Local school officials reassure community in wake of deadly Florida shooting

Students grieve at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Students grieve at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The threat of a school shooter is palpable to local school administrators and teachers who reflected on their own preparedness for such a situation after a shooter killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday.

Wednesday's attack, one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, was the 30th mass shooting in the country since the start of the year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings nationwide.

Lee Sims, the principal of Hixson High School, said he relayed some information about Wednesday's shooting and others over the intercom Thursday to more than 800 of his students, telling them a lockdown drill had been scheduled for today.

"We said, 'We hope it doesn't happen here, but we'll be ready in the event that it does,'" he said.

"Personally, it's just a hard thing to think about. It's your worst nightmare," he said. "Professionally, it's a part of our day-to-day life. If you're going to have these jobs, you need to be prepared for anything that might happen."

photo New Hixson High School principal Lee Sims is focused on preparing students for life, imparting each with the skills necessary to compete for jobs in a global environment.

Both students and teachers are trained on what to do if an active shooter attacks the campus. Teachers are supposed to get students out of the hallways, lock their doors, turn off the lights and remain silent, huddled out of sight. During a drill, administrators roam the halls looking for problems and listening for any sounds made by hiding people.

"We physically check every door. We listen and we take notes as to where any sounds were or where doors were unlocked," he said. "We work to revise our process and plan if we have any deficiencies. Typically, here you could hear a pin drop. It's eerie when you walk the halls during a drill."

Sims said he's a seasoned administrator with military experience, and when he saw the headlines concerning Wednesday's shooting, they reminded him of the importance of being proactive about the security of his students.

"I have the emotional response, but I also have the cognitive response. Through my mind I think about what we're going to do," he said. "As a principal, you don't have the luxury of dwelling on the emotional side too much if you're going to keep people safe."

Elaine Harper, principal of Red Bank High School, said it's a difficult time to be an educator.

"It's a tragic situation for everyone involved. It's just devastating for anyone in education - teachers, administrators to think about what happened at that school and what everyone in that building went through," she said.

But just like Sims, she said the safety of the students at her school are her top priority and the school takes every possible measure to ensure the well-being of its students.

"RBHS has an active safety committee that meets regularly to establish and revise all safety procedures and protocols for the school. In light of the recent tragedies, Red Bank High administration is working with the [school resource officer], to review safety procedures with all faculty and staff," she said.

"The school will conduct a school-wide intruder drill in the coming days to review proper responses of staff and students," she added. "We pray that an incident never occurs here, but are taking all the steps we can to be prepared."

She also implored students to communicate about any changes in the attitudes, behaviors or actions of people they know that could be a cause for concern. She said taking the time to share such concerns could prevent future tragedies.

Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspected shooter from Wednesday's incident, was a former student of the school he targeted. He was reportedly expelled for disciplinary reasons and former classmates remembered him as a troubled kid.

The Hamilton County Department of Education operates an anonymous tip line on its website where residents can share concerns or upload screenshots of troubling social media posts. Topics can range from self-injury to threats of violence.

Matt Lea, spokesman for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, also confirmed Thursday that his agency works closely with residents to lay out procedures for active shooter situations.

"There is a districtwide safety plan in how to respond to any emergency, including active shooters," he wrote in an emailed statement.

"These are practiced at the school level with and without our assistance," he added. "This is accomplished through our [school resource officers] helping school administrators facilitate drills, we come and assist with evaluating drills and then debrief afterwards to discuss the areas of success and any area that might need improvement, and we also help by consulting with the superintendent's staff on reviewing the plan annually.

photo Mark Griffith

"Our agency offers this preparedness training to all schools, private and public, local churches, and businesses in our community."

Security concerns aren't limited to schools in Hamilton County.

Marion County Schools Superintendent Mark Griffith has increasingly had the topic on his mind, especially since a police manhunt for a robbery suspect shut down schools in his area for several days last month.

He said the manhunt and the shooting in Florida prompted him to hold a security meeting to review plans for such events. In that meeting, administrators formed a safety committee composed of school administrators, a member of law enforcement and a representative from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

"Basically, what they're going to be doing is what we'd call a safety audit to look at our policy procedure manual as well as just do a general walkthrough of all the schools to see if there's something we need to improve on," he said.

The committee will be looking at technological improvements and additions to their facilities including increased door security and cameras on campus.

"We'll let this committee do the safety audit and they'll do the walkthroughs and make recommendations to myself and my staff," he said.

Greg Grayson, vice chairman of the Catoosa County Republican Party, said he wants educators, law enforcement officials and parents to get together to discuss ways to make school entries in his Georgia-area schools more secure. Grayson said he has four children in the Georgia education system, including at Hermitage Middle School in Ringgold.

"It's been my experience that you can walk straight into those facilities unimpeded," Grayson said. "I don't know, but I bet that if you went and looked at the entry points to Sandy Hook [Elementary School], you've got a secure surveillance system at the opening."

Kim Fisher, principal at Black Fox Elementary in Bradley County, said she's beefed up security at the entrance with a bullet-proof panel, a full-time safety resource officer and a magnetic door system.

"Any guest can come into our office," Fisher said. "And our safety resource officer and secretary are there, which is why I put the bulletproof panel in. But they cannot gain access to our children without coming through our office."

But even in the best-case scenarios, schools and students are still vulnerable.

"There's no school that's immune," said George Valadie, principal at Notre Dame High School.

"I think it's anybody's worst-case scenario and nightmare," he said. "But you try to do the best you can to think ahead if that's at all possible."

He said he's done what several other principals in the area have and taken time to review not only the school's safety procedures and protocols for active shooter events, but the facilities as well.

"I've had drills and we do review it every summer, for sure. We've made some changes here and there. We've, through the course of the years, like many schools have, installed the locking doors and that sort of thing." he said.

He's also communicated directly with parents who send their kids to his school in order to assure them that faculty and administrators are prepared to do everything they can to protect their children.

"I have, on occasion, reached out to our parents, just simply to let them know that we do drill and we are concerned and we pray for those situations and people," he said. "I want them to feel as confident as they can that people with whom they've entrusted their children love them as much as they do."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on twitter @zackpeterson918.

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