Blue Ridge, Ga. – When it comes to school safety, Fannin County continues to excel and was recently acknowledged by local law enforcement and emergency response for their efforts.
“One of the things that I am very very proud with Fannin County, our school system, is the relationships we that have between our government agencies, especially the sheriff’s department and the emergency management services,” Director of Transportation and Safety Benny Long said explaining that all agencies play a vital role in protecting the youth of the community.
Faculty of the school system often train alongside these agencies preparing for a number of scenarios and Long acknowledged that there is a comfort in knowing that Fannin County’s emergency personnel is “just a phone call away”.
Looking back on the past year, the Fannin County School System took a number of proactive steps in the process of making its campuses as safe as possible for all who attend.
At the April 12, 2018 Board Of Education (BOE) meeting the board introduced the GAMB policy. This policy was adopted and essentially gave Fannin County schools the option of arming personnel.
While the new policy definitely grabbed the attention of parents and residents alike, administration and staff had also been working in other ways to help secure campuses and ensure the safety of Fannin County children.
“We work diligently everyday to ensure the safety of our students,” Long said of the ongoing efforts, “If a child doesn’t feel safe at school, they can’t learn. Those are one of the basic needs that have to met.”
One element of safety that Fannin County is proud to offer is that a School Resource Officer (SRO) is assigned to each of the school campuses.
“This is a community effort by the Fannin County School System, the Sheriff’s Department, and Blue Ridge City Police,” Long explained of groups working together for the betterment of the schools.
Long spoke specifically of the resource officers in Fannin County stating that “it takes a special person to be a resource officer. It takes someone who loves the students, who wants to be involved, and who wants to make a difference in that young child’s life.”
“That’s the best set of eyes that we have,” Long continued to explain the importance of SROs in our schools, “when a student feels comfortable reaching out to our resource officers and confiding in them and giving them information.”
Fannin County also has an emergency operation plan for the schools. This emergency operation plan has been in effect and constantly evolving since 2003.
The comprehensive safety plan covers a number of scenarios from weather and gas leaks to active shooters and bomb threats.
The plan in the past was vetted or checked by GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency), but recently under new guidelines has been handed over to local agencies for approval.
Though local agencies are now in charge of reviewing the district’s comprehensive safety plan, it still must meet all requirements laid out by the state of Georgia as stated in O.C.G.A.20-2-1185.
“I’m going to brag on ours. Ours exceeds the minimum requirements by the state,” Fannin County School Resource Officer Lieutenant Darvin Couch said of the district’s most recent plan.
Active shooter drills were performed at the schools during the summer of 2018, but none of these drills have taken place while students were present.
Fannin County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) also performed a mock disaster drill over spring break of 2018.
Fannin County Transportation Department participated in this drill and school bus drivers got to experience the scenario of moving people during a disaster. This drill also included the setting up of shelter at Morganton Baptist Church.
Long informed the public that all schools have top of the line cameras in place, and that SRO’s as well as the Sheriff’s Office have the ability to remote access the cameras. These cameras are capable of producing clear images of not only people but also vehicles and vehicle tags.
Through the use of these high tech devices, security is able to pinpoint the “location of whatever the threat could be” and know “what they are getting ready to go into”.
Fannin County High School added 52 of these cameras in the months of March and April in 2018.
“We are working with all three of our elementary schools to work on a plan to control access at our elementary schools,” Long said of the ongoing effort to continue safety improvements.
“None of us wants to limit anyone to come to school with their child,” Long added. The school system wants parents and guardians to always feel welcome, but would like to know who and when someone enters a school building or campus.
The high school will experience a similar point of entry security measure with a “storefront” door being placed before the office at the main entrance. This door will require either a key card entry or for a person to be buzzed in.
Beyond local networking with various emergency providers to our county, the school system was also in contact with the Georgia Secret Service Agency.
“We have actually reached out and have a contact with an agent out of Atlanta,” Long said, “and they are going to be working with us on some different measures that we can use to keep our schools safe.”
“Safety also takes on many aspects. It’s not only the school’s safety of the buildings, the campus, and the faculty, but also involves our faculty members and our employees,” Long stated.
SRO Couch presented the BOE with a certificate recognizing the work the school system has done through extensive planning in exceeding the requirements set forth in providing and updating a comprehensive safety plan.
Couch read from a letter written by Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby: “From tornadoes to terrorism, Fannin County faces a variety of ever-evolving threats, underscoring the importance of updating plans in cooperation with local public safety professionals.”
Kirby added in his letter,”I am pleased to inform you that your school emergency operations plans have once again successfully met the requirements of O.C.G.A. 20-2-1185.”
The BOE, administration, and staff continue to work within the community and access outside resources to provide the best safety solutions for the students of Fannin County.
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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.
Since the tragedy in Newtown, CT, it is no secret that schools across the nation have tried to increase security measures in an effort to minimize the risk of an event of the sort taking place in their town and Fannin County has proven to be no exception. As promised, FYN has followed the ongoing issue of keeping our children safe and making Fannin’s schools a safer place. And our latest findings revealed that things have came a long way since December. (more…)
The topic on the administration’s, board members’, citizens’ and other government officials minds the most during the Board of Education’s meeting was the safety of the children in Fannin County schools. (more…)