In Our Schools: Safety and Security

By Dr. Akil Ross

After the recent tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, our nation mourns the loss of 19 children and 2 teachers in what is becoming a more frequent reality than an infrequent occurrence. School leaders across the country grapple with the question of how to assure students, parents, teachers, staff, and the community that schools will be safe and secure learning environments. Tuesday, May 24th was the 213th mass shooting of the year, and our collective trauma creates a collective awareness that Robb Elementary will not be the last school shooting our nation will experience. A report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), published in February 2021, stated that gun violence is the leading cause of death for American youth under the age of 19. So how will School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students and educators?

The solution is multi-faceted. The most recent school shooting shows that any singular defense strategy can be defeated. Therefore, our schools will be implementing a multi-layered defense system for the 2022 – 2023 school year. Reflecting on a conversation with my late father, who served in the Navy aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt CV-42 Aircraft carrier, I remember asking how a 60,000-ton floating airport defends itself from attack. I will never forget his response. He said, “Son, the carrier has never been defeated in battle because it is never alone.” The fact is because the aircraft carrier is an easy target, it is accompanied by a carrier strike force. There are planes in the air, cruisers and destroyers on the water, and submarines underneath the surface. The strike force provides a multi-layered security system that transforms a “soft target” (easy to attack) into a “hard target” (difficult to attack). There are three (3) major components of this security system that serve as a great model for schools: (1) Communication (2) Compartmentalization and (3) Awareness.

Communication is the first level of defense in our system. It begins with ensuring open lines of communication and coordination with those actively supervising the students. School District Five’s Safety Team, in cooperation with Lexington and Richland County Sheriff’s Departments, provides updated training and strategies to confront any potential threats to campuses. The most effective form of communication is the STOPit App which is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The STOPit App allows students to anonymously communicate threats of bullying or weapons on campus and report threats of school violence or suicide.

Compartmentalization is the multi-layering security strategy of the physical facility. We cannot rely solely on one door that should be locked to be the difference between lives saved and lives lost. As a result, we are reviewing the security plans to ensure each security feature has a backup. This compartmentalization will include but is not limited to metal detectors for screening, cameras, door sensors and barricades, SROs, other security personnel, ongoing training, and an integrated communication system.

Awareness is the final phase of the multi-layered security system. Schools must address threats from inside and outside of the school. The majority of school shootings are carried out by students; however, there is hope for us all. According to the 2019 report from the US Secret Service on Mass Attacks in Public Spaces, in almost every documented case of active shooters, there were warning signs shown in advance of the shooting. These warning signs range from social isolation to making a threat. Chief Mark Keel of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has made the Behavior Science Unit available to our district to conduct threat assessments for any threat made to our schools to determine the best intervention.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is important to emphasize that Mental Health and Mental Illness conditions do not make someone dangerous. However, untreated mental health and illness can lead to violent behaviors. School District Five added 9 mental health counselors this year, yet with over 9,000 crisis interventions this year including 311 suicide evaluations our staff is stretched. We are partnering with community organizations to assist us with the social-emotional needs of our students.

There is something that all of us can do to protect our schools. We can create a better world for our children. Our students were born after September 11, 2001. Our students live in a world where the majority of social and news media reports on violence, fear, anger, fighting, loss, sadness, war, and hate. Our students learn human interactions from what is modeled for them. We can model self-control. We can model gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, patience, peace, joy, and love. Millions of dollars of our educational budget will be committed to “hardening” our schools. I pray there is an equal commitment to “soften” our society.