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Schools Assess Student Safety

CUMBERLAND – In response to the recent tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Cumberland County Public Schools are taking steps to improve school security.

Changes in school security include the installation of a buzzer system at entrances of all three schools, the planned addition of a security wall in the elementary school lobby and increased training for school staff.

The schools have had a resource officer since 1996.

Sergeant Travis Gilliam of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department is the school's current resource officer. His own children attend the school.

He told The Herald that there is a sense of security in knowing that “we are being proactive and we have been proactive. We didn't wait for all these terrible things to start happening before we decided that we wanted to be proactive in the school system…”

Cumberland Sheriff Darrell Hodges stated that the schools have already “done a lot” as far as safety measures go. However, school administration was ready to learn from the recent events in Connecticut.

Immediately following the events in Connecticut, Superintend of Schools Dr. Amy Griffin requested a threat assessment with the Cumberland Sheriff's Department, which provided recommendations for school security. Sheriff Hodges also trained staff during a teacher workday on January 2, reviewing appropriate responses to various situations.

Recommendations from the threat assessment conducted by Sheriff Hodges included the installation of a buzzer system for school entrances.

During January's Cumberland Board of Supervisors meeting, Dr. Griffin shared that the buzzer system would be funded by the proceeds of last summer's surplus auction. The money had originally been delegated to purchase an additional school vehicle.

According to Dr. Griffin, the buzzer system will be installed at the elementary school next week, followed by the middle and high schools.

During the board meeting, Dr. Griffin also pointed to an item currently in the school's capital improvement plan, the installation of a wall in the elementary school lobby. Although the board approved the school's capital improvement plan for this year, the funding itself was not approved, and the wall was not built.

The school's capital improvement plan for this upcoming year had postponed the completion of the security wall another year. “But now, we're thinking that it's necessary,” said Dr. Griffin during the board of supervisor's meeting.

Sheriff Hodges agrees that the addition of a security wall is a good idea, pointing out that most school systems weren't designed for an active shooter situation.

Dr. Griffin believes that the maintenance department may be able to install most of the wall, except for some components, like the glass.

After collecting quotes, Dr. Griffin told the board of supervisors that she plans to speak with County Administrator Vivian Giles about funding possibility. She concluded, “So, don't be shocked if I come to you with that soon.”

According to Sheriff Hodges, his department seeks grants to cover the expense of the resource officer. When the grants are not available, the expense is included in the police department budget to provide one officer for the position.

Sheriff Hodges added, in a conversation with The Herald, that if the grant money were obtained he'd love to have another officer for the elementary school. For now, the resource officer is primarily stationed at the high school and middle school, relying on the fact that the office can get to the elementary school fairly quickly, according to Hodges.

Gilliam has been the resource officer since October, 2011. He also served as the school's resource officer for over three years when the position was first created in 1996.

Gilliam says his primary duty is security.

The resource officer performs many duties, according to Sheriff Hodges, including helping with any criminal action that takes place on school grounds and performing drug searches.

Sheriff Hodges also pointed out that Gilliam “does a lot of things to be involved with the kids to give them more of a role model and somebody that they can come to…”

Besides being a resource officer, Gilliam also coaches girl's softball. Gilliam takes his responsibility of building relationships with the students very seriously.

In fact, Gilliam believes that building relationships helps him also fulfill his primary goal of security. As he builds trust with the students, he believes they will be more likely to communicate with law enforcement if needed and come to them with their own difficulties.

Commenting on the possibility of a resource officer being added at the elementary school, Gilliam said he felt the position would be especially beneficial if the officer did not simply focus on security but also on building relationships with students.

He hopes such an individual would primarily focus on teaching students that law enforcement is on their side, “and you have to do that by getting in the classroom, in the hallway with them…and that's a great age… they're more receptive…”

When asked, as a parent with children at Cumberland Public Schools, if he felt confident in everything the school has done to provide safety for his children, Gilliam responded, “Without a doubt. Without a doubt. And definitely with the building of the new school. [That] definitely added a lot of comfort, with the security here.”

In response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dr. Amy Griffin sent a letter home with students dated December 17, outlining some of the proactive steps the school system already had in place before the event to ensure student safety.

Current precautions already taken by the schools, according to the letter, include a visitor check-in procedure which screens visitor ID's through security software, limited access to school buildings, emergency awareness via the SchoolMessenger Alert System, cameras, extensive monitoring on school grounds and an anonymous reporting system via Bullying Hotline.

Budget Update

Dr. Griffin also gave a brief school budget update during the January Board of Supervisor's meeting.

She reported that the governor has requested a two percent salary increase for SOQ funded positions. There is also the possibility that the school would be required to have a reading specialist if certain legislation is passed by the general assembly. Finally, she told the board that she would like to include steps for employees who qualify in this year's budget.

Supervisor Lloyd Banks, District Two, asked what the proposed school budget was going to be for the upcoming year, relative to the current year.

Dr. Griffin stressed that they were still in the planning stages, but the schools were looking at requesting an increase of half a million dollars, adding, “that's not our final number. But, I'm just going to be honest. If you look at two percent pay increases and those things, they add up.”

Banks sought to then clarify the governor's requested pay increase for teachers and how much of the increase would actually be paid for by the State and how much by the County.

Dr. Griffin confirmed that the State would fund its portion of two percent for only SOQ funded positions, “the only way we could do two percent raises is if the locality kicks in their portion of the two percent.”

Dr. Griffin stressed that she hadn't yet met with the school board about the budget, so these were not official numbers. However, for her budget recommendation she has requested that “instead of just certain people getting a two percent raise, it would be the entire school division staff.”

She said a very rough estimate for the cost of the raises would be $178,000. The State would fund $78,000 of that amount.

Banks pointed out that the two percent raise would cost the County more than the State, adding, that the governor's charade is “to offer a raise for Richmond when the raise is on the shoulders of local taxpayers.”

School Highlights

During the January Board of Supervisor's meeting, Demory Williamson, an eighth grade middle school student, shared school highlights with the board.

Williamson announced that the division won $1,000 in the My Big Campus Amazing Things contest. The elementary school also raised $828.75 for Christmas Mother. Current exciting academic projects at the schools included a wind turbine design competition, work with electrical circuits, studying Christmas around the world, building a chicken coop in building trades and the use of Rosetta Stone to learn languages in the Talented and Gifted Program.

Dr. Griffin also added that 25 parents and students participated in a college financial aid workshop at the high school.

Dr. Griffin was excited about the community garden, stating it has also been used as a research garden. It is now being called an “inspirational garden” by students.

She also encouraged board members to visit the school's website, where a video on 21st Century Learning in the schools is now available.