VALDOSTA – School can be a scary place.
Going to school can feel like playing a game of Russian roulette for some students who think a lot about places simply known as Columbine, Sandy Hook and now Parkland.
Since the shooting at Columbine High School nearly 20 years ago, school shootings have become a part of everyday life. The attacks are random and can happen anytime, anywhere and seemingly regardless of any school precautions.
For Raquel Goddard and Nyanda Walker-Potts, both 16-year-old juniors at Valdosta High School, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a turning point.
"If it can happen there, at an elementary school, it sent the message that no one is safe," Walker-Potts said. "You can never tell when the next shooting is going to be – or where."
Walker-Potts and Raven Ford, also a 16-year-old Valdosta High School junior, organized a school walkout in March following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida. They participated with students across the nation in similar walkouts to pressure lawmakers and school officials to do more about the growing number of school shootings.
"I figured that if I didn't do something then who would?" Walker-Potts said. "I think it was successful. Even though we had some push back from some administrators, we showed that we couldn't be stopped."
Goddard said the Parkland shooting was a tipping point in getting students involved in the public discussion.
Shooting survivor Emma González is an inspiration for both VHS international baccalaureate students.
"They showed that we had a voice," Goddard said. "They made it easier for us to speak out, and that if we're old enough to be shot at, we're old enough to talk about being shot at."
Schools across the SunLight Project's coverage area, which includes Valdosta, Moultrie, Tifton, Thomasville, Milledgeville and Dalton, Ga., and Live Oak, Fla., have all taken precautions to keep students safe while in school and at school events.
But, outside of school, Goddard and Walker-Potts haven't seen much change since Sandy Hook or Parkland and still don't feel all that safe in the classroom.
In the end, the problem isn't isolated to schools. It's bigger than that.
Reflections of Violence
Lowndes County Schools Superintendent Wes Taylor said public school systems are a microcosm of society, and school shootings are a part of a larger problem facing the nation.
“The tragic school shootings that have occurred are just a reflection of the violence that is happening in our society, whether that’s in a school, a movie theater, a mall, a church or any public space,” Taylor said.
He said the Lowndes County School System has evolved and is continuing to evolve with the changes in society.
Through the last couple of years, Lowndes County has added at least one school resource officer to every school, with at least three at Lowndes High School. Every officer comes through the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and is trained, uniformed and certified, Taylor said.
Each LCSO officer in the school comes with a patrol car parked outside of the building. Patrol cars act as a deterrent, he said.
“That is very purposeful,” Taylor said. “We want any cowardly perpetrator out there, who is looking for a soft target where nobody else is armed, to know that there is a highly trained, armed officer inside the school with the mission of neutralizing any threat.”
Taylor said there are two separate missions when it comes to protecting students. There is the SRO’s mission and the teachers’ mission.
The SRO looks for the threat to neutralize it, while teachers ensure their students are accounted for and safe.
He said it is important not to mix those missions.
“It’s two totally different missions,” Taylor said. “We are going to get the students to a safe place, and the resource officer is going to go to the threat.”
Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Cason said the city schools are safe because each school has a certified police officer on staff. Resource officers are staffed at each front office where people must be buzzed into the building.
“His or her job is to keep the school safe by monitoring the halls, greeting parents and building relationships with our students,” Cason said.
He said officers are at all school events such as football games and other activities.
School resource officers also travel with sports teams.
School Resource Officers
SROs have become as common a school feature as fire alarms.
Most school systems either have at least one SRO at every school or are in the process of adding an SRO at every school.
Suwannee County Schools Superintendent Ted Roush said most of his schools have had resource officers for a while.
Suwannee County Sheriff Sam St. John said the department is hiring three new SROs for the next school year, giving the school system nine officers in eight schools.
Each school, including Riveroak Technical College, will have an officer present everyday. In the past, Riveroak has not had an SRO.
An additional SRO will allow Sgt. Lee Willis, currently Suwannee Middle School’s SRO, to oversee the other officers and fill in where needed.
Willis said officers will participate in training this summer on various topics including new laws and changes regarding juveniles.
In addition to the summer training, officers participate in different training exercises every month on Professional Development Day.
Willis said officers are trained for single-officer response, considering the SRO will be the first to respond in case of an active shooter.
The Baldwin County School District has a law-enforcement presence at every level.
Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Dr. Noris Price presented a budget to the school board this month that calls for adding a resource officer for Oak Hill Middle next school year.
“All of our school resource officers are armed, trained and sworn law-enforcement officers from the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department,” Price said. “Their training as an armed school resource officer comes from their training and experience through their respective police academies and whatever additional continual training/education that our local sheriff’s agency requires.”
Although training is important, Thomas County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Darrell Colvin said making sure students feel safe around him and comfortable alerting him to any possible dangerous situations at school is just as important.
"I try to build a great rapport with the students," Colvin said.
Colvin has been a school resource officer for more than three years and walks six to seven miles daily in his rounds at the school to ensure safety.
Dalton Police Department Officer Bart Chandler has been the SRO at Dalton High School for four years. He said there is no such thing as a typical day.
“You can have a day when there are no reports, and (other days) I can be behind three or four reports,” he said. “Most of the problems we deal with are teenagers trying to figure out life and helping them make good decisions.”
Chandler said not everything is a criminal matter and not everything needs to be treated as a criminal matter. Part of the SRO selection process is making sure officers understand that, he said.
A lot of training for SROs is based on the triad approach.
First, SROs are law-enforcement officers. Second, they are counselors.
“You help these kids through life,” Chandler said. “To do that, you need to build relations. You need to know the students, know the teachers, know the staff. You can help them avoid the bad choices in life. You can also help them when they have made bad choices.”
He said the third level is SROs are school administrators, enforcing the school code of conduct.
If he sees something that is a violation of school rules, but not law-enforcement related, he brings it to the attention of school officials.
If there's nothing happening that immediately requires his attention, Chandler keeps moving.
“I'm walking the halls. I'm mixing with the kids. The students know if they need me to go to the front office (for them to call him) because I'm rarely in my office unless I have paperwork that needs to be done,” he said. “When I am in my office, I have the school security cameras pulled up on my computer, so I can monitor things.”
Chandler said he walks anywhere from four to 12 miles a day while on duty at the school.
He said he moves through the school halls tactically, looking into the classrooms to see how things are going, looking for cover points, and when there are people moving into and out of the building, he picks somewhere to watch.
“I'm watching their faces, watching their behavior,” he said.
His goal is to make sure school staff shares a similar mindset, he said.
They have a thousand different things they have to deal with everyday, and he said he doesn’t want teachers, students, staff or visitors to be scared. However, he does want them to be thinking.
“That's why everything went so smoothly during the recent event we had at the high school,” Chandler said. “They didn't go perfectly. They never will. But the question of 'What do I do?' wasn't there. It had already been answered.”
Dalton armed teacher
In February, Dalton was the focus of national attention, when Dalton High School teacher Randal Davidson brought a pistol to school and shot a bullet through the window of his classroom, according to law-enforcement reports.
No one was hurt and Davidson was the only person in the classroom but the incident happened at the height of the debate to arm teachers.
When the shot went off, Pat Holloway, director of communications for Dalton Public Schools, said Principal Steve Bartoo called an active shooter threat lockdown for the high school.
"So, yes, we have used that code," Holloway said. "To my knowledge, the incident at Dalton High was the one and only time we’ve ever used the code active shooter lockdown."
Several weeks later, school officials recommended a number of security enhancements at schools.
The school board is scheduled to vote on hiring four additional security resource officers, the system currently has three; adding intruder door locks to all classroom doors; upgrading the public address systems to a digital system; replacing existing analog cameras with digital systems, and adding card-access readers to more exterior doors.
Arming teachers is not part of the proposals.
Guns in Schools
The City of Milledgeville has had the opposite problem from Dalton.
Instead of a teacher bringing a gun to school, three students in three Baldwin County School District school buildings each brought guns to school.
A 12-year-old fifth-grader at Midway Hills Academy was taken into custody by Baldwin County sheriff’s deputies after Principal Antonio Ingram received information the student had a firearm.
The weapon was unloaded inside the student’s backpack without ammunition or a magazine.
Another incident occurred at Lakeview Academy in November. An 8-year-old third-grader had a gun that was discovered when it went off inside the backpack while inside a classroom.
No one was injured in the incident.
The most recent instance happened in mid-January when a seventh-grader brought a handgun to Oak Hill Middle School.
The handgun and the student were removed from the building without incident after a school administrator received an anonymous tip from a student who had seen a fellow student in possession of a firearm. The gun was unloaded.
Following the first incident, school security quickly became a topic of discussion on school board agendas. Baldwin County school officials made several changes.
Elementary school students must use clear or mesh backpacks. The clear or mesh rule was already in place at the middle and high school levels.
Community forums allowed parents and community members a say, and talks quickly turned toward implementing metal detectors.
Parents were largely in favor of adding metal detectors, especially at the front offices for people visiting the building.
Starting in February, metal detectors were installed at both Oak Hill Middle and Baldwin High School. Students and visitors must walk through them each day.
School officials have been considering installing metal detectors at the elementary schools, but no steps have been taken.
Dr. Gloria Wicker, board of education chairwoman, said she vehemently opposes arming teachers.
Arming teachers has not been mentioned at any school board meeting since the recent incidents. Wicker said it hasn’t been discussed outside of open meetings either.
"I am 100 percent not in favor of arming teachers," she said. "Teachers have enough to deal with rather than having to deal with pulling out a gun. I am definitely opposed to teachers being armed. … We have not given that any thought."
The Valdosta superintendent said he is not a proponent of arming teachers.
It comes down to training, Cason said. Being able to shoot a gun is one thing, but being trained to handle a weapon during a tense situation where children are involved is completely different, he said.
"If you are going to be armed, then you need to have extensive, extensive training in that kind of environment," Cason said. "We as educators have not been trained to do that. We've been trained to educate. That's our role."
The school spends money to have school resource officers on campus, so there is a highly trained individual at the school, but that person is not a teacher.
Lowndes Superintendent Wes Taylor said he is against arming teachers.
“The school staff are not trained,” he said. “The deputies and SROs have hours and hours of training and how to react in one of those high-pressure situations. Our school people are going to take care of the children.”
One concern is if there is an incident and law-enforcement officers enter a school, they won’t be able to distinguish the bad guy with a gun from a teacher with a gun, Taylor said.
The SROs are easily identifiable due to their deputy's uniform.
Also, the fewer guns involved in a dangerous situation makes law enforcement’s job easier, he said.
Taylor said students are more at risk while driving a car than getting shot at school, but school shootings are in the news.
“I think we have a very good plan in place if there is a situation, but I think there are better places to put our resources,” Taylor said. “But school shootings are a hot topic. I’ve heard everything from putting someone at every exterior door with a shotgun in their lap.
"I mean, this isn’t the Wild, Wild West. We have to be realistic.”
When asked if teachers should be armed, Kay Streets, Thomas County Board of Education member, said the school system is fortunate to have law enforcement and government willing to step up and do what is necessary to staff each campus with more trained officers.
“In an ideal society, arming school staff could be an option, but then, in an ideal society, you wouldn't need to,” Streets said.
Thomasville City Schools board member Kejar Butler said she does not believe teachers should be armed.
“I definitely think we need to address school-safety issues,” said Butler, board vice chairperson.
While school safety concerns should be addressed for students and teachers, Butler said the prospect of arming teachers should not be explored.
Superintendent Patrick Atwater said teachers will not carry firearms in Tift County.
“It’s been a law in Georgia (that teachers can carry firearms) since long before this most resent incident,” he said. “Last check of 180 school districts and 159 counties, zero had taken advantage of (the law). I’m adamantly opposed to staff members being armed unless that staff member is a certified law-enforcement officer."
Valdosta High School students Raquel Goddard and Nyanda Walker-Potts agreed with school officials on arming teachers. They said there are some teachers who would make them feel less safe by being armed.
Also, the VHS students said they believe no matter how many armed professionals roam the halls, no matter how strong the locks on the doors or how many drills, feeling safe at school is more than just school security.
"I doesn't seem like it makes a difference. Parkland had three security guards on campus that day and they had active shooter drills," Goddard said.
The shooter "had a gun powerful enough to shoot through the wall," Walker-Potts said. "I think there has to be more done."
Modern schools are designed differently than they were a few decades ago, said Doug Howell, Colquitt County Schools superintendent.
In the old days, he said, the school entrance was meant to be welcoming to students and parents coming inside. Now, it is a barrier to prevent some of the outside world from spilling in.
While it has always been necessary to sign in, city and county school entrances across the nation are required to have secure doors and visitors must be buzzed into the interior.
“Schools have traditionally been designed, like churches, to invite people in,” Howell said. “As we move forward, people have to take a look at that. School safety was not something 30 years ago (that) you really thought about. Obviously, we live in a different world today.”
Shootings at schools have become numbingly ubiquitous across the nation. Whether it's an elementary school such as Sandy Hook, a high school such as Stoneman Douglas or a college such as Virginia Tech, it seems like it can happen anywhere, and so schools are being required to take precautions they never had to before.
Across the SunLight Project's coverage area, which includes Valdosta, Moultrie, Tifton, Thomasville, Milledgeville and Dalton, Ga., and Live Oak, Fla., school officials reassured parents and students they take the dangers and possible risks seriously.
When it comes to planning a new school or renovating an existing one, safety features are front and center.
Howell said before school shootings were in the news every month, thinking about school safety meant tornado drills and fire drills and taking care of a student who scraped a knee on the playground. The fire and tornado drills are still required, but a new type of drill has been added to the list.
In Colquitt County and many other school systems, police have been holding active-shooter drills on school campuses.
In the last week of March, while students were on spring break, Colquitt County law-enforcement agencies went through instruction and practice scenarios at Colquitt County High during a 16-hour course.
More drills are planned at the county middle school and junior high.
The drills give law enforcement a chance to familiarize officers with the layout of school buildings in case there is an emergency, Moultrie Police Department Sgt. Michael Cox said.
All Valdosta City Schools will receive active-shooter training drills beginning next year, Superintendent Dr. Todd Cason said. The schools are partnering with Valdosta Police Department and are currently in the planning stages.
"There is a lot that goes into these drills and we want to do them right," Cason said. "We are working with the police chief to identify hot spots, so to speak, that we can address. We will, of course, be educating our teachers about what to do in case a situation happens."
In the drill, a person will come into the school with a fake gun. Teachers will use a coding system to alert the rest of the school to the situation.
The code will announce a "hard lock down," Cason said. What that means is every student should be out of the halls and in a locked room away from the door.
Each school has a Georgia Emergency Management Agency certified safety plan that addresses natural disasters, hazardous materials, transportation concerns, weapons and potential terrorist activities.
Cason said they are confident of the plans they have in place.
Locking It Down
Lowndes County School System has similar procedures, Superintendent Wes Taylor said.
He said each school has an emergency plan that covers a multitude of scenarios. Taylor mentioned a recent event where law enforcement was looking for a suspect in the area of a school. The school went into lockdown until it received the green light from officials that everything was safe.
Just recently, the Lowndes County Board of Education asked for every school to do at least one lockdown drill a year, and next year, school officials will ask them to do two a year.
"We rehearse for situations just like that," Taylor said. "Our thinking there is that the students take their cues from the teachers, so we want the adults to become accustomed to this. You've got to practice it until it is second nature, and you don't have to think. You just act."
Kuldip Delada, an 11th grader at Thomas County Central High School, said teachers instruct students about what to do in the event of danger.
"We have an officer on-site, too. That's a plus," Delada said.
Noting security cameras throughout the school and campus, Delada said he considers TCCHS one of the safest schools in the area.
Most lockdowns are not for active shooters, but for more banal things such as weather warnings, law enforcement doing something in the area, or in Dalton's Beaverdale Elementary School's case, the time a bear was spotted in the vicinity.
A few years ago, Beaverdale went into a lockdown due to a bear in the area, said Eric Beavers, Whitfield County Schools communications specialist.
"We kept children inside, away from the bear. But the bear was never going to get into the school and hurt anyone," he said.
Every Whitfield County school has two lockdown drills a year, in case of situations such as a roaming bear. Dalton schools also have fire and tornado drills. Beavers said the school system hasn't had a full lockdown, or what school officials call a "secure lockdown," in the last two years.
Perimeter lockdowns don't change anything that's happening inside the building.
"I don't think we ever have had one," he said. "We have had medical lockdowns. That's when a student or staff member has a seizure or some kind of medical situation. And we do lockdowns then, not because of any threat but so emergency responders can get in and out easily. "
A lockdown was initiated in the Thomasville City School System because of a nearby robbery. The lockdown was actually cancelled before it was announced because law enforcement quickly apprehended the suspect.
Lockdowns take place when there is a threat to a school, real or perceived, internal or external, and when there is a dangerous situation near a school.
The Thomasville City School System employs adequate law enforcement from Thomasville Police Department and the Thomas County Sheriff's Office, according to school officials. Additional security is employed for high-profile sports events.
The system is in the planning phase working toward active shooter/intruder drills with Emergency Services and Homeland Security.
Thomas County Central High School Principal Trista Jones said the school has never conducted an active shooter drill, but law-enforcement agencies have had the drills at the school for training purposes.
In Lafayette, Fla., there are four active-shooter drills during the school year, two each semester.
Superintendent Robby Edwards said a school lockdown can be triggered by something as simple as someone being on campus without a visitor’s badge.
“If we receive information from law enforcement of an incident in our area, this could also be a reason to lockdown,” Edwards said. “All employees have access to an app for their phone which can be used to initiate a lock-down in the event of an active shooter.
“We have only had four or five school lockdowns in the last 10 years due to someone being on campus without a visitor’s badge,” Edwards said. “Most of the time it has been a contractor working on campus and other were not aware they were supposed to be there.”
Edwards said the number of drills will increase due to the recent passing of Florida Senate Bill 7026, the first gun control legislation enacted in the state after the Parkland school massacre.
According to the Baldwin County School District, its schools organize monthly emergency preparedness drills to ensure the students and staff are as prepared as they can be should the worst happen.
Emergency-preparedness drills are done monthly, and one “soft lockdown” has been done this school year.
There has been one instance of schools going into a “soft lockdown” while local law enforcement searched the area for a criminal suspect in a matter unrelated to the schools. Students were not allowed outside of the building, but normal operations within the school were not affected.
School drills aren't the only thing that has become more serious with the recent wave a shootings. School security features have also improved.
Rusty Lount, director of operations at Dalton Public Schools, started in October 2012. The next year, he began the process of adding security entrances at all the schools.
The entrances create a secure vestibule. Any visitor must identity himself to be buzzed into the building. In 2014, schools began installing emergency security device systems, which work with the 911 call center.
Lount said the school system treats the Dalton High, Morris Innovative High School, the middle school and elementary schools the same in terms of security systems. Any visitor must be buzzed into all of them.
“We have on staff a five-member security team that sweeps all the schools (at the end of the day or after events) to make sure everything is secure, that all the doors are locked,” Lount said. “If an event is going on, staff members are present to make sure that the building is secure, that no one is in areas of the building they shouldn't be.”
Superintendent Patrick Atwater said Tift County schools began installing heightened security features to restrict access to the schools about 15 years ago.
Currently, all schools have restricted access. Visitors have to enter through the front office and must sign in to gain access to the building. Any exterior doors are locked and if any of the exterior doors are opened, each school principal receives an alert either via text message or email.
Employees access the building through a keycard system, and the keycards can be disabled individually in the event of loss or theft.
There are security cameras throughout each school and on school buses.
Atwater said the Tift school system is in talks to install more security in the form of a glass partition that will keep the front office secure.
“The incident down in Parkland, Fla., was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Atwater said. “Anytime there's a tragedy like that everyone comes up with a rash of ideas. Depending upon the experts you ask on how to address an active shooter, you get a different response. ... Several of our principals have asked that we revise our active shooter protocols. We want one cohesive plan for all schools.”
Safety of students and staff is a priority for the Suwannee County, Fla., School District.
Following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Suwannee County Schools Superintendent Ted Roush reached out to Suwannee County Sheriff Sam St. John and Live Oak Police Chief Buddy Williams about ideas on improving school safety.
Williams said he has been working with St. John and Roush to establish a new game plan and new solutions to some problems.
“There is a great line of communication,” Williams said.
The school district had been working on securing the school entrances for a while, which will allow there to be someone controlling who enters the school from the front.
Suwannee Middle School and Branford High School will have upgrades completed this summer.
St. John said the sheriff’s office and police department were given key cards for the schools.
“This allows the deputies to access the school quickly if there is an incident,” St. John said.
Protecting students and staff requires communication, Colquitt County Schools Superintendent Doug Howell said.
Near the beginning of each monthly meeting with principals and other key staff he always says a few words about safety. He also frequently talks with Sheriff Rod Howell and Moultrie Police Chief Sean Ladson.
Along with law enforcement, the school has pushed the message of: “See something? Say something!”
This is to remind students to pass along any concerns they have about a safety issue. Cards were passed out with that message and quick response codes to an internet site where students can send a message.
School officials and school resource officers agree that making students feel comfortable sharing information and reporting anything out of the ordinary is the most important tool in keeping the school safe.
This is the second part of a two-part series. The first part was published April 22.
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Alan Mauldin, Will Woolever, Charles Oliver, Jessie R. Box, Patti Dozier, Eve Guevara and Thomas Lynn. To contact the SunLight team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256