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Protecting students

Polk County Schools leaders discuss school safety

COLUMBUS    Over the last several days, the nation’s collective attention has been focused on the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17 people.

While the Foothills may be hundreds of miles removed from the heartache left in the wake of the carnage, the incident is a  somber reminder to local school officials, who remain diligent in their duties to protect each and every child and adult who cross through the doors of their facilities.

“[A school shooting] is every parent’s worst nightmare — and is something we think about every day,” said Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene. “We care about our academics and our athletics, but our first consideration is always the safety of our students and staff.”

Local school officials set out to implement major security improvements to the district’s buildings several years ago, following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A task force — comprised of Polk County Schools leaders, law enforcement officials and others — assembled in 2013 to discuss ways the district could better protect its students and staff.

The group came up with recommendations based on three areas: improving security at the infrastructural level, providing additional emergency training to faculty and students, and bolstering the schools’ efforts to treat mental health problems among students.

Thanks in part to grant funding, the district was able to pay for three dedicated school resource officers: one for Polk County High School, one for Polk County Middle School and one for the district’s four elementary buildings.

“[They are] law enforcement’s first leg in there,” Greene said of the officers. “The officer knows the building, the kids, the protocols and procedures, so they can be that first line.”

District officials also rekeyed the doors at the schools, and installed upgraded security camera systems.

The district continues to work closely with local law enforcement agencies to improve plans in the event of a school shooting. Officials regularly run drills, emergency simulations or tabletop scenarios to ensure that they will be as prepared as possible, said David Scherping, technology/accountability director with the district.

“It’s a small town,” Scherping said. “Many [law enforcement officers] have kids in school. They want to make sure we are all doing what we can to keep them safe.”

Perhaps the most important measures that Polk County Schools officials addressed is improved counseling and therapy for students who are experiencing troubles in school or at home. Teachers are encouraged to recognize signs of students dealing with personal crises, and help connect the child or teenager with counselors, psychiatrists or others who can help them through troubled waters.

“[The teachers] know these kids,” Greene said. “When they see something is wrong with one of them, they tell us. They care about them, and want them to be safe.”

School leaders are constantly looking at ways to further enhance the security of the district, Greene said. The topic remains at the top of discussion whenever officials discuss plans for the immediate and distant future, the superintendent said.

Greene said that is he willing to meet one-on-one with any parent or guardian who is concerned about the safety of their child. People may call the superintendent at (828) 894-3051 or email him at agreene@polkschools.org.