In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the natural question is, are Greenville County Schools safe?
The answer from Superintendent W. Burke Royster is yes. “School remains one of the safest, if not the safest, place for children,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean that the school district isn’t constantly reviewing and testing its emergency response and preparedness, said Wade Shealy, coordinator of the district’s school safety and emergency preparedness office.
“School security and safety never take a rest,” he said.
Some Greenville County teachers and school administrators could soon be getting some active shooter training under a pilot program under discussion with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Will Lewis said some school administrators and school first responders could be attending his agency’s active shooter training as soon as the end of the month. The school district employees would attend one day of training, which is part of the professional development program all deputies go through.
“This would be training that is scenario-based,” Lewis said. “It would allow teachers to see how we respond and what their actions should be.”
That’s not the only change that’s been made since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead and 14 injured.
Zoned security patrols at the district’s elementary schools and centers have increased. Off-duty officers patrol schools in defined geographic areas multiple times each day. During the patrols, the officers check inside and outside school buildings, monitor school entrances, assess security procedures, and provide a visible law enforcement presence each day. The daily patrol schedule varies.
School safety plan
Immediately after the Parkland shooting, GCS officials met with all seven of the law enforcement agencies that serve its schools to review current protocols and practices.
The district’s plan has not changed, Shealy said.
“There has not yet been an independent analysis of the Florida shooting, so it would be premature to change our protocols, determined by experts to be best practices, at this time. Once a full analysis is completed, we will collaborate with local first responders to determine what, if anything, should change based on the lessons learned in Florida,” Royster said.
The district uses an options-based response model: Run, Hide, Fight, Shealy said.
“It’s not a linear progression. It’s not run, then hide, then fight,” he said. “We either evacuate or shelter in place depending on whether there’s direct or indirect contact with the attacker and whether you’re in a location that can be secured.”
Schools practice full lockdowns, which Shealy called the best response when students and teachers find themselves not in indirect contact with the shooter and in an area that can be secured. In full lockdowns, students and teachers hide in a locked, darkened classroom.
“A full lockdown is more than cowering under a desk,” Shealy said. In past school shootings, no shooter has shot through a locked door to get into a room to see if anybody is in it, Lewis said. Instead, they look for victims of opportunity, Shealy said.
In cases where there’s direct contact with a shooter, authorities say creating distraction and movement is key. Lewis said throwing a stapler or book bag at the shooter can distract them, allowing students time to flee.
“People have to try to get out of the victim mentality where they think, ‘Oh, I’m going to die,’ and into a survivor’s mindset,” the sheriff said.
Prepare. Drill. Repeat.
Last week, Riverside Middle School held a Focus on School Safety Day where safety was emphasized.
The day started with students identifying the exits and “safe to shelter” areas in the areas of the school where they go before classes start, such as the cafeteria for breakfast or the gym for intramural basketball games, said Principal Kate Malone.
“We want them to get in the habit of knowing where they’d go if they needed to get out quickly,” she said.
A full lockdown drill was conducted as well, with the Greer Police Department officers telling Malone that was the fastest a front office group had disappeared.
“There was not a single unlocked door,” she said.
Finally, throughout the normal school day, each class identified exits, where they’d go in case of a fire, and identified any areas that were unique to the room in which they were. The school also covered what is appropriate on social media, what to do if they had a substitute teacher, and procedures for after-school events such as a soccer game, concert, or basketball game, Malone said.
“So much of it is situational, but we want them to be as prepared as possible for whatever emergency may come up,” she said.
Equipment and procedures
The district keeps many of its security protocols confidential to maintain their effectiveness. Each school has an emergency plan to respond to a wide range of emergencies, such as fire, bomb threats, storms, and active shooters. A retired FBI agent who works as a consultant with the district facilitated the plans.
In recent years, secure capture areas have been installed in all school lobbies to restrict visitor access.
All schools have security cameras that can be accessed by the Sheriff’s Office, personnel in the school district office, and the district’s security monitoring station. School personnel regularly patrol parking lots and building perimeters. School buses are also equipped with security cameras, GPS tracking, and two-way radios for emergency communication.
All middle and high schools have school resource officers.
Lewis and Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller said their law enforcement agencies routinely conduct unannounced security breach tests on schools to identify concerns. Results are provided to the school district.
Each school conducts full and partial lockdown drills to prepare for an active shooter situation. All employees are required to watch annually an active shooter training video. High school students watch a modified version of the video, while teachers verbally share response plans with middle and elementary school students.
Seventy-four of the district’s schools have mental health counselors; all schools have anti-bullying programs; and the district has an anonymous bullying tip line (864-45BULLY) and an email tip line, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s a perpetual effort,” Shealy said. “We’re as prepared as anybody possibly can be. There are so many variables and the school shooter is in control of them: when, where, how. Since we can’t predict where an active shooter will strike, we prepare as best we can.”