools and Career Tech Center, and additional deputies conduct regular patrols at the elementary schools.

According to county officials, each entity’s share for the SRO program is slightly more than $258,000. The annual budget is $516,908, which covers compensation, insurance, uniforms, equipment and vehicle maintenance and repair.

Sisk invited a firearms instructor to speak during a Jan. 22 work session with the Limestone County school board. David Shuford of North Alabama Firearms Training told the board his business could provide voluntary training at either a school campus or a Madison facility. The discounted training fee is $25 to $90 per educator, based on the training level of the courses. The classes require between four and 14 hours to finish and include training weapons.

Oppose arming teachers

State law and school board policy currently ban firearms on school campuses, except in the case of law-enforcement officers. Sisk, Board President Bret McGill and Sheriff Mike Blakely have all said they oppose arming teachers and favor using school resource officers.

“I don’t think we should arm teachers, and I’m not going to advocate for that,” McGill said. “I’d rather our teachers worry about teaching and not worry about some of the issues that come along with carrying a weapon, and having the training and the wherewithal for those situations.”

McGill said he could not speak for the other six board members, but he prefers creating a safer environment with “common-sense” procedures, such as having locked entry points and the presence of SROs.

“I feel like we should have an SRO at all the elementary schools but it’s still going to take some work with the sheriff and the County Commission,” he said. “The SROs do training at the schools, and they do drug awareness for the children. They really are a presence because the kids grow up around the deputies, and they don’t fear them.”

The school system wants to add part-time SROs to patrol the elementary schools, which would require additional funding from the county. Sisk has not addressed the commission during a work session or a regular meeting but he has talked to Commissioner Gary Daly.

Daly mentioned the possibility of adding retired officers as part-time officers during a commission work session earlier this month. Due to state law, retired officers would only be paid about $22,000 a year, excluding pensions. Daly said part-time officers wouldn’t need to be paid year-round as with full-time SROs.

The school board will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday. The commission will meet at 10 a.m. Monday. Both meetings will be at the Clinton Street annex in Athens.