By C. Josh Givens
In the mournful wake of the May 24 killing of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, by a gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle, school safety and protecting the lives inside school buildings from those wishing to do harm is at the forefront of most Americans’ hearts and mind.
The mass shooting came on the heels of another shooting 10 days earlier in Buffalo, N.Y., also by an 18-year-old man armed with an AR-15. That shooting appears to be racially-motivated, while the motive in the Uvalde incident is still under investigation.
Within the local leadership of public education and county government, the push has been on to improve not only safety for the community’s schoolchildren, but for the public at large.
Hancock County Schools Superintendent Robbie Asberry said Tuesday discussion took place at the most recent School Board meeting on plans to add two school resource officers (SRO), one at North Elementary and another at South Elementary. There is already an SRO that covers the campus of the High School and Middle School.
“With the legislation in 2021 requiring SROs at each public school campus in the state, we had already been working with our local officials to make this happen,” Asberry said. “We’ve not yet signed the contract, but Sheriff Dale Bozarth, Judge/Executive (Johnny “Chic”) Roberts, and County Attorney Paul Madden Jr., have been wonderful to work with.”
Under the plan, two SROs will be hired – with expenses to be covered by the school system – though those officers will be deputized under the authority of the Sheriff’s Department. Asberry estimated the additional annual cost to be around $120,000.
“It’s an unfunded mandate, but there is an expectation the legislature will come back at a later date and find funding to help districts out,” Asberry said. “The county has been fully supportive of our efforts, and it takes a community effort and cooperation to be successful.”
Asberry said the current physical security of the system’s campuses is good, and several improvements have been made throughout the year. Each school has cameras on all exterior doors and throughout the interior. As well, the buildings can only be entered by the public through a main entrance, with a camera and intercom system. All entrants are identified before being buzzed through.
“We have added vestibules at both elementary schools, and most all business can be completed with the public without them ever leaving that area,” Asberry said. “This has really helped with avoiding multiple people inside the school. That requires escorts, and a fair amount of monitoring. I believe the addition of these SROs really pushes us to a much safer place.”
Asberry said the schools also utilize a system to quickly communicate with all stakeholders in the event of an emergency, though for security purposes, he declined to go into detail about how that system operates.
As well, students and staff conduct monthly drills covering all sorts of emergencies such as fires, lockdowns, and severe weather events.
County moving toward comms upgrade
Roberts says the county’s plan to upgrade emergency communications in the county – which includes communications for schools and its transportation department – is still moving forward, though the price tag increased from early estimates, due to inflation, supply chain, and production issues.
The county had estimated an upgrade of the emergency operations communications systems would cost from $2.5 to $2.7 million. Roberts said bids for the project were opened Thursday, with the lowest bidder coming in at $4.5 million.
“We were expecting some increase from the proposal, but not quite that much,” Roberts said. “I plan to reach out to the bidder and see if we can negotiate on that project, and that should help some. We have to get that project done. It’s a matter of safety and being able to communicate, not only every day, but also in a worst-case scenario.”
Roberts said Fiscal Court is committed to finding a way to fund the project. “We can’t let (the cost) stand in the way of getting it done,” he said.
The judge/executive – himself a former fourth grade teacher in Hancock County – said the county government is fully supportive of doing what it can to assist the school system in improved security and safety.
“The Court has made it very clear the school system’s needs are a priority,” Roberts said. “We all enjoy a very good working relationship, and this is a community matter. It affects us all. It is up to all of us to make sure we are doing all we can in these times.”