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New committee focuses on school safety

In recent months, the topic of school safety has made headlines both locally and on a national scale. In the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, politicians, school administrators and students have grappled with an important question: how can we prevent this from happening?

While the proposed answers to that question have been many and varied, ranging from increased mental health services to tightened restrictions on gun sales, here in Beaufort County, a group of community leaders is working to ensure that students in Beaufort County are safe in their schools.

Bringing together representatives from Beaufort County Schools, Beaufort County Community College, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and county government, a newly formed School Safety Committee held its first meeting April 5. From the perspective of BCS Superintendent Dr. Don Phipps, bringing these organizations and agencies together in the same room has provided new insight on the topic.

“The value of doing this is that you have people looking at the topic through different lenses,” BCS Superintendent Don Phipps said. “I think the perspective that the different people around the table have helps us have a more complete and comprehensive picture of what we’re looking at.”

SAY CHEESE: Camera systems installed at schools throughout the county provide an additional layer of security. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

In addition to establishing the committee’s purpose, the group held a general discussion of school needs and next steps for addressing any issues. Other topics included possible increases to Student Resource Officer presence in local schools, as well as personnel who might assist with mental health needs.

“Mental health continues to be a big need that I see,” Phipps said. “We need someone from a social work perspective to help us work proactively with students and families in general.”

At BCCC, an open campus with easy access, college President Dr. David Loope says that there is no issue more important than securing the safety of the college’s students. With a sworn police force on campus and its own protocols for security, Loope says the college can learn a lot through working with these other organizations.

“The personnel and cost of those things are shared countywide, so it’s a good idea to coordinate efforts and learn about best practice,” Loope said. “It’s a great way to increase collaboration between all of the different responsible parties in the county and enable us to learn from each other. I also think it will help in respect to cost-effectiveness as well.”

The group went into closed session to discuss issues specific security issues at various campuses throughout the county. As conversations progress, this could generate new ideas for community safety as a whole as trainings incorporating these organizations and agencies can help ensure everyone in Beaufort County is prepared should a crisis arise.

“From the perspective of collaboration, it’s something we’ve got to do from both the funding side and the policy side,” Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood said.

While this committee represents a new, holistic approach to school safety throughout the county, security has been a topic of discussion and action for a number of years.

GATEKEEPER: At Eastern Elementary School, office personnel control access to the various areas of the school by means of three electronic locks. The reception area is also outfitted with a silent alarm which alerts law enforcement directly in the event of a problem. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

Since 2014-15, the school system has made considerable improvements to its security infrastructure, including electric locks, cameras and entry controls. Many of these improvements were funded as a part of the school system’s annual capital request to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.

The 2018-19 capital budget also includes requests for further enhancements at BCS. While approximately $200,000 is requested for the coming budget year to make improvements to cameras, camera systems and door locking systems, future plans include additional requests in the amount of $1.6 million dollars to build connecting corridors between buildings at schools throughout the county.