Efforts to boost safety in Hamilton County schools continue a year after Parkland shooting

Efforts to boost safety in Hamilton County schools continue a year after Parkland shooting

February 13th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Tim Barber School Resource Officer P. Soyster watches conditions outside Wednesday on the campus at Central High School in Harrison. Soyster came onboard in October of 2017. "This will be my first full year at the school," Soyster said. "I have a business administration degree, but this is what I like to do," he said.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

One year after theĀ shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Hamilton County leaders continue to pursue ways to boost school security.

"I never will forget, a little less than a year ago I met the county commissioner of Parkland, Florida, and she shared the stories of her conversations with parents of the victims," District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd said during the Hamilton County Commission meeting Wednesday. "I'll tell you, that was a gut-wrenching conversation and I hope that none of us, God forbid, have to have those.

"With that said, I know we're going through the budget process and I know we discussed it last year. I hope that the absolute best practices for preventing such behavior from students in our schools is being investigated and diligently pursued by the Department of Education, along with our sheriff's office."

The shooting left 17 dead, and shortly after, community members here and across the country began to call for increased school security and even stricter gun control legislation. Representatives from the county and the school district, the sheriff's office and the Chattanooga Police Department met with school safety consultants and held public forums to discuss public concerns.

Superintendent Bryan Johnson included more funding for school resource officers in the 2018-19 budget, which was welcomed by the commission.

But a year after the shooting, only 31 schools in the county have a designated school resource officer. Four budgeted-for positions remain empty as the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office wrestles with recruiting and training of new officers this year. One officer is on military deployment, two are waiting to be released from the sheriff's office patrol division and one position is vacant, sheriff's spokesman Matt Lea said.

Commissioners on Wednesday emphasized more work needs to be done to ensure the district has access to resources for keeping students safe and pointed to the upcoming budget.

"The sheriff did put a $4 million price tag on it to put SROs in every school last year," Boyd said. "We did increase the SRO presence in our schools last year but we still do not have an SRO in all of our schools. I encourage all of us to diligently pursue every avenue to prevent such an activity."

District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker added: "I'm currently working with the school board chair [Joe Wingate], we're going to have a meeting [together] next month to talk about two things: first of all, safety, which is very timely and second is starting the budget process."

One of the three aspects of a facilities and growth assessment now underway is a $33,500 contract to beef up security at school entrances.

The school district has implemented a new visitor management system called Raptor in all 79 schools and installed new door locking systems as well as security cameras at school entrances.

But, school officials have been vocal about the physical weaknesses of some school buildings. After being buzzed in the front entrance of many schools, visitors must follow the honor system to proceed to the office, which is sometimes down a hallway or around a corner.

Johnson said the work is not done.

"The safety of the children in our schools is on my mind every day and especially so now as we remember the tragic loss of so many young people with great promise at Parkland and other school shooting incidents across the country in recent years," reads a statement from Johnson. "We have taken significant steps to improve safety, but continued vigilance is vital and a total community effort with everyone playing an important part in keeping Hamilton County Schools a safe place for children to learn and grow."

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


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