ATLANTA – With the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas as a backdrop, Georgia schools are beginning to open their doors for fall with school safety top-of-mind for parents and teachers.
Every public school in Georgia is required to have a school safety plan and conduct drills on that plan, the state Department of Education (DOE) said in July.
Safety plans address school violence prevention training, mental health awareness, school security measures, and partnerships with public safety officials.
In July, the DOE and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) announced a new school safety clearinghouse website that will distribute school safety resources and updated training to Georgia schools and community partners.
The shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has caused law enforcement agencies to work more closely with schools to plan for emergency responses, said Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish.
“Our school resource officers have been working all summer to better understand [schools’] safety plans for various situations,” Parrish said. “When we understand the behaviors of school staff and students in response to different emergencies, we have a better idea of what kind of scene we are responding to.”
School officials usually do not share all the details of the safety plans, and the plans are not subject to open records requests, said Angela Palm, director of policy for the Georgia School Boards Association.
Palm said school boards have to balance the need to keep the plans private with the need to inform the community about their plans.
Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, has its own licensed and accredited police department, with 98 school resource officers, said Bernard Watson, the district’s director of community and media relations.
Gwinnett is retrofitting 19 schools with security vestibules – a feature 15 already have – to help administrators control access to the building, Watson said. The county has other measures for collecting tips about troubling behavior in schools, he added.
Another large metro-Atlanta county – Clayton — will require all students to carry clear backpacks this school year. The school district will provide backpacks to the students.
But these measures don’t necessarily address the concerns of students.
“Safety in our schools has been a concern since I was in kindergarten,” said Lily Littrell, who recently graduated from Parkview High School in Gwinnett County and is a member of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, an advocacy group made up of high school and college students.
“Adding police and other school-hardening policies will not make our schools safer or fix the systemic problem,” Littrell said. “[Schools should] invest in counselors, social workers, and restorative justice that will actually make our schools safer and reduce violence.”
In stark contrast, others argue for arming teachers or other school staffers.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2014 allowing school boards to authorize certain staffers to carry guns on school campuses.
In July, the Cobb County Board of Education voted to allow certain school staff members to carry guns on campus.
The policy prohibits teachers from carrying guns but authorizes the superintendent to choose other personnel who can carry guns at school or school events after approved training.
“I think it’s a great policy,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Second Amendment (GA2A), a gun-rights group.
“Schools are a soft target. … [But] once people understand that there’s someone there armed, no one’s going to go in there [and shoot]. … Had one of those teachers [in Uvalde] been armed, then they could have stepped in.”
But some teachers think such proposals go too far.
“No educator should be armed,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
“The problem of gun violence is much larger than our schools. You can’t solve the issue of someone coming into a school armed with a weapon … until you solve the issue of gun violence that we have throughout our society.”
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.