Dalton Board of Education members discuss school safety

·4 min read

Jun. 14—"Obviously, our entire community — and nation — has been focused on (school) security in light of recent events in Uvalde," Texas, (following the shooting deaths of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School on May 24), and elsewhere, said Matt Evans, chairman of the Dalton Board of Education. Consequently, on Monday the school board directed Superintendent Tim Scott to review compliance by staff of current safety protocols.

"On paper, our protocols are solid," Evans said. However, if those protocols aren't followed, schools — and those inside them — are more vulnerable.

In addition, Rusty Lount — Dalton Public Schools' director of operations — and his department will examine ways of fortifying entry points, Evans said. Furthermore, Dalton Public Schools will have at least six school resource officers (SROs) in 2022-23, up from five.

The Dalton City Council voted 3-0 last week to approve a $423,800 agreement with the school system to provide the officers, and the school system will reimburse the city 75% of the total cost of the officers' salaries and benefits. When school is not in session, the officers will serve as regular patrol officers.

"The additional position will be covering elementary schools," said Police Chief Cliff Cason. "So, there will be two SROs covering the elementary schools, and there will be assigned officers to Hammond Creek (Middle School), Dalton (Junior High School), (The) Dalton Academy and Dalton High School."

Dalton Public Schools has 10 schools, and Evans said Monday the school system could add more SROs if and when they become available. The school system is also adding another counselor at the secondary level to address mental health, "a value add."

SROs "are not a magic bullet," Evans said. They have "to be combined with infrastructure and social-emotional" health.

As is the case all over the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a deleterious effect on the mental health of Dalton Public Schools employees and students, said Rachel Houghton of the Hamilton Employee Assistance Program and Student Assistance Program. "We're still in a crisis."

"The two biggest things with students and staff are rampant anxiety and depression," Houghton said. Additionally, the lack of structure at home for youth due to the pandemic is carrying over to schools and manifesting as more defiance by students.

"When we identify a (student) who could have deviant behaviors, we don't just sit on it; we take it very, very seriously" and contact parents, Houghton noted. "We address it immediately."

Parents are recognizing signs of trouble in their children and contacting the Student Assistance Program for counseling sessions, even during the summer, which is atypical, she said. Usually, students are referred by school counselors, and summer is a considerably less busy time.

Even if Dalton Public Schools wanted to go beyond six SROs, that wouldn't be possible at this time, as the police department is currently 18% short on staff, said Cason. In addition, not all officers are cut out to be SROs.

"Not everyone is suitable to be a SRO; you have to find the right people to put in there," Cason said. "We don't give you 'just somebody.'"

The six SROs for next school year will be "trained up in July," he said. If the school system wants more than six SROs, the police department will work with Dalton Public Schools to eventually provide those officers.

And if Dalton Public Schools wants more SROs, "funding will not be the hurdle," vowed City Council member Annalee Sams. "Safety is first, and we will meet the standard."

The police department will also continue to work with the school system to evaluate safety procedures, and "we'll be at (a) safety conference next week" to hear ideas from experts in the field, Cason said. The police department will also have enhanced police presence — beyond designated SROs — at schools early in the 2022-23 school year to assuage parental concerns, and will conduct additional training this summer with Dalton Public Schools staff members "to enhance what we're doing" already.

Dalton Public Schools already has secured front entrances at school buildings and intruder locks on doors, Scott said. Police officers can also access cameras in school buildings to see where an intruder might be, and they can enter buildings, rather than having to wait to be let in by someone from the school system.

"We'll respond, not stand by," in the event of a dangerous intruder, Cason said.

Members of the police department are "very quick and capable," said school board member Sam Sanders. "I have no doubts about their reaction time, and we're lucky to have them."

Dalton Daily Citizen staff writer Charles Oliver contributed to this story.