9/1/2022 5:29:00 PM Schools open with added steps to protect students, staff
Rising school violence elsewhere in the country leads to more training and precautions to protect students and staff in Guilford County
by CHRIS BURRITT
NW/NORTHERN GUILFORD - Despite heightened security measures, teachers, students and their parents can't help but feel more anxious over safety in the classrooms, where violence was once unheard-of.
As Guilford County Schools (GCS) resumed classes earlier this week, the installation of handgun-detecting scanners is underway in the district's high schools. The technology is the latest precautionary step being taken amid rising gun violence in schools nationally. The most recent incident occurred three months ago, when an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 students and two teachers in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
"We're all in a heightened sense of awareness that it's a real possibility in the world we live in today," said Capt. Brian Hall of the Guilford County Sheriff's Office. He oversees deputies - or SROs (school resource officers) - assigned to 14 middle and high schools, including Northwest and Northern Guilford schools.
As school violence has increased nationwide, Hall said, "the mindset has shifted. It's a question of when it might happen, not if it will happen."
In another security move, the county's Board of Education voted last month to upgrade the district's communication system. The board entered a contract to replace the server-based system with a cloud-based one, providing for district-wide notifications via text, email and phone calls in the event of an emergency.
"In an emergency, moments matter," GCS Chief Operating Officer Michelle Reed said in a statement this summer. The upgrade ensures "we have the proper infrastructure in place to notify law enforcement, schools, parents and district leaders in a timely and uniform manner."
GCS' investment in security coincides with increasing gun sales in North Carolina and nationwide, according to Mike Richey, the district's executive director of safety and security.
"There are more guns available and our jurisdictions are reporting that more guns are being stolen," Richey told the school board in June. "Greensboro police reported that more guns were stolen out of vehicles last year than ever before."
Last school year, authorities confiscated five handguns carried by students in schools, according to Richey. They also collected 12 BB guns and numerous pocket and kitchen knives.
The safety of their children in school increasingly weighs on parents. For most, it's a risk they must accept, similar to an adult driving a car, according to Hall.
"You know you could be in an accident, but you drive your car every day," he said. "You can mitigate the risk. But you can never fully eliminate it."
The touchless scanning devices being installed in high schools countywide illustrate the vulnerabilities of even the latest technology.
Unveiled at High Point Central and Greensboro's Smith high schools in June, the scanners are set up at the entrance to schools. Like going through a metal detector, people walk between the panels of the scanner, which detects the shape, size and density of items to determine the possible presence of firearms.
People passing through can walk at normal speed, and they don't have to take off their backpacks and empty their pockets when they go through the scanner, according to Richey.
In spite of those advantages over metal detectors, Richey said, the scanners serve as a deterrent only when people pass through them. That doesn't prevent violence in parking lots and elsewhere at schools or by people who rush past security devices or enter through open doors, as was the case in the Uvalde, Texas, shooting.
"Sometimes having all of the doors locked from the outside isn't enough," Hall said. "There is very little in place stopping a student from opening a door from the inside and letting someone in."
The scanner "does not solve every security problem," Richey acknowledged. The best deterrent to violence, he noted, is healthy relationships inside of schools, which can help detect mental health problems among students who may strike out violently.
"The No. 1 safety piece is the relationships between our children and a trusted adult," he said. "That is by far what is going to keep our schools safe."
Engaging with students is one of the roles of the sheriff's SROs, according to Hall.
"The No. 1 priority for SROs is the safety of the students and the faculty in the building," he said.
SROs speak to classes about topics such as drug abuse, bullying and cyber security while in some cases serving "almost like a counselor" to students.
At the same time, SROs are armed just like other deputies and can arrest students if a crime is committed, such as drug possession or assault, Hall said.
Over the summer, SROs trained in areas ranging from dealing with active shooters to suicide prevention.
"A lot of focus these days is training that deals with mental illness, which is so prevalent in society," Hall said.
De-escalation is one of the skills aimed at students "who are acting out. They're having a horrible day. They're not doing what their teachers and administrators want," Hall said.
"When we get involved, we try to bring that person's behavior to an acceptable level so we don't have to take any sort of enforcement action or lay hands on the student," he said.
Tactics for dealing with an active shooter in a school have shifted in the nearly quarter century since a shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others in April 1999. At the time, it was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history.
Back then, some law enforcement agencies practiced "rapid deployment," basically holding back the first officer on the scene until others arrived as backup. If the first officer were injured or killed, then he would be no good in the operation, said Hall, explaining the rationale for that strategy.
That response proved too slow in instances where a shooter acted quickly, leading to a new approach in recent years. SROs already in a school or officers first on the scene are "taught to move directly toward the sound of the gunfire and try to find and stop the threat," Hall said.
Even if gunfire has stopped, Hall said, officers "don't have the time to sit and wait when you may have people dying inside of the classroom."