With Friday’s school tragedy in Newtown, Conn., still fresh in everyone’s minds, a beefed-up law enforcement presence in all Carroll County’s schools was a welcome sight to most parents Monday.
Various officers from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsville Police Department and Virginia State Police made sure all of the county’s schools had extra protection Monday. Sheriff J.B. Gardner said his department would continue to keep additional officers in the county’s schools as much as possible, in addition to the three school resource officers already in place at Carroll County High, Carroll County Intermediate, and a roving officer for the elementary schools.
“For the immediate future, you will see more uniformed deputies in all of the Carroll County Public Schools. There have been no threats received to any school or any student that we have heard, or been made aware of, this is simply being done as a precaution. Our kids deserve a safe place to learn. Our teachers deserve a safe place to teach,” Gardner wrote on the deparatment’s facebook page. “If your child comes home tomorrow and tells you the police were at their school today, it’s probably true. With God’s help, it won’t be for the wrong reason. You’ll probably see deputies, Virginia State Troopers, Hillsville and Galax police and even conservation officers.”
Gardner said he prays that no such tragedy as the one that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary will ever find its way into one of our local schools.
“Please, please if you ever hear of anyone planning such a thing, take the time to tell someone,” Gardner wrote. “The life you save may be your own child’s.”
Gardner himself spent much of the day at St. Paul School in Cana on Monday. Many other officers, such as Deputy Shannon Goad, were at schools on their day off. Gardner said officers wouldn’t be in schools every moment of every day, but as much as possible for the foreseeable future.
“We have them covered the best we can. Most of the officers volunteered. They asked me what they could do on their own time to help. It’s been a tremendous response,” Gardner said. “It’s the right thing to do, and when I put it out to my folks they jumped in line. We are going to try to spend as much time in schools as we can. We hope it’s not just a one- or two-day thing. I’ve asked them to eat lunch with the students, talk to the classes and walk through the halls. We are all invested in these schools as we all have children or grandchildren in the schools. Everybody has the same goal in mind – they want our schools to be safe.”
Gardner said he was asked Monday if officers in the schools would be a permanent thing. Aside from school resource officers, the answer is no. To do that, there would have to be funding for 10 more positions, Gardner said.
“My guys have been trying to prepare for this, but you can never be completely prepared. Whatever we can do to make it safer, we are willing to do. l would love to be able to put them in every school. I can easily justify spending the money to put them in the schools, but the funds are just not there,” Gardner said. “And it’s still not the complete and total answer. If you look at Connecticut, that is a school you have to buzz to get into, but he just shot through the window. And unless you had somebody standing there with the same type of gun to defend the school, there’s still not much that could have been done. We don’t want it to be that way, but that’s the reality. I think it’s a great time to sit down as a community and a nation to have serious conversations about it to come up with an answer instead of throwing money at a problem because that doesn’t solve it.”
Hillsville Police Chief Greg Bolen said officers from his department visited each school in town Monday morning. The beefed-up presence of law enforcement was received extremely positively, he said.
“Kind of like J.B. said, it was a piece-of-mind deal,” Bolen said. “I spoke with a teacher at the high school with a child at the elementary school and they said they sure appreciated it. It made them feel a whole lot better when they dropped their child off at school.”
Bolen said HPD officers rode around periodically all day at each school to make sure everything was fine and that nothing unusual was taking place. He said the HPD will probably start to make it a standard practice to have extra presence in the local schools.
“We have actually been working the school zone in the evening, the crosswalk in front of the intermediate school. I talked with J.B. and Mike Combs, the school resource officer, and my experience being at that school in the evenings are kids are walking, texting, not paying attention to traffic,” Bolen said. “So I asked J.B. if he didn’t mind, we would love to help at the crosswalk, and he said that was just fine with him. Since December 3 we have been working the crosswalk and we will continue to. We’ve got to help each other out on these things. It’s a whole community thing, not just the town or just the county.”
Bolen has been teaching a criminal justice class at the high school this semester. Ironically, he said he just finished a segment on Dec. 10 about the school shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
“We go over mindsets and indicators to look for – changes in mood and clothing. We try to put the kids in a scenario where they have to come up with an escape plan if they are trapped in a room,” Bolen said. “My point in doing it is not to scare them, but hopefully to prepare them so if something like that does happen they have an idea of how they are going to escape if they see a gunman. It just gives them a better understanding, and we had nothing but positive feedback.”
Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Mike Musser said members of his department wanted to work with HPD and the Carroll Sheriff’s Office as a way to increase police presence in the schools. Just like the sheriff’s department has the school resource officer program in place, Musser said state police has an SOS (Safeguarding Our Schools) program where each trooper is assigned to respective schools in their area without resource officers. Those officers will periodically check on those schools.
“They are not able to stay an entire shift, but we like for them to stop in and touch base with staff and to be seen,” Musser said. “I’ve asked them today to go by as many schools as they possibly can during their shift and still maintain their responsibilities. I wish all the agencies had the resources and finances to where they could put an officer full-time in every single school.”