By STEVEN NALLEY
Oktibbeha County School District faculty and staff are responding to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. by practicing drills, evaluating crisis management plans and taking other measures to ensure no such tragedy ever happens to children attending any of the district’s four schools.
West Oktibbeha County Elementary School Principal Andrea Temple said while the district does not have its own dedicated security force, it does have an arrangement with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department, whose representatives check in on each of the schools daily.
She said the school also recently conducted drills for dealing with intruders, and Ashley Shields, who serves as counselor for both WOCES and East Oktibbeha County Elementary School, spoke with students Tuesday about school safety and emergency procedures.
“All classroom doors are locked at all times,” Temple said. “Our secretary is able to observe everyone who comes through the building. Here at WOCES, we will continue to review our crisis management plan to enhance the safety of all students.”
West Oktibbeha County High School Principal Jeffrey Grant said the district’s crisis management plan has received approval during the state’s takeover of the district, with drills taking place on a monthly basis. He said the district plans to evaluate this plan extensively once the spring semester starts.
“We are fortunate enough to have a Maben police officer who is employed (at WOCHS) as an in-school suspension instructor,” Grant said. “He’s an active duty police officer, so he has training and everything. He just isn’t employed by the school district as a police officer.”
Shields said the exact nature of schools’ intruder protection procedures are kept secret to prevent prospective intruders from planning their attacks around those procedures. She did say both students and teachers have roles in these drills.
“The teachers are trained, and we have a code we use for an intruder when they come onto the campus,” Shields said. “Once the students hear that code word, there are things that students are supposed to do and that teachers are supposed to do.”
Shields said she understands parents who, fearing copycat incidents, question the decision to keep school in session through the fall semester’s final week. She said she and other school officials do not want to teach children to be fearful, because they will need to return to school at some point.
“Personally, I feel like we take risks every day when we go outside. We even have risks in our homes,” Shields said. “That’s just a part of living. If their parents want to keep (students) out (this week), that’s a personal choice that they have.”
Another difficult decision, Shields said, is how to broach the topic of Sandy Hook and school shootings with young children. She said her approach varies from child to child, and parents always have a role in that approach.
“You try to be as honest and up front as you can, but some things have to come through the parents. Every parent doesn’t want details discussed with their child,” Shields said. “If a child is really wanting details, I just contact the parents. I don’t want to say something that shouldn’t be said. You have to be careful, a little guarded. Some students’ parents allow them to watch the news, but I have other parents who didn’t allow their children to watch what was going on in the news.”
As counselor, Shields says she also works to ensure none of the children grow up to become perpetrators of violence themselves. Chief among the preventative measures is a character education program she teaches, and the district also has an anti-bullying program.
“I go into the classrooms on a regular basis,” Shields said. “If there’s a particular issue going on in the classroom and the teacher wants me to teach (about) that, I teach on that particular skill.”
Shields said the key to building and maintaining safety in schools is to have teachers follow policies and have students follow rules. Grant said some schools might benefit from metal detectors for safety.
“But here, I don’t see a big need for that at this time,” Grant said. “We’re a small school. The students are good students. The community is very supportive.”