Schools here not immune to nightmare of Sandy Hook

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

In the wake of another mass murder at a public school - this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. - officials here are reviewing their preparedness keeping in mind something that happened in Giles County 17 years ago.

"There is an emergency response plan," Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said Monday. "It is up to the school system to keep it updated. It saddens all of us to hear of such events as this. It also reminds us of the Richland School shooting just a few years back. That was really close to home."

Three were shot and two died at the Lynnville school in 1995, Giles County school administrators said, recalling that day. Their story is on page A4.

Marshall County Schools Director Jackie Abernathy emailed school employees on Sunday, saying be alert and review safety procedures.

In a 1,400-word letter to parents of students in grades 7-12, Abernathy said classroom doors are kept locked and a security firm is to determine if cameras and entrance buzzers on front doors are feasible.

"Ideally, every school would have a school resource officer, but this is something that the county commission would have to fund," she said. "I will be meeting with the SROs this week to address possible changes in security."

Sheriff Norman Dalton acknowledged the tragedy and the conundrum.

"I feel saddened by what happened at Sandy Hook, but what do you do?" Dalton asked. "It's too early to say why he did it."

As for SROs, Dalton said, "That's the first line of defense where they're at. We don't have them at every school."

His prescription for good mental health to prevent tragedy is teaching the Ten Commandments. "That's where it needs to begin... No. 1, Thou shall not kill."

Chapel Hill Police Chief Jackie King advocates an SRO in every school, adding, "They need to be in the halls and be seen, instead of watching security monitors. It's heartbreaking. It's going to happen here or somewhere else again."

Giles County interim assistant schools director Yvonne Brown was Richland School's principal the year before a student and teacher were shot and killed by a senior.

"We got school resource officers in Giles County after that," Brown said. "In listening to what happened this past weekend ... when somebody has their mind set, there's not much you can do."

Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis advocates SROs in all schools, "but it's an expensive venture. Then comes the question; what price do you put on a child's life? Yet we know the financial stress facing schools."

SROs are supposed to teach and protect, Forbis said. "Unfortunately they're not used in that capacity here."

City Police Detective Sgt. David Henley said, like police in Newtown, "The first officer on the scene goes in."

Years ago, the National Tactical Officer Association changed tactics. Previously, officers waited for back up, he said. "Now, the first officer on the scene goes in. That applies to any active shooter situation because time is important to save lives.

"We are prepared, as far as our tactical squad. We train in all the schools and have multiple times throughout the year. We have plans in place, should our response be necessary.

"I've sent all my police department tactical team members to New Mexico for explosive familiarization and during that we cover bomb threats. The training is 100 percent free, paid for by the federal government - flights, food, hotel and training.

"I'm sending my guys to El Paso for suicide bombers for the same federal program."

The Rev. Steve Thomas' parents live in Columbia. While he wasn't here at the time, he knew of Richland School's shootings.

"It's worth noting ... we're not immune," said Thomas, one of three LPD chaplains.

"The enormity of killing children will, I hope, cement this in people's minds ... since the Reagan administration, mental health funding has been cut and, from what I hear from law enforcement, is it's not going to be easy to predict which individual will have a mental break.

"From my years in public service, protection of public buildings is very expensive," the pastor said. "We should look for places where emotions run high and, in my experience, that's been courtrooms, family courtrooms in particular."

He advocates ongoing construction for a secure front door at Marshall County Courthouse.

"Emotions are going to run high around children," said Thomas, encouraging the school board to examine school security. "They're smart people and will take this seriously."