012518 Schools: Sandy Hook parent will launch district safety initiative
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Schools: Sandy Hook parent will launch district safety initiative

By Emily Topper
Coastal Observer

Marshall County, Kentucky. Italy, Texas.

“They are communities that look a lot like us,” said Alan Walters, the director of safety and risk management for the Georgetown County School District.

On Monday, a 16-year-old shot a fellow student in the cafeteria at a high school in Italy, a town of just over 1,900. The next day, a 15-year-old brought a gun to school and opened fire at a high school in Marshall County, where the population is half of Georgetown County’s.

Walters wants the community to understand that this can happen anywhere. Being proactive instead of reactive, he said, is the best way to prepare for the unthinkable.

Next month, Michele Gay, the founder of Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative, will speak about school safety measures in Georgetown. Gay co-founded the program with Alissa Parker. Their daughters were two of the 20 children killed during the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012.

“I was presenting on school safety at a national conference two years ago and she was there with her group,” Walters said. “I met her and found out her story. She gives a powerful presentation. What we do learn from these tragedies is what we can do because of it. The biggest thing we have to battle is complacency. People think it can’t happen here, and I’m sure those people thought the same thing.”

Gay will encourage people to look for potential warning signs and report any behavior that may seem odd or out of character.

“Sometimes we see after the fact that people will say, ‘I saw or heard this, and didn’t think it was important,’” Walters said. “This will cover how they can get involved and report anything unusual.”

It was after the Sandy Hook shooting that Georgetown County expanded its school resource officers and off-duty police to all schools and renovated school entrances. Visitors now go through a security corridor. Front offices are enclosed with reinforced glass. “They can’t walk right in and get access to the schools that way,” Walters said.

School resource officers for public schools are paid for out of the district’s budget. The exception is Coastal Montessori Charter School. While charter schools receive state funding for operations, they are exempt from some regulations and have their own governing boards.

Although Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, it would have to hire its own resource officer.

“We have funding as an independent school from the per-pupil allotment provided by the state,” Nathalie Hunt, the charter school director, said.

Two parents at the school who declined to give their names asked the charter school board to look into paying for a resource officer, or asking the school district to cover the cost. The parents spoke at a CMCS board meeting in both December and January.

“It’s two-fold,” one parent said. “You want to have a presence of law enforcement, but not necessarily to scare the children or the parents. But leaving us here is a huge concern. It kind of leaves us as a target, I feel.”

Hunt said that she plans to get the charter board around the table with the county school board.

“My hope is to convey to the Georgetown County School District that we are a public school and we look forward to the opportunities to be served in the same way,” Hunt said. “I know it’s a negotiation, but I believe that it’s important.”

She added that county Superintendent Randy Dozier recognizes the quality of the education available at Coastal Montessori.

“I know that he and the board understand that we are serving the kids in our community,” she said. “He believes in that, and he’s passionate about ensuring the safety of each student in Georgetown County.”

Walters said the school district has started the discussion with Coastal Montessori and is working toward a solution.

“We’re working with them right now to see if we could assist them,” he said. “They’re looking for more of a long-term situation. We’re going to look on our end to see if we can help them out.”

“We feel confident that it will work out to the benefit of the child,” Hunt said.

She added that she expects the Montessori school will have some presence at Gay’s upcoming presentation.

“A friend of mine from Cornell that I graduated with, her son was a kindergartener at Sandy Hook the year of the shooting,” Hunt said. “I have a personal connection. Her son lived, he was one of the survivors and his classroom was not impacted. It is beyond emotional. It is very important to do all that we can, to take every precaution.”

Walters hopes that community members will attend the presentation even if they don’t have children in school.

“Every school is surrounded by a community,” he said. “It’s not just a school that gets impacted by an incident, but everyone who lives in that community.”

The school district has teamed up with the Bunnelle Foundation to bring Gay to Georgetown. She will speak in the morning to middle and high school students at Georgetown High School about the Safe and Sound School Youth Council, which centers around school safety initiatives for students, including anti-bullying.

“That will be their spring board to launch these clubs at their own schools,” Walters said.

The goal of the initiative is to encourage students to take their own actions to make their schools safer. The nationwide program extends to community partners and peer mentorships that create further awareness on creating “a safe environment for learning and growth,” according to Safe and Sound’s website.

A law enforcement expo and Gay’s presentation to the public will follow in the evening.

Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative will be held Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. at Waccamaw High School. The event is free and open to the public.

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