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Schools: Security measures will greet returning students

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Additional security measures will be in place at Georgetown County schools when students return from summer vacation this month. Not all will be visible.

Upgrades to school entrances were made this summer that include film that makes windows less likely to shatter. The district has launched a text-messaging system to allow anonymous reporting of threats and other concerns. And law enforcement agencies will train to respond to armed intruders.

The changes were prompted by the December 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. The school district expanded resource officers to all its schools in the weeks after the shooting. This week, those officers and others in local law enforcement will get two days of “live shooter” training in classes at Waccamaw High.

The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office, which provides the resource officers for most county schools, started planning the sessions last year, said Lt. Neil Johnson, who heads the patrol division. “The focus is on schools, but it can be applied to other places.”

The sheriff’s office held a similar exercise several years ago at Carvers Bay High. Since then, tactics have changed, said Sgt. Gary Todd, the training officers at the sheriff’s office. “The trend is pretty much to have the officer go straight to the threat,” he said. “Years ago, it used to be different” and first responders would wait for more officers to arrive.

The sessions will be run by the sheriff’s office and instructors from the State Law Enforcement Division. They will include a day of classroom instruction and a day going through live scenarios. They will be held today and tomorrow and Monday and Tuesday. While there will be law enforcement vehicles outside Waccamaw High, most of the training will be inside, Johnson said. It isn’t open to the public or spectators, he added.

“We get it as real as the event can be,” Todd said.

The sheriff’s office will also do presentations to district staff this fall. “We’re going to have them know what to expect when we arrive,” Todd said.

Like the role of police, the role of the public in shooting incidents has also evolved.

“There’s a lot of discussion about active response from potential victims,” Todd said. “We don’t encourage them to take matters into their own hands.” But there is more emphasis on seeking ways out of a building rather than hiding inside.

Alan Walters, who was hired as the school district’s first director of safety this year, is working with the sheriff’s office on the training. He’s a former deputy and magistrate who has led classes on courtroom security. He said there is a growing coordination of school safety efforts around the state. Walters is the head of an association of K-12 emergency managers that was formed this year.

The work to “harden” school entrances isn’t something the district is trumpeting because it doesn’t want to run the risk of someone trying to test it, Walters said. But that’s not the case with a Quick Tip system that it has installed.

It allows people to report threats, bullying or other concerns to school administrators either from the district website or with smartphone apps. “It’s one of the first in South Carolina,” Walters said.

The system allows users to attach photos or documents to their message. It can be anonymous or users can provide contact information. “It think this will be a valuable tool,” Walters said.

He told the school board about the program and, as he expected, the first question was about false reports and what Board Member Richard Kerr called “gossip reports.”

A similar system installed in Lexington County this year got two false reports and one for a gun in a school that was not false, Walter said. “They are very satisfied with it,” he said.

Although the district can’t see who sends the messages, law enforcement can if it is used to send a fake message, such as a bomb threat, Walters said.

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