Area systems using SROs this summer, upping security following two school shootings
By Michael Wetzel
For the Enquirer
Alarmed by recent fatal school-related shootings in Texas and Gadsden, area schools are placing school resource officers on campuses during their summer programs.
For some area schools, it is the first time SROs have been used during the summer, and one school official says every school should have a full-time SRO every day.
Local officials agree an incident this month at Gadsden’s Walnut Park Elementary School, where students were participating in a literacy program, was an eye-opener. According to Gadsden officials, Robert Tyler White, 32, tried to enter the school June 9 through numerous doors, all of them locked, and then tried to break into the SRO’s patrol vehicle. The SRO confronted him and White tried to take the SRO’s gun. White was shot and killed.
Morgan County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Mike Swafford said Morgan County Schools requested for the first time eight SROs for its summer reading programs.
“We have off-duty deputies picking up off-duty details to cover eight campuses for (about two weeks) remaining in the summer program in the county,” Swafford said. He said the regular SROs are retired lawmen and don’t work in the summer to remain below limits placed on how much they can earn by the state retirement system.
Morgan County School Deputy Superintendent Lee Willis said the deputies would be on campuses through July 5. He said SROs have become a necessity at every school.
“At one time, schools didn’t have a counselor at every school, and there was a need and they got them,” he said. “Then we needed a full-time nurse at every school, and now we have them. I think it is time for SROs at every school. We’ll have to invest in SROs. Schools are more and more becoming 12-month facilities now.”
Willis said he worries about custody issues involving parents of students triggering school violence.
“The students in the K-6 environment are the most vulnerable,” he said. “But what happened in Gadsden last week was a catalyst to improving school safety with more SROs. Now is the time for SROs for every school.”
In Hartselle, Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said school protection officers from the Hartselle Police Department work at the schools. Jones said two SPOs are on duty at the two campuses presently having summer programs. From June 20 to July 1, three elementary schools will hold programs. “The three schools will have officers working on a rotation, and Hartselle police will be patrolling.”
She said one SPO worked last summer, but only one campus was open.
The school resource officers used in Hartselle are active duty, according to Jones. She said SPOs are retired law enforcement officers who are limited on what they can earn before their state retirement is negatively impacted. “They are retired but hold all the certification and training that is required,” she said. The Hartselle school system contracts with the Hartselle Police Department for the security officers, she added.
She said the incident at Walnut Park Elementary in Gadsden “made us reassess what we’re doing and how we can improve what we do. We realize it can happen anywhere and we need to do all we can to protect our students and staff.”
The Gadsden shooting occurred while the nation continued to mourn the deaths of 19 students and two staff members at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. Authorities shot and killed Salvador Ramos, 18, inside the school.
This summer, Morgan County Schools is installing SV11 environmental security sensors by Verkada in schools, using their audio enhancement funds. Willis said the district also received a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in February that they will use for additional security systems this school year.
“I got a $496,000 federal grant called the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant and we’re going to be installing this upcoming year in some of our high schools an alert system in the classroom,” Willis said. “A teacher can alert the entire school or the office depending on what it is. It’s broadcast … not only in that school but also to the district office so we can start responding with 911 and those things.”
The alert system will be placed in all high schools except for Priceville. Willis said he did not have enough money in the budget for Priceville High, but he said it is one of the district’s most secure facilities.
“It was designed to where students don’t have to exit the building in order to go to other classes,” Willis said.
Willis said he was working on installing Verkada sensors in every restroom and classroom in the new West Morgan High School. The Verkada sensors detect and measure vaping aerosol by analyzing the air for environmental signatures and also detect noise, motion, humidity, gases, temperature and air pollutants. The sensors, which have a maximum detection range of 6 to 8 feet, will be placed on the restroom ceilings.
In addition to vaping and smoking, the sensors can detect loud noises from gunshots or other disturbances and temperature spikes or smoke from fire.
Administrators can view real-time data from the sensor on their computers.
Willis said he hopes to have all security systems in the schools installed by Christmas, but he is expecting supply chain delays.