The schools need the community’s help to keep children safe, Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson told concerned adults gathered Tuesday evening in the Southeast Bulloch High School cafeteria.
In his opening and closing remarks, Wilson expressed the difficulty of the situation, as the schools confront some threats and rumors that have occurred locally as well as the national horror of school shootings. In between, parents and grandparents told him their concerns and asked questions.
“We need your help, OK?” Wilson said. “We really do. We can’t do this alone. Y’all can’t do it alone; we can’t do it alone. We need your help in communicating the facts. We need your help in holding ourselves and each other accountable for our words and actions, to help us to work together with public safety, and in the end to help us model correct behaviors for our children.”
About 100 people attended the forum on school safety meant for the Brooklet, Nevils and Stilson elementary schools, Southeast Bulloch Middle School and Southeast Bulloch High. Bulloch County Schools officials are planning similar school safety forums to include the other 10 schools in the system.
But they began with Southeast Bulloch not only because of previously reported threats – with no guns actually found – that led to arrests of students, but also because of a phenomenon said to have occurred in the Southeast Bulloch schools in particular. Some children have reportedly taunted others to make threats.
“In our schools, when a threat is made, we take it seriously,” Wilson said, without referring to any specific situation. “If someone is being harassed, bullied, tormented, whatever, we take it seriously. It’s the whole child we care about.”
No longer accepted
Parents should help teach and model behavior in which a child or anyone saying that he or she will hurt or kill someone else is no longer acceptable, he said.
“It’s not OK. It’s just not OK, not as a community value. Some people may argue it’s OK,” Wilson said. “But in this community, across Bulloch County I think we can all agree, it’s not OK to tell someone ‘I’m going to hurt you’ unless you’re ready to be accountable for it, kindergarten, middle school, high school.”
The school system tells children, parents and others “when you hear something, say something” to a teacher or school official or directly to law enforcement, he said.
But also Wilson talked about social media as a source of misinformation.
“We don’t depend on social media to tell us what is going on,” he said. “We don’t depend on rumors. We have to follow up and find out, but once we’ve determined something exists, as quickly as we can we’ll take appropriate administrative action, and when necessary we’ll contact law enforcement. We’re not going to hesitate.”
Twenty-five attendees went to the microphones with questions or suggestions.
“My question is – I mean look around the room – how do we get more parents involved?” asked Tammy Faircloth, who is raising a grandchild enrolled in one of the schools. “What are we doing about getting our parents here to make parents understand that this is serious? Do we need to do it at a football rally? Parents will be there. At a cheerleading practice?”
She was the first of several people to mention the turnout for the forum. The Southeast Bulloch area schools account for about 3,300 of the Bulloch County Schools’ more than 10,600 students.
“There weren’t a lot of people here, but there was pretty intense interest,” Wilson said afterward.
Stephanie Gagne, the mother of three Southeast Bulloch Middle School and Southeast Bulloch High School students, noted that the two schools share a resource officer. The officer is a deputy assigned by the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office. She suggested placing a law enforcement substation there and said that having four or five officers checking in would remove some worry.
“It would deter a lot of problems, in my opinion, and I know that people are worried about, you know, teachers having guns,” she said. “Why not have someone with a gun that’s trained for that and let’s have a substation somewhere in this school.”
Gagne is also a school nurse, but at Statesboro High.
Jon Cook, father of three children, asked if students are made aware of expectations, or whether they can get in trouble for “schoolyard shenanigans” without realizing it.
He was one of two or three people who expressed interest in adding barricades to secure classrooms. Cook was the first to mention the “Run, Hide, Fight” protocol taught to students and teachers, and wanted to know how much training teachers receive.
“All three of my kids have been through the ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ program, and they all have very high expectations of how they’re going to handle themselves. …,” Cook said. “But we know that in an active shooter situation the prevailing emotion is going to be panic, and we know that you perform to the level of your training.”
Other community members wanted to know about emotional support and mental health services provided to students. Several asked how special needs students, such as those with autism, might be protected.
Wilson did not answer the questions individually but responded to some when he summarized at the end.
“We’re already doing a lot of things in this district,” he said. “There are some things we need to do better. There are some additional things we’re going to have to do, some things we probably will not do anymore that we did.”
Teachers traditionally left classroom doors unlocked while teaching so they didn’t have to go to the door when a student returned from the restroom, Wilson said. Now, he said, the doors should be kept locked.
The Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax extension voters approved last year includes funds for planned improvements in the physical security of schools. Wilson said he will not always release all specifics of security plans to avoid informing a would-be shooter or intruder.
Nobody directly asked him about arming teachers, but he addressed the idea to say he didn’t have an answer.
“That is a very complex issue,” Wilson said. “I’ve talked to law enforcement, I’ve talked to the sheriff, I’ve talked to the Statesboro police chief about it, and we all agreed that that may be a conversation we can have later, but right now let’s focus on dealing with things.”
But the schools have added a more aggressive level of “fight” response training for employees who volunteer, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of people in our schools who, pressed to that point of expectation and requirement, will do that,” Wilson said. “Everybody will do what they need to do to take care of our children.”
Another 45 questions were submitted on index cards, said Hayley Greene, the school system’s public relations specialist. Questions and answers will be posted at www.bullochschools.org, she said.