School safety is hot topic at Hamilton County school board meeting

In this Thursday, July 20, 2017, staff file photo, school board members Rhonda Thurman, left, and David Testerman discuss a school Partnership Zone proposal during a Hamilton County Board of Education meeting in Chattanooga.

How Hamilton County Schools can ensure student safety, including what place guns have on school grounds, was one of the agenda items at Thursday's school board work session.

Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman introduced the subject with her main concern - the possibility of arming teachers and school staff members.

Thurman called for continued dialogue with local law enforcement officials.

"I do know that you and [Superintendent Bryan] Johnson did meet with [Hamilton County Sheriff Jim] Hammond about guns on school grounds," Thurman said to board Chairman Steve Highlander. "I'd like the board to join in on that conversation."

Highlander confirmed again that he and Superintendent Bryan Johnson have talked with Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond about school safety, which the Times Free Press reported last week. Board member Joe Wingate also said that he has had conversations with the sheriff.

"I agree with Ms. Thurman that we need to have conversation, no doubt," Wingate said. "I was encouraged in the conversation to hear really the amount of thought that he has already put into this ... in talking about options, and none of us know what the right options are."

Some of what school officials and local law enforcement have explored include safety options such as how to better secure school buildings, the potential for adding school resource officers and the possibility of arming teachers, especially if proposed legislation being considered by state lawmakers is passed.

"People look at things differently. I don't like the fact that someone can walk into a school and know they are the only one anywhere close with a gun and they can just start methodically shooting," said Thurman, who is in favor of allowing specially trained teachers and staff who volunteer to do so to carry firearms on campus. "I don't want to see kids, and teachers, and the only chance they have is to cower under a desk and hope the sheriff gets there before their times comes."

Johnson disagreed.

"I don't think guns are the appropriate approach in an academic environment," he said.

Other board members, many of whom agreed that there should be continued dialogue about safety options, also called for resources to address problems before they become safety issues.

"If we are going to have a conversation about guns and their place in our schools, we need to talk about the other layers to these problems," said Tiffanie Robinson.

Both Robinson and Karitsa Mosley Jones agreed that mental health should be a top priority for the school district.

"I think as a school system, that is our place," Robinson said.

The school district has already been working on ramping up school safety. Last week, the district announced the installation of a new visitor monitoring system from Raptor Technologies at East Hamilton Middle and High School, East Side Elementary, the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences Lower School, and Westview Elementary. The district plans on installing the system at all 79 schools by the end of April.

Approval for the Raptor system - and the $118,000 from the board's reserves to pay for it - was made by the executive committee, which consists of the superintendent and the board chairman. Highlander said the executive committee is able to make spending decisions in emergencies. The executive committee approved the expenditure after the shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school last month, but other board members noted such a system had been discussed previously.

'We've had several discussions prior to this administration, prior to this incident, this month, this year," Jones said. "I just want the public to understand this wasn't reactive."

The district has also been working on installing new cameras on school campuses, as well as phones in every classroom, according to Chief Operations Officer Lee McDade.

Currently, 34 schools have a phone in every classroom and 2,657 HD surveillance cameras have been installed across the district. The district plans on installing electronic locks to access doors at every school - 49 schools currently have at least 1 such locking door, but the district hopes to have an average of 5 such doors at each school, according to McDade.

"It's not going to stop problems, but it's another tool in the bag," he said.

District officials emphasized that the district emergency plans are reviewed every year, but plans can vary school by school. Specific safety plan information is also generally not made public.

"People want to know what the plan is specifically in each school," Highlander said. "It would be foolish to tell that ... the general public does not need to be shared that."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.