By Susan Hale
Recent tragedies such as those in Parkland, FL and Santa Fe, TX have Fulton County parents understandably concerned about school safety. With the new academic year drawing near, now is the time to become familiar with the security measures that already keep children safe in school, plus learn about new initiatives coming this fall.
Experts agree that effective emergency management and crisis response training are critical elements in school safety. To be proactive, Fulton County School District trains school staff frequently in various scenarios, including what to do in an active shooter situation, and gives instruction in AED (automated external defibrillator) use, CPR, and first aid. Additionally, schools all have safety plans that are reviewed annually and reported to the State of Georgia/Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Evacuation, shelter-in-place, and lockdown drills are required. Evacuation drills are required monthly along with other drills that are required at the start of each semester.
A well-trained and visible police force also contributes to safety. With 62 sworn officers, Fulton County Schools has one of the largest school police departments in Georgia. School police officers are not only certified in law enforcement, but they also have specialized training in how to work with children and young adults. The Fulton County School Board recently added six school police officer positions to supplement the force, and 34 non-sworn personnel (campus security associates) currently assist schools in their safety efforts.
Fulton County Schools is fortunate to receive special funding through the one-penny sales tax for education called SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). Using these funds, schools have entry control systems that restrict access to outsiders until they are verified as approved visitors. In north Fulton, three of the older high school models Chattahoochee, North Springs, and Roswell received front entrance renovations to create a more controlled entry point that increases visibility of those entering or leaving the building.
Through the most current SPLOST program, each schools surveillance system is being upgraded. High definition cameras allow safety teams to monitor activities with laser-sharp accuracy. In north Fulton, the District has partnered with the 911 call centers in Fulton County Government, Johns Creek, and Sandy Springs, so that in emergencies, they have direct access to view schools cameras. Discussions are under way to add this to the City of Alpharetta.
Courtesy of the SPLOST program, the school police fleet includes more than sixty vehicles, nineteen of which are new and now hitting the streets. These vehicles provide greater visibility of school police officers as well as increase their ability to patrol schools and their capability for emergency response.
But as critical as it is to secure a schools physical environment, access to mental and emotional resources is equally important. Social-emotional learning programs aid in students development as well as personal safety and good decision-making.
Fulton County Schools counselors, social workers, psychologists, and behavior specialists are uniquely trained to help students who may be experiencing mental health, social, or behavioral issues. In addition, the school system has a crisis counseling team that is deployed when schools experience a student or staff member death.
Adding a community element to its prevention and intervention strategies, Fulton County Schools developed a protocol in 2013 to allow mental health partners, such as North Fultons Summit Counseling Center, to provide services through schools. Should their parents request it, students can access providers on campus. The Fulton County Board of Commissioners also is collaborating with the District through its Text A Tip program. Three north Fulton high schools Cambridge, Milton, and Roswell were tapped for a pilot where students can connect anonymously with a licensed mental health professional via a mobile app.
Identification and awareness is another key strategy for student support. Mental health first aid training has been provided to hundreds of District staff and community members. This free training was made available last spring and this summer to adults who work with children and youth. Anxiety, depression, substance use, psychotic disorders, behavior disorders, and eating disorders were the topics that were covered.
Each of these initiatives provides a proactive way to help Fulton County youth, but systems are also in place for students who are suspected to be at risk for self-harm or harm to others. A crisis response protocol is used to immediately provide mental health resources to students and their families. Re-entry meetings are held with school leaders and care partners once a student is preparing to return to school, so they can successfully transition back into the classroom.
Safety is a community-wide issue, and it takes the partnership of all involved to keep schools safe. For more information about these safety measures and others, visit the Safety and Security webpage on the Fulton County Schools website at FultonSchools.org/safety. On that page, District safety information and downloadable resources are available to families.
Susan Hale is a communications manager for Fulton County Schools. She specializes in SPLOST-funded projects, including new school construction, renovations, technology innovations, and safety improvements.