Fayette officials quizzed about school safety

Nearly 300 Whitewater High School students and parents attended a school safety forum on April 10. Photo/Ben Nelms.
Nearly 300 Whitewater High School students and parents attended a school safety forum on April 10. Photo/Ben Nelms.

Questions: More police in schools, armed teachers, mental health watchfulness, how to improve communication? Whitewater High School forum hosts nearly 300 students, parents

A student-produced school safety forum was held April 9 in the Whitewater High School auditorium. Prompted by the recent Florida school shooting, nearly 300 students and parents posed questions to a panel of local officials.

Above, nearly 300 Whitewater High School students and parents attended a school safety forum on April 10. Photo/Ben Nelms.

Moderated by student Chase Johnson, the panel consisted of Fayette County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Tommy Pope, Tyrone state Rep. Derrick Jackson, Fayette County School System Director of Special Projects Sam Sweat, Fayette state Rep. Josh Bonner, Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson and Fayetteville Police Chief Scott Gray.

Chase Johnson explained that the purpose of the forum was to have students and parents informed on local-level initiatives to improve school safety, with the intent of promoting collaboration and identifying practices that contribute to overall safety.

One of the audience questions dealt with any attempt to have an increase in the number of school resource officers (SROs).

Chief Gray said police are open to having additional SROs and would like to see a presence in elementary schools.

Also responding, Sweat said having SROs making rounds at elementary schools next school year is something the school system will be examining. Sweat reminded the audience that adding additional staffing will have a financial impact.

Another question asked about initiatives designed to improve safety.

Rep. Jackson responded, saying the General Assembly added $20 million in grants for items not covered by E-SPLOST (education-special purpose local option sales tax) revenues.

Rep. Bonner in his response said those dollars can purchase training, but ultimately, the best preparation can be circumvented by things like an open door. That was the point made recently by Fayette County Board of Education member Diane Basham who, using an example of a potential school breach, said school doors are locked but a rock propped in a door by a student to let another student enter the building can thwart security efforts.

Bonner also noted that funds and training area available through Homeland Security.

One of the questions asked if teachers with military or law enforcement training should be allowed to carry a firearm in the classroom.

Sweat said he was not a proponent of that approach, adding that the school board would have to approve such a measure.

Bonner said he would support the idea, provided the teacher had proper training.

“But I would hate to see it come to that,” said Bonner.

Jackson followed, saying teachers should not be armed or have small arms in the classroom, adding that prior to doing so SROs should be increased and additional technology should be put in place. Following up with a comment about the ease of purchasing a weapon at gun shows, Jackson said access to guns is the issue and the age of eligibility should be addressed.

Drawing on the increased recognition that shooters with mental health issues are a concern, panel members were asked if health classes should be altered to address those issues.

Mayor Johnson said it is important to be aware of the mental health condition of students.

“We have to be concerned about what’s best for the community,” Johnson said. “When a student is acting out of character, it’s time for somebody to say something.”

Sweat agreed, noting that, as a former principal, he wanted out-of-character behavior by students or teachers to be reported.

“And we want to protect the identity of the reporting student,” said Sweat. “We can’t take anything lightly anymore.”

Maj. Pope also responded, saying that SROs have been trained in mental health issues, adding that all road deputies are being trained.

On an affiliated question, Gray and Pope were asked what they considered their greatest concerns for young people outside a school campus.

Gray said his concern would be students becoming involved with clique groups or gangs, while Pope said young people must make smart choices, adding that parents need to know who their children are “hanging out with.”

Mayor Johnson near the end of the forum told the audience that 90 percent of Fayetteville’s budget goes to public safety.

“The cities and the county and all law enforcement work together on an ongoing basis. And all residents should be proud of that,” Johnson said.

Sweat followed, saying, “Everybody’s job is to look out for one another, and that includes students.”

Those comments dovetailed into a question posed by a grandparent. Her question, as much philosophical as practical, asked what can be done to change the culture of hate and division.

Pope said that change could be initiated through genuine communication between people through genuine concern for others.

Johnson suggested that the engagement of all citizens in their community would enhance understanding.

“It’s important for all of us to get engaged, especially with someone who looks different,” he said.

Sweat said hate and division begins at home.

“The family unit has been fractured, so we’ve all got to work together,” Sweat said.

Jackson followed, saying, “We need to value one another. If I value you, I won’t kill you.”

Bonner in his response said also spoke about communication.

“If I’m not communicating, I’m not doing my job. So all of us must reach out to others, including those different from us,” said Bonner.

Bonner also noted a question for all to consider.

“How much freedom are you willing to give up for how much security?” Bonner asked.