Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

In the weeks following a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Macon County Schools have experienced three incidents concerning school safety. A high school student who made threatening comments, a middle school student who threatened fellow students, and suspicious individuals on the campus of an elementary school were all quickly resolved by school personnel and law enforcement. The recent events both locally and across the nation have caused school officials to increase the focus on school safety and ensure every measure possible is being taken to address concerns.

“In the past few weeks, shooting tragedies involving mass casualties have been brought to the forefront of our thoughts,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “First in Las Vegas and then most recently in Parkland, Fla.  These incidents have made us all realize that it is conceivable that a catastrophe like these could happen anywhere, even here in Macon County.  While I am deeply concerned that we have been forced to deal with threats of violence and trespassers recently, I am also very grateful that our school staff responded quickly, appropriately and with the full support of the Macon County Sheriff’s Dept. and Sheriff Holland. We are currently reassessing our safety protocols using information gained from the most recent events.  School staff are encouraged to pay attention to our students and parents.  Any changes in temperament or unusual behavior should be reported to administrators, counselors, or resource officers.  We are also partnering with Sheriff Holland in applying for additional grant-funded school resource officers.”

Dr. Baldwin met with all principals in the district and local law enforcement last week to better address the issue.

“Representatives from the Macon County Sheriff’s Dept. Deputy Jay Wright and Lieutenant Tony Carver, attended the most recent Macon County Schools principals meeting,” said Dr. Baldwin. “These law enforcement personnel were very helpful during the discussion regarding school safety, threat assessments, and emergency protocols and procedures. The discussion focused on the most recent school shootings and what could be learned from those tragedies.”

While student safety and school security is being evaluated across the district, one immediate step that was taken by both the school system and Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland was to place a full time School Resource Officer at South Macon Elementary School. Previously, South Macon and Union Academy shared an SRO due to the proximity of the schools to one another.

“An SRO at South Macon Elementary is very important to the safety and security of that campus, its students and staff,” said Dr. Baldwin. “For the past several years, SMES and Union Academy have shared a resource officer.  The officers that we have had in this position have done a tremendous job of securing both campuses, but no one can effectively be in two places at the same time.  Both campuses need a dedicated resource officer.”

Sheriff Holland said the SRO at South Macon Elementary is something he has been working on for the last several months and something he plans to address in his upcoming budget.

“I have always been an advocate for adequately trained officers in our schools,”  said Sheriff Holland. “South Macon has always split their officer with Union Academy but we have found it not to be adequate.  In an effort to address this issue we applied several weeks ago for a state grant through NC Center for Safer Schools and NC Department of Public Instruction. We were able to do so by partnering with our school system. It may take several weeks or even months before we know if we are approved to receive the state grant funding and be able to place an officer there on a full time basis.”

To make the SRO position possible mid-year and before any new budgetary funds are available from the county, Sheriff Holland reevaluated staffing in other departments.

“In the past I have eliminated or temporarily suspended positions in various units in an effort to create much needed SRO positions,” said Sheriff Holland. “I recently have done the same to create this temporary SRO position at South Macon.  In other words I have created this position without making any additional request for funding and by utilizing our existing funds approved by Commissioners in the 2017/2018 approved Sheriff’s budget.  While we continue to wait to see if our county will be awarded the state grant we can have some assurance that a well trained law enforcement officer will be on campus prepared to handle any situation no matter how small or great. “

Dr. Baldwin noted that while SROs and other security measures are important to keep students safe, it is just as important for parents to openly communicate with their children.

“One of the most important strategies for improving school security is communication,” said Dr. Baldwin. “I encourage anyone who might have information regarding the safety and security of any of our schools to communicate that concern or suggestion to school administrators or school resource officer.”

Sheriff Holland said parent communication as well as a continued partnership with the school system is the best defense the district as a whole can employ.

“By continuing to partner with our school system, adequate training, and remembering that it’s all of our responsibility to be sure we are at the top of our game,” said Sheriff Holland. “Each organization must continue to do their part to ensure that school safety is everyone’s top priority.  We don’t wait for a tragedy before making it our priority. I think the Sheriff’s Office and our county commissioners have a proven track record of showing that the safety of our schools is one of our top priorities. This recent addition of the South Macon SRO is just one more example of being a proactive agency.”

On the national level, Congressman Mark Meadows is leading the charge to have reform across the country. On Tuesday, Rep. Meadows introduced two bills to provide resources for enhancing school security and keeping students safe.

The first, the Protect America’s Schools Act, would provide $1.5 billion in supplemental appropriations to the Community Oriented Policing Services’ School Resource Officer program. The second, the Veterans Securing Schools Act, would allow veterans hired by a state or local agency to serve as School Resource Officers. This bill gives state and local law enforcement agencies greater flexibility in hiring veterans to protect school campuses.

“Our country is in the midst of a defining moment where we have an opportunity to come together and develop common sense solutions to safeguard our children in school. While gun control is not the answer, the best and most effective path forward, I believe, is one that safeguards our schools from becoming “soft targets,” or areas with little to stand in the way of someone with bad intentions. The two bills I’m introducing today—one to commit $1.5 billion to the school resource officer program, and one to allow state and local employed veterans to serve as school security officers—will go a long way in helping provide schools both adequate resources and trained personnel to protect our kids. In particular, I want to thank our local law enforcement officials in my district—their input and expertise have been invaluable as we look to find solutions on how to keep our children safe in school. No matter where you stand on the issue of gun safety, one principle remains true: when the people closest to the issues at home are directly involved in the conversation, it produces good results. I thank them for their willingness to engage.”