HED:NE Mississippi schools respond to safety issues

By Jennifer Ginn and Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

With unspeakable violence occurring more often on school campuses, Northeast Mississippi school officials say one of their top concerns is making sure they're ready to handle it if it happens.

Schools across the state have long had disaster or crisis management plans. But with incidents of children killing children in school, those plans have had to change.

The most recent case came in Littleton, Colo., on Tuesday. At Columbine High School, two seniors - armed with guns and homemade bombs - opened fire on their classmates, killing 13 people and themselves.

"It's totally appropriate for us to respond to what's happening in Colorado," said Glenn McGee, assistant superintendent of student services for Tupelo Public Schools. "We are revisiting, rethinking things. We are talking about it. The schools are all reviewing (their plans) and making adjustments to them if they feel it's needed."

McGee said Tupelo Public Schools has a districtwide crisis policy that schools may adapt to suit their needs.

"Most of them have always had something to deal with tornadoes, bus accidents or chemical spills," said Clarence Carter, supervisor of school safety for the state Department of Education. "They're having to go back now and address this issue of gun violence and assault."

How to deal with violence is an issue that's not being lost on local school districts.

Mooreville defenses

In Lee County Schools, the district has had a general crisis management policy for several years. In the past two years, individual schools have started modifying that plan to fit their own campuses.

Robert Smith, principal of Mooreville High School, said they have looked extensively at how to handle an armed intruder.

"We've come up with a plan where we have different codes to use over the intercom,"Smith said. "If we go into code red, it means we have some sort of intruder. All doors are locked. The children would be under their desks.

"It would make it harder for them (an intruder) to get in and get access to the students. Anything that can buy you more time, you're better off."

Smith said the codes allow students and teachers to know quickly what type of situation they are facing and what they should do.

"It seems like the biggest (problem) is confusion when something happens," he said. "These codes will tell them where they need to go, what category of emergency they're dealing with. They need to know, 'Hey, I don't need to go out into the hall right now.'"

Johnny Green, principal of Saltillo High School, said he has learned a lot by watching how other schools handle their emergencies.

In Colorado, the shootings took place at the high school. Officials had to find a more secure place to take students once they got out of the building. They also had trouble notifying parents about who was safe and who had been injured.

"I have planned trying to call Sheriff (Harold Ray) Presley and our local police chief here," Green said. "There's a lot of coordination that needs to be done if you've got to get kids off the campus here. Where would they go? How would we account for them?

"I don't think as we speak right now that we'd be much better prepared than (they were in Colorado). We're going ahead and completely developing a plan from A to Z. By the end of this month, I think we're going to be fairly well prepared."

Learning in Pontotoc

The crisis of guns on school property was faced last year at South Pontotoc Attendance Center when two eighth-grade students were expelled for carrying a 9 mm handgun on campus.

That incident led to the establishment of a parent-led safety committee that evaluated the district's policies. A list of recommendations - which included everything from periodic gun and drug searches to more surveillance cameras - started being implemented this year.

"I think it has helped," Superintendent Jerry Horton said. "We're working to put all that in place. We've just adopted our crisis response manual that predicts any type of emergency.

"I feel better. There is this uneasiness in every educator's mind today; 'Can it happen on my campus?' It can. What you have to do is try to do those things that lessen the chances it will happen."

Although Carter said most schools do have crisis management plans, it is not required by the state.

"There is no state statute mandating districts have any type of plan," Carter said. "It is very much strongly encouraged by the state Department of Education.

"Over the past few years, they've had to do this to survive. Many have taken it on themselves to develop these plans. We do offer guidance in terms of what should be there, how to appropriately structure these plans."

The state did allocate $300,000 for next school year to address school safety.

There were three or four bills this legislative session that would have mandated crisis plans and given the state Department of Education the power to level sanctions, Carter said, but all of the initiatives died.

Recipes for trouble

In the wake of the Colorado tragedy, many are wondering how students can find dangerous information. Books and other materials on making bombs and weapons are easier to come by for children than most people would suspect.

Tupelo police confirmed Thursday that a bomb-making book had been found Wednesday at the high school campus.

A juvenile officer has been assigned to work with school officials on the investigation, said Tupelo Police Capt. Harold Chaffin, chief of detectives. Police have taken possession of the book and are trying to determine if criminal charges apply in the case.

McGee confirmed an investigation was under way in the matter but would not comment further.

However, no weapons were discovered on Thursday despite rampant rumors.

"No gun was found or confiscated at Tupelo High School," district Public Information Officer Julie Parker said.

Although bomb-making books are not typically stocked on library or bookstore shelves, the information is readily available for those who want it.

"It's just one of the problems you run into in a free society," said Lee County Librarian Lou Ann McDonald. The library does not circulate those kinds of books, she said.

Sometimes stores will carry books with potentially dangerous information unintentionally, said Jim Troxler, owner of Village Green.

"No bookstore can review every page of every book," Troxler said. "We don't knowingly have those kind of materials."

However, Troxler defends the right of bookstores to order legal materials for their customers.

"It's not our job to censor," he said, "unless we see something that concerns us."

In the case of minors, Troxler said his store often seeks parental approval.

Both Troxler and McDonald said information about subjects like bomb-making or other objectionable material is most easily available on the Internet.

Parents are the most effective filters in keeping potential dangerous materials from their children, McDonald said.

The Lee County Library has a filter on its Internet stations that is primarily geared to block explicit sexual material.

"There's no truly effective filter on the market," McDonald said.

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