BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – At the April 12 Board of Education (BOE) meeting, a new policy was introduced that would give Fannin County Schools the option of having armed educators on their campuses.
“There is no higher purpose of our school system than to provide a safe and secure environment for our students, faculty and staff,” Fannin County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney began, addressing those in attendance about the proposed policy addition about to be publicly read.
“Your board and I have been unable to ignore the many tragic events across our nation that have resulted in the deaths of so many,” Gwatney continued.
Gwatney cited that schools have a number of precautions in place to protect students and faculty in the event of a crisis. He listed fire extinguishers, bleed response kits, and automated external defibrillators (AEDs) as examples.
Following these examples, Gwatney pointed to the fact that school resource officers (SROs) are present for much the same reason: “During the course of my career, I have seen the numbers of SROs progress from none in our district to one; then the number has grown over the years to our current ratio of one SRO for each school.”
“Emergencies do occur, though, and just like a defibrillator, a tourniquet, or a fire extinguisher, a firearm is – at its core – a tool,” Gwatney expounded on the board’s decision to present this legislative option.
“As a professional educator, I will be the first to say that simply increasing the number of weapons already legally on our campuses is not, at least in of itself, the answer,” Gwatney said, acknowledging that the issues faced when dealing with violence is multifaceted and other aspects such as mental health need also be addressed.
Gwatney concluded his thoughts with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “There are risks and costs to action. But are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”
The new Possession of Weapons by Employees policy (GAMB) states that “the Board of Education may authorize certain personnel to possess or carry weapons on any property or in any building owned or leased by the District, at a school function, or on a bus or other transportation furnished by the District”.
Those approved to carry weapons on school property must meet and adhere to certain criteria, the first of which being that proper training and review of skill must be approved in advance by the superintendent and the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office.
Continued evaluation will also be required upon approval: “To receive and subsequently maintain authorization, all approved personnel shall regularly qualify to the standard required by the Fannin County Sheriff for each type of weapon authorized.”
Types and quantities of weapons and ammunition each individual will be allowed to possess will be approved and monitored by the Fannin County Sheriff’s Office and the superintendent.
Personnel will not be required to carry arms and the program will be carried out on a volunteer basis. Furthermore the new legislation states, “The final appointment will be made by the Superintendent consistent with the requirements of this policy. Each employee appointed must be licensed under the laws of the state to carry a firearm and shall be subject to an annual criminal history background check. Approval will not be granted for any employee who has had an employment or other history indicating any type of mental or emotional instability as determined by the Board or Superintendent. The Superintendent shall be able at any time to remove or suspend the authority granted to any employee under this policy.”
Specific guidelines were also laid out in the new policy for proper carrying and storage of weapons.
Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby was present to share his thoughts: “I support it 100 percent. I think that drastic acts require drastic responses.”
Kirby cited the process of an active shooter scenario from the time that the first act of violence occurs until his officers could be on scene to respond.
He acknowledged that times may vary but stated, “By the time all of that is done, that could take up to 15 minutes, in all reality for someone to respond to one of our schools.”
“I’m very thankful that the board and the superintendent were willing to step out into these waters,” Kirby said, finalizing his opinion on the new policy. “I think it was done right.”
If implemented, the personnel approved would remain confidential. Gwatney explained, “By pursuing a policy, the Board of Education intends to reserve the option to take action that is permitted by state law; whether and/or how the board chooses to implement the policy, if approved, is a confidential matter.”
This new policy has been tabled and will be addressed at the Board of Education regular meeting held May 10.
Policy Possession of Weapons by Employees (Descriptor Code: GAMB):
The Board of Education is committed to maintaining a safe and secure working and learning environment. Unless authorized by the Board of Education or an administrator in accordance with this policy, or specifically authorized by state law, employees shall be prohibited from bringing weapons on any property or in any building owned or leased by the District, at school functions, and on school buses or other transportation furnished by the School District. Employees in violation of this policy shall be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.
Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-11-130.1, the Board of Education may authorize certain personnel to possess or carry weapons on any property or in any building owned or leased by the District, at a school function, or on a bus or other transportation furnished by the District, subject to the following conditions:
1. Training of approved personnel shall occur prior to their authorization to carry weapons. The training shall be approved in advance by the Superintendent and Fannin County Sheriff and shall, at a minimum, include training on judgment pistol and long gun shooting, marksmanship, and a review of current laws relating to the use of force for the defense of self or others. The Superintendent, with the approval of the Fannin County Sheriff, may substitute for certain training requirements an individual’s prior military or law enforcement service if he or she has previously served as a certified law enforcement officer or has had military service which involved similar weapons training. To receive and subsequently maintain authorization, all approved personnel shall regularly qualify to the standard required by the Fannin County Sheriff for each type of weapon authorized.
2. An approved list of the types and quantity of weapons and ammunition each approved individual is authorized to possess or carry shall be prepared and maintained by the Superintendent and shall be approved by the Fannin County Sheriff;
3. Selection of personnel to possess or carry a weapon shall be done strictly on a voluntary basis.The final appointment will be made by the Superintendent consistent with the requirements of this policy. Each employee appointed must be licensed under the laws of the state to carry a firearm and shall be subject to an annual criminal history background check. Approval will not be granted for any employee who has had an employment or other history indicating any type of mental or emotional instability as determined by the Board or Superintendent. The Superintendent shall be able at any time to remove or suspend the authority granted to any employee under this policy; and
4. Weapons possessed or carried by personnel under this paragraph shall be secured as follows: Concealed weapons are permitted if they are carried in a holster and not in a purse, briefcase, bag, or similar other accessory which is not secured on the body. If maintained separate from the body, the weapon shall be maintained in a secured lock safe or similar lock box that cannot be easily accessed by students.
In addition to those employees appointed pursuant to this policy, the Board recognizes that other exceptions exist under O.C.G.A. §16-11-127.1. All records regarding the appointment of individual employees and the implementation of this program shall be exempt from production under the Open Records Act as specified in Georgia law.
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BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, returned to class today, Feb. 28, just two short weeks after one of America’s deadliest mass shootings in modern history took place in their halls.
In the wake of this tragedy, which claimed 17 lives, discussion have opened up about school safety and what can be done to prevent situations like this from occurring in the future.
Brian K. Pritchard (BKP), chief executive officer of FetchYourNews and host of Good Morning From The Office morning show, invited local officials from Gilmer and Fannin counties to address the safety of our local school systems.
In opening the discussion, BKP directly asked both Gilmer and Fannin County School superintendents how safe do they feel the schools in our area are.
Fannin County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney answered from a personal perspective: “My child is in a Fannin County school this morning.”
“We are always vigilant in watching what’s going on with our students, watching what’s going on on social media,” Gilmer County School Superintendent Dr. Shanna Wilkes said, explaining why she too felt the schools in her county were safe, “and staying in constant contact with our law enforcement.”
“What I feel has come out of Parkland (shooting) is a breakdown in the system,” BKP pointed out to the guest panel and questioned how officials have addressed any recent incidents.
Gilmer County Sheriff Stacy Nicholson replied that his department has had to respond to incidents almost daily for the past two weeks, but clarified that most complaints are not serious.
“The problem is law enforcement can no longer say that’s not serious. We have to take it serious,” Nicholson explained.
Modern times are different according to Nicholson and he stressed, “Pranks are no longer pranks. When it comes to school safety we will investigate and we will prosecute and arrest or send you to juvenile court.”
Many counties in Georgia do not have school resource officers (SRO) assigned to every school in their district. Fortunately, for both Fannin and Gilmer, this is not the case. All schools within each system has its own SRO, and all panel members feel that this is a major element in keeping our schools safe.
“Are all the SRO officers armed this morning?” BKP directly asked the panel. Both Nicholson and Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby replied that all officers on all campuses were armed.
Gilmer County School Resource Officer Sergeant Greg Dodson explained the duties of an SRO: “A very large part of the job is visual security. It’s patrolling the interior and exterior of the school, checking doors, making sure that they’re locked, trying to monitor who comes and goes.”
“If you see someone at the schools that you don’t recognize, make sure they have a visitor pass, that they’ve gone through the office properly,” Dodson added.
Other duties include checking parking lots, bathrooms, hallways, and interacting and developing relationships with the students.
In Gilmer County, to become an SRO, a deputy must submit a formal letter requesting that position. A panel of the officer’s peers then formally recommends who they feel should be placed in that position. Sheriff Nicholson makes a final decision based on the panel’s recommendations.
Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby confirmed that the process in Fannin County is very similar to Gilmer County and added, “That’s not a job (SRO) that you have just to draw a paycheck. That has to be something that the deputy wants to do.”
“From the very get go, it has to be what that person really wants to do,” Kirby said, explaining that the SROs in place are not only trained but also have a passion for that particular field.
Training for an SRO goes beyond that of a police academy. This training includes a School Resource Officer course, Crisis Intervention Training, Gun Safety, and in-service training such as active shooter scenarios.
Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney B. Alison Sosebee was present to discuss the legal aspects of threats against a school and what her department does in collaboration with law enforcement to combat any potential crimes.
“I just need one referral to start. I need one concerned student. I need one diligent parent. That’s what allows us to be able to initiate the investigation and to assess what we need to do next,” Sosebee described of the process of how her department can become involved.
Sosebee said we are fortunate to live in a smaller community where residents feel comfortable speaking up when there is an incident that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Confirming Sosebee’s thoughts on residents willing to tip off authorities, Gilmer County School Superintendent Dr. Shanna Wilkes said, “In my experience, when we’ve had a threat that we needed to investigate, I have not gotten it from one person. I get it from 50 people within about an hour.”
“No matter how good you are technologically, there is no substitution for a good tip,” Fannin County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney expressed in similar views.
Both Fannin and Gilmer County school systems continue to take steps to improve safety measures in their schools. Gwatney is looking into extra safety measures using technology. This would include a large network of monitoring devices.
Wilkes is working to renovate Gilmer High School. She would like to implement scan cards for access to doors and is working to restructure the building to create a single point of entry through the front office.
With large campuses and multiple buildings, BKP asked, “Would you look at letting teachers or putting that program into place at your schools to allow weapons in there and how would it work?”
Texas has legislation, School Marshal, to allow teachers to carry weapons on campus, and Florida recently passed similar legislation. Currently in Georgia, there is no statewide legislation on the issue, but rather Georgia allows local school districts to create their own policies regarding this matter.
Gilmer County has looked at sample legislation from other counties in the past, but never voted to enact a policy. Wilkes said that she would favor a policy that would require the individual to qualify with a firearm and that would obligate the individual to attend an annual firearm training course.
Wilkes also would like there to be anonymity in which teachers are armed within the school.
“It would have to be very regulated. It takes the right person, like it takes the right SRO,” Wilkes shared of her stance.
Gwatney was not opposed to the idea but does not want it to negatively affect an educator’s job: “The purpose of a teacher to care for the kids and teach for the kids. We don’t want to create a situation where we force the teacher to try to take on a law enforcement role.”
The panel also expressed frustrations on a system that sometimes works against them in their efforts to keep our children safe.
On a criminal level, Sheriff Nicholson expressed disappointment in a system that seems increasingly unwilling to keep a juvenile in detainment: “It’s getting harder and harder to get someone detained. That’s frustrating.”
Sosebee confirmed Nicholson’s frustration and explained, “Part of that, the court system with relation to that, is the restrictions that are put on the court system as to when these juveniles can be detained and when they cannot be detained and that is where a lot of the hands tying is coming from, from the court system.”
Just like law enforcement, the school systems feel that there is legislation and policy in place that ties their hands when they witness “red flags”.
BKP pointed out the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has grown since it was first enacted and states that schools being a government agency must accommodate individuals with diagnosed disabilities.
Wilkes acknowledged that the ADA does play a heavy role in how schools can handle disciplinary situations: “In many cases, you’re dealing with students who have a disability such as an emotional behavioral disorder, which falls under special education.”
In such cases, if a student makes a threat or acts in a way that requires disciplinary action, the school must first have a Manifestation Hearing.
In a Manifestation Hearing, a panel is made up of a licensed school psychologist, the student’s special education case manager, a teacher that works directly with the student, an administrator, and the parents or guardians of the child.
The panel determines if the threat or infraction is directly related to the student’s disability. If it is deemed that it is in relation to the disability, then disciplinary action cannot be taken.
If it is deemed that the issue is not related to the child’s disability, then a tribunal is formed to determine what disciplinary actions should be taken.
“If a student has any disability at all,” Wilkes clarified, “even if it’s a learning disability in reading, and let’s say they try to burn down the school, then we have to have a manifestation hearing to see if that learning disability led to them trying to burn down the school.”
Due to this process and the strict rules surrounding juvenile privacy, Wilkes stated if it is related to a disability “our hands are tied as to what we can do.”
The panel agreed that collaboration between departments along with a proactive stance on safety is the best route to take when it comes to the welfare of our counties’ children but felt that changes could be made in legislation that would make providing our schools with this security a much more efficient process.
You can watch BKP’s Good Morning From The Office #AnythingGoes School Safety Special in the video below.
Stan Helton will be sworn in Friday at 2 P.M. He will then be officially the Chairman Commissioner of Fannin County. On Wednesday Helton and Post Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee requested Rita Davis Kirby resignation. Kirby holds two county positions, CFO and Clerk. Kirby was told that if she did not resign that they would terminate her in January. Fannin County is required to vote to dismiss department heads so Helton and Sosebee where showing Kirby they have the votes.
I spoke with Helton concerning his request for Kirby’s resignation. Helton did not give me any specific reason just that he was putting his administration’s team together and Kirby would not be a part of the team. I then asked about the County Attorney Lynn Doss. Would he address the conflict with her representing different offices in the county along with her itemizing her monthly bill. Doss receives $5,700 a month for her services as county attorney no questions asked. No one can even tell me who set the amount. Helton told me “We have a good county attorney and I am satisfied with her.”
Kirby’s husband is the newly re-elected Sheriff Dane Kirby. Just say’in! Listen to my full report for more details. #BKP
BKP talks elections and the Task Force with District Attorney Alison Sosebee and Fannin Sheriff Dane Kirby.
There are five candidates in the Sheriff’s race in Fannin County – four Republicans: Larry Bennett, Dane Kirby, Johnny Scearce, Jack Taylor and one Democrat – Rusty Whittenbarger. All five spoke at the candidates’ forum . The Sheriff’s race offered more nuanced differences between the candidates than was present in the other of the evening’s forum participants. All candidates have extensive experience in law enforcement and law enforcement leadership. All spoke about present and future Sheriff’s Department budget needs and communication between different police districts in the county. They all agreed that drugs were the biggest criminal activity facing Fannin.
Candidates Dane Kirby, Johnny Scearce and Rusty Whittenbarger specifically commented about the Sheriff’s Department’s budget. Mr. Kirby promised to fulfill the department’s obligations without running the budget through the roof. Though, he did say that there is a time in the near future when the department will need a bigger budget. Also, Mr. Kirby would like to add more personnel and funds to deal with the drug problem. Mr. Whittenbarger said that the department needs to be frugal and cut spending, but will need a bigger budget to accommodate building a new jail. Mr. Scearce wants to rearrange current funding and responsibilities so that he can have extra eyes on the roads
Forum moderators asked the candidates how they would work with other agencies to facilitate cooperation. Mr. Scearce said that as Chief of Police in Blue Ridge, he has never had a problem with other agencies. He looked at his fellow candidates and said we are a brotherhood of police. The candidates that followed him took up the idea of brotherhood of police. Jack Taylor’s idea is to hold monthly communication meetings with representatives from the different precincts in Fannin. Larry Bennett said that his experience and humbleness will strengthen communication. Mr. Kirby said that he has already done a lot of work to facilitate communication and that there was never a time that another agency was turned down. Mr. Whittenbarger said that unity has never happened in Fannin County law enforcement and that he can bring about unity.
Candidates Jack Taylor and Johnny Scearce see that the drug epidemic in Fannin needs two avenues to solution: one avenue that deals with the criminal activity associated with drug dealing; and a second avenue that sees addiction as a personal obstacle which the Sheriff’s Department can help addicts and their families progressively solve. Mr. Taylor’s knowledge comes from his personal experience of dealing with a child who is an addict. Watching his child in mire himself in bad decisions has given him the strongest anti-drug criminality agenda of the candidates and has taught him that he has to hit at the drug problem from all angles. Mr. Scearce believes in a pro-active solution that helps people deal with their problems rather than destroy homes. Mr. Kirby would like to add personnel to open up more time for narcotics investigations.
Four of the candidates gave similar answers about how they want to deal with the public and employees within the department. Mr. Bennett says his Christian belief molds his desire to treat the public with compassion, respect and fairness. Mr. Sceare wants to bring integrity, honesty and fairness into the office and dispense the law equally, fairly and justly. Mr. Whittenbarger will use a board of citizens and officers to conduct exit interviews when Sherriff’s Department employees leave their job so that the former employees can speak frankly. Mr. Taylor wants to see people treated fairly and not with differences. Mr. Kirby didn’t speak as plainly about the temperament qualities he will call upon when dealing with the public.
Individual candidates did have a specific agenda items they would put in place. Incumbent Dane Kirby spoke about his continuing to maintain a professionally run office where officers are held to a higher standard. Mr. Kirby will also continue to provide professional training to officers and law enforcement education for the general public. Mr. Bennett will bring changes in attitude and actions. Mr. Scearce wants to increase eyes on the ground through patrols and develop an office that can accommodate needs of a tourist area, which last year had 18 different events that drew major crowds. Mr. Taylor will hunt down people involved in the drug trade and throw them in jail. Mr. Whittenbarger will make sure Sherriff’s Office programs are distributed equally throughout all constituency groups.
FetchYourNews is compiling voters’ questions to the candidates. If you have any questions for Mr. Davis, Mr. Farmer or Mr. Galloway, submit them in the comments section at the end of the Fannin Elections Voters’ Guide. Please don’t include editorial statements in the question. FetchYourNews will be asking candidates these questions in interviews throughout the campaign season.
See Related Posts: Fannin Elections Voters’ Guide: Names, Faces and Candidate Information
Scroll down to watch video of the forum.
Fannin County Chamber of Commerce 2016 Primary Candidate Forum.
Cynthia Panter, Chairman Fannin County Chamber Board.
Rob Kaser, Co-Moderator
Fannin County Magistrate Judge
Sherri Walker (I) NP
Dannette Davis NP
Brian D. Jones NP
Fannin County School Board
Jeremy Davis R
Clarence Junior Farmer R
Chad Galloway R
Fannin County Tax Commissioner
Shirley Sosebee (I) R
Marie Woody R
Georgia House of Representatives District 7
Speaker David Ralston (I) R
Sam Snider R
Georgia Senate District 51
Senator Steve Gooch (I) R
Fannin County Commission Chairman
Bill Simonds (I) R
Stan Helton R
Fannin County Sheriff
Dane Kirby (I) R
Larry Bennett Sr. R
Johnny Scearce R
Jack Taylor R
Rusty Whittenbarger D
FYN has been in contact with the Jeana Love, the sister of last night’s stabbing victim. (more…)