Safety a priority in Madison County schools

Schools across the country, including area schools, began taking a closer look at their safety plans after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. While this reexamination of procedures is recent the desire to keep local students safe is not new.

Kim Harding, Superintendent in Sheridan, said her school’s safety plan was implemented long before she began work there.

“The school is extremely safe,” Harding said. “All doors at the school are locked except the front door. Visitors must walk by and check in with the administration before proceeding elsewhere in the building.”

The procedure for visitors is nearly identical in Ennis.

“The outside doors are locked and visitors must be buzzed in by the secretary or principal,” Ennis Superintendent John Overstreet said.  “Visitors check in and get a visitor’s badge.”

Although all the Madison County schools have strategies in place in case various safety issues occur, the plans do not do any good if they are not routinely practiced, reviewed and updated. To get school staff and boards of trustees thinking even more about student safety, Madison County Undersheriff Roger Thompson has presented information at all the schools on school hostage and active shooter incidents. Thompson most recently presented this information at Harrison School Board’s Feb. 11 meeting.

“Obviously for us it is a little closer to home,” Harrison Superintendent Fred Hofman said of safety concerns. A Harrison student brought one loaded and one unloaded gun to school on Jan. 25. Nobody was injured or harmed in this instance, but it prompted continued discussion that the Harrison Board of Trustees began at its January meeting. “There are some things we could reasonably do to make the school safer, but you can’t prevent everything,” Hofman said.

“Schools are a very public place. Everybody cares very greatly about schools and their students, but things are going to happen,” Thompson told students, staff and community members gathered in Harrison. A sentiment echoed by Overstreet. “Student safety is our number one concern, but we still want the school to be a welcoming place. It’s a hard balancing act.”

The Madison County Sheriff’s Department has used each school for active shooter drills and deputies have school plans to better aid them if they are called to help. They also have good working relationships with other law enforcement in the area, some of which offer services the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t provide.

Schools seek out input and assistance in formulating their policies and procedures from several resources – staff, school board, community members – but where they do not receive aid is in funding to update facilities. Schools continue to face budget cuts and many times have to make only the improvements they can afford and not all that are wanted or necessary.

“No funding is available from the state or at the federal level,” said Dennis Parman, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Title IV Safe and Drug-Free Schools used to be a federal source, but budget cuts have reduced the amounts for schools to such low levels. There is little a school can do with it.”

The lack of funding may change this legislative session. Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, has a bill draft request regarding school safety. The unintroduced bill, LC1185, is entitled “Generally revise education laws related to school safety and security.” If passed, the bill would grant schools one-time-only money to update school facilities to ensure student safety.

Financial support is just one part of guaranteeing students remain safe in Madison County schools.

“We have a lot of support,” Harding said of Sheridan school’s work on safety policies with community members and law enforcement. “It’s up to all of us.”

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