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Staff Photo by Carmen Nesbitt / Steve Doremus, communications officer for Hamilton County Schools, demonstrates Thursday how a badge is required to enter Hixson High School. It is one of several security measures implemented at schools across the district to prevent school shooters.

After the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre and a mass shooting May 28 in downtown Chattanooga that left six teenagers wounded, parents want to know what Hamilton County Schools is doing to lessen the risk of such a tragedy here.

"We've taken every measure that we can to ensure that schools are safe," Superintendent Justin Robertson told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in an interview. "We are doing what we can to not only improve the systems that we have in place but to monitor what we have in place to ensure that it's being effective."

By law, Tennessee schools are required to conduct at least one active shooter drill per academic year. Robertson said that in addition to the drills, teachers and staff undergo additional training.

"In the past, (we've done) districtwide training for administrators. Now, COVID's made that a little bit more difficult the last couple of years, but the summer before COVID, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office did an active shooter training with our administrators," Robertson said.

The district had plans to implement more active shooter training but wasn't able to once the pandemic hit, Robertson said.

To better secure buildings, the district has invested about $5 million over the past five years re-engineering school entrances.

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Staff Photo by Carmen Nesbitt / A camera installed near the front entrance of Hixson High School, as pictured Thursday, is one of the many security measures used across the district to prevent a possible school shooting.

Robertson said they're called "hardened entrances" because there are several layers to entry. The first layer is a badge swipe to gain access to a holding area with a second set of doors that are locked and also require a badge.

"You're not immediately in the school, you're in a holding area that forces you into the school's office, where you obviously have to sign in," Robertson said. "Once you're in there, we have a visitor management system where you have to have an ID that you scan, and it looks across (for example) the sex offenders' registry to see if there's any reason why you shouldn't be in that building."

The Sheriff's Office provides 32 school resource officers to the district, and the district also has 19 of its own armed guards.

Robertson said should there be an active shooter, there are several protocols in place depending on the situation, although he declined to reveal certain specific details.

"There are multiple strategies, depending on where it is. We used to tell schools to lock down and stay in place. Now, given the situation, it might be a better option to exit the building and run. And so, there's a wide range of recommendations of what students should do and what teachers should do given the specific situation," Robertson said.

There's no one way to approach an active shooter situation, he said

"The drills are obviously important. Securing our buildings are important. Armed security is important. But there's not one single thing that is going to protect our schools. We have to have multiple strategies in place," Robertson said.

Jason Satterfield, a parent of two children who attend Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, said he's satisfied with Hamilton County Schools' efforts to prevent school shooters but adds that defending the lives of children isn't schools' role.

"I they think they're doing the best they can with what they have," Satterfield said by phone. "I just don't feel that we should put so much pressure on the teachers and the actual educators to protect and serve, that's other people's jobs."

Satterfield said schools also don't have enough resources and funding as it is.

"They don't even have the resources to properly educate kids, let alone protect them from active shooters and police work," he said. "I don't think the schools are in a place, either financially or even expertise-wise, and there's no way to protect kids (completely). That's not what they're trained for. That's not what they're funded for. So, I think it's going to have to be a completely different type of effort than to just depend on the schools."

Satterfield said, like any parent, he's taught his children to be aware of their surroundings, trust their gut, to look both ways when they're crossing the street and to avoid strangers — but there's not much he can do as a parent when it comes to school shootings.

"There's all these simple lessons that translate to, unfortunately, school shootings," Satterfield said. "The only thing we can do as parents is to try to educate our children about these situations, as much as it sucks to have to talk to little kids about these realities."

Going forward, Robertson said the district hopes to get more armed security into schools by working with police departments from different municipalities in Hamilton County.

"I've already reached out to several of those municipalities, started having conversations about what they can do to help us secure schools within their municipalities," Robertson said.

But protecting schools is a community effort, he said.

"This is not just a Hamilton County Schools issue. It's not just a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office issue. This is a community issue," Robertson said. "There are a continuum of strategies that we've got to have in place to fully protect kids all the way from parents monitoring kids' social media to people reporting things when they hear something to having cooperation from law enforcement to do home visits when we do hear of something that is concerning."

As a parent, Robertson said he's frustrated when school shootings occur.

"Schools are a reflection of our community, and they're a reflection of our society," he said. "I have a daughter who goes to school every day in our school system. So, I'm frustrated, as well, that we continue to have incidents like this happening. And it's difficult to have traction on these conversations. There are some common-sense gun legislation policies that should be considered that, for whatever reason, have a hard time getting discussed in any movement. And as a parent, that's really frustrating to me."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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