By JOSH NEWTON
Leaders from all Cherokee County school districts met with law enforcement officials Friday morning to kick-start plans for increasing campus safety.
Administrators said safety is always on their minds, but recent school shootings are causing them to take another in-depth look at how secure their sites are, and what might need to change to make sites safer.
“It’s real important that, as a county, we get together to discuss these issues,” said Dr. John Cox, superintendent at Peggs. “We met for a safety review to see where everybody’s at on their current issues and policies, and how we can work together to have a consistent process if such an occurrence happens.”
Superintendents are working with local first responders to plan school-site assessments in the coming weeks. Leaders want parents to be aware of those plans, and to know they may see an influx of police and other emergency responders at school sites.
“What we’re really looking at is having a team of law enforcement officials come out to our schools and assess our strengths, and also show us what might need some attention,” said Cox. “We want to do what we can to slow down and deter these [school violence] occurrences.”
Grand View Superintendent Ed Kennedy said county school administrators want to work together to make campuses more secure.
“We want to have a standardized policy in place, like if we were a big district such as Union or Broken Arrow, and then each site will have its specific plans and identified personnel, and know where we’d go if something was to happen,” said Kennedy. “We want to have the same basic look and feel at each site. If we’ve got the same model in place at all schools, it’ll make it a streamline process.”
Marilyn Dewoody, superintendent of Hulbert Public Schools, said funding is always a major concern for district leaders, and may occasionally prevent districts from taking certain safety precautions that might otherwise be available. But schools can still review their policies and try to tackle any issues that might need attention, she said.
“Each school is different,” said Dewoody. “We wanted to talk about having a more concise countywide plan. County officials and law enforcement officers will be going to each site and doing a walk-through, then making recommendations. We just want to have as many eyes as we can look at our facilities.”
Those fresh eyes can make a big difference, according to Tenkiller Schools Superintendent Randy Rountree.
“Anytime there’s a tragedy across the country, it makes us do some self-assessment, and talk about what we’re doing and what we need to do,” said Rountree. “We self-evaluate all the time, but we want to step that up and have others come in and evaluate us. Fresh eyes can really point out those potential issues.”
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Deputy Roger Fine, who has been the county schools’ resource officer more than six years, appreciates the cooperation among county school leaders and law enforcement officials.
“We want to increase the safety of our schools and make them a more secure learning environment, and we also want parents to know we are stepping out to make schools safer,” said Fine. “We want to develop a plan of action that we can all have and put all of our schools on the same page.”
Fine is responsible for policing all Cherokee County schools – excluding Keys, where Deputy Bob Lewandowski is on-site, and Tahlequah, which has several of its own school resource officers.
Resource officers from Keys and Tahlequah are also working with Fine to conduct the school assessments.
If Fine is unable to visit all county schools in a single day, he tries to make his way to each school site at least one or two times a week, where he can get to know staff and students and open up the lines of communication.
That, he said, is the key to preventing school violence.
“I think everything needs to be reported and investigated,” said Fine. “We need to take all of this seriously.”
School superintendents agree.
“We tell our kids all the time if you hear something, let us know,” said Rountree. “Most of the time it might just be a kid talking or saying things they have no business saying, but we take them all seriously. While we always hope none of that talk is true – and most of the time it’s not – every little bit of information you get like that, you have to look into it to make sure it’s nothing more.”
Woodall Schools Superintendent Linda Clinkenbeard said keeping communication open among students, staff and parents is key and can help prevent problems. She said adults must be willing to investigate any rumors, and find ways to turn those incidents into a teachable moment.
“It is important if a student goes home and is sharing things with an adult, and maybe it doesn’t sound right, or it doesn’t feel right, we encourage that adult to contact one of us at the school,” said Clinkenbeard. “It may turn out to be absolutely nothing but a wild rumor, but we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to that.”
Dewoody hopes students and parents recognize the need to report rumors or other concerns as quickly as possible.
“If students hear anything, you always want them to feel comfortable telling a teacher, a principal, an adult or parent if there’s anything suspicious, or anyone talking about any sort of plan,” said Dewoody.
Kennedy believes school safety is a three-pronged approach involving the school, parents, and the students.
“They have to know information can travel any direction,” said Kennedy. “We are going to respond when a kid says something to us, when a parent says something to us. We want to have the open-door policy at our school. We realize America’s innocence has gone away, and it’s going to possibly inconvenience some people the way schools must respond, but we’re just going to have to do these things that keep our schools safe. We have to take it seriously.”
County superintendents and local law enforcement officials urge community members to report any rumors or suspicious activity to school administrators and police as soon as possible.
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