By John L. Ross / Staff Writer
The elementary school shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn. left a country scrambling to determine how to avert such a horrific scene in their community’s schools.
Knox County took its first step to address the issue Wednesday.
According to Barbourville Mayor David Thompson, he received several calls from community members seeking answers to emergency-related questions.
Answers that Thompson said he felt needed addressing.
“That’s why I wanted to call for this meeting,” he said.
Superintendent Walter Hulett started off the meeting.
“There are people on the streets with dishonorable intentions,” he said, then referenced the Newtown shooting. “Now we worry more about a copycat.”
He explained some children today make poor decisions.
“(Some) kids feel negative publicity is better than no publicity at all,” Hulett said. “These kids live in a world where violence is a part of their lives.”
One of the first well-publicized school shootings happened in Columbine in April 1999.
“School safety is always important, every day,” Hulett said, explaining that since Columbine, school officials have received several types of training.
“We do all that we can, that we know of, to prevent any type of situation in one of our buildings,” Hulett said.
He said during the weeks following the Newtown tragedy, he has fielded several questions from the public. “I’ve (received) calls from parents and grandparents,” Hulett said. “They ask ‘What if (something happens) — what are we going to do.’
“That’s why we wanted to put everyone together and sit down in one room.”
The committee’s focus expands beyond shootings at schools, according to Hulett.
“We want to go over all (emergency) possibilities,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a gun — there could be a storm, a tornado or a fire.”
Thompson asked about providing maps of the schools.
“If something were to happen, a minute or two can make a difference,” he said.
Knox County Schools Public Relations Director Frank Shelton took over the meeting, and handed out an overview of emergency management planning in the schools.
“This is a living, breathing document,” he said, referring to the school safety plan.
“We actually started developing our plan after Sept. 11,” Shelton said, adding school representatives attended a Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness meeting at the National Fire Safety Training Center in Pennsylvania.
He said the school district has an established emergency management team which meets annually to make necessary changes and improvements to the existing policy.
“As we go through other emergencies and things in the house, we learned (what we needed to do better),” Shelton said. “At the school level, when (something) happens, we have a system in place to handle the crisis until emergency (personnel) arrives.”
He explained each elementary, middle and high school has incident command procedures which are known by all staff members. These procedures outline what to do throughout an emergency situation until help arrives. This includes emergency meeting places, staff designations of assigned emergency duties, first aid and crisis intervention.
A new change is on the horizon for Knox County school system employees.
“All employees will receive a photo ID,” Shelton said. “We have to control access to the building(s).”
He said the plan receives a “major” review once annually, and that minor improvements are made throughout the school year.
He also explained a “toolbox” is set up on each campus with a variety of emergency supplies, which he said are “routinely updated.”
Union College’s Campus Safety Coordinator Mike Gray said the college has a “written crisis management plan.”
“It’s a little different in that we’re dealing with young adults,” he said.
He explained that during his 13 years at the college, the crisis management plan updates and reviews were performed in an informal setting.
“In October, it became more formal,” he said, explaining that violence on college campuses is often caused by a student or students themselves.
Gray said that’s where prevention takes center stage. He said students, faculty or staff members having concerns about other students should report that to Student Development personnel.
“(Student Development) then takes that information and approaches the student,” he said. “(That way) we identify a problem before it becomes a problem.”
He said the college will work with the student, seeing counseling or other assistance.
He agreed with Shelton about the crisis management plan constantly changing.
“It changes quite often,” Gray said. “It is a living, breathing document.”
Hulett brought up a school lockdown.
“If one school gets locked down…we need to include each other in the loop,” Hulett said.
He explained that since the college is in close proximity with other schools, “the last thing we need” is a school open and functioning with a crisis happening practically next door.
Hulett said during any crisis, each school will comply with its emergency plan to protect students until law enforcement arrives on scene.
“When you come on campus, you’re the lead,” he said to officers, troopers and deputies. “We’re going to get out of your way.”
He said officials want to see a “list of possible needs,” which would include things that can be addressed now. ‘We’ve got to start making sure what we do have is secure,” he said.
Barbourville Police Chief Mike Broughton said a school system in Franklin County has a panic button in the school to instantly alert law enforcement to a potential crisis.
He asked if that system could be reviewed and possibly applied in Knox County and Barbourville.
“Our main goal is to respond and identify the threat,” he said.
Other communication options discussed include an email or text messaging system. Gray said Union College has a similar system in place and that students and faculty can sign up for the service free of charge.
Shelton said Knox County Schools has that as well.
“Everyone knows in 15 minutes,” Shelton said.
That type of system works with weather crises as well. Hulett, who said he lives near where five people were killed from tornadoes, understands the devastation caused.
“That hit home,” he said. “I’ve seen what happens.
Sheriff John Pickard expressed a major problem he’s experienced with Knox County schools during a crisis. He explained that he gets requests from the school for deputies to come, but without a reason.
“What’s really important is that call we get,” he said, adding that his department would be able to dispatch personnel required for the emergency at hand.
“We’ll get a call that they need the law there, but no one (can) tell why,” Pickard said. “I’d like to know what kind of call I’m going to.”
He also expressed concerns about buzz-in locked doors on campus.
“If you get a shooter inside (the school),” Pickard said. “If that door is locked, how are we going to get inside?”
Kentucky State Trooper Shane Jacobs said their biggest concern is communication. Assistant Barbourville Chief Bill Swafford agreed.
“We need communication between (all) departments,” he said.
Knox County Judge/Executive J.M. Hall felt some of the discussion for future meetings should include prevention.
Hulett said more safety meetings will be held, although a date has yet to be set for the next one.
“We’ve got to start putting it out there,” he said. “(We want) to tell parents and school staff, ‘This is our plan, and this is what we do.’”