On Thursday, April 5, Republican 13th District Congressman Ted Budd led a meeting of elected leaders, school officials and law enforcement officers to stop school shootings – like the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida – from happening here.
Three weeks ago, an impressive array of law enforcement officials met to address that threat and the April 5 meeting expanded that discussion. One thing is becoming crystal clear from these talks in Guilford County: At all levels of government, elected leaders, along with school administrators and law enforcement officials, are now tightly focused on addressing the national problem of school violence.
The April 5 morning meeting, which was followed by lunch for the participants, was held at the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Special Operations Building on Industrial Avenue in Greensboro – the same location as the previous meeting that local and state law enforcement officials held to address school violence. While the first meeting focused on law enforcement efforts, the April 5 meeting explored the steps elected leaders and school administrators could take to address the threat of schools shootings.
“As leaders, we need to make this issue a priority,” Budd said at the meeting. “That’s why I wanted to get everyone at the table, from law enforcement to educators to lawmakers.”
Budd began by discussing the effect of the Parkland school shooting and the way that it hit home for many people.
“I have three children who are all about the same age as those kids in Florida – 18, 16 and 13,” he said. “I know many of you have children as well, and the last thing we want to worry about is, when our kids go to school in the morning, they don’t come home. That’s why our discussion today is so important for the community.”
Budd said there was a great deal to consider when it came to the complex issue.
“I want our children to be safe, but I don’t want to turn our learning environments into military installations,” he said. “I want to keep guns out of the hands of those with evil intent, but I don’t want to infringe on the law-abiding citizen’s Second Amendment right. We have to do something and people expect us as leaders to step up.”
One legislative action taken by Congress this month is the STOP School Violence Act, which stands for “Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing school violence.” That act provides $75 million this year and $100 million in each of the next 10 years to improve school security through building infrastructure enhancements, the development of threat intervention teams and the coordination of law enforcement agency and school system efforts. It also funds grants to help train teachers, law enforcement officers and others to notice warning signs before a major incident happen.
Budd said he sees four main considerations. One, he said, is “law enforcement enablement – letting you do what you know you need to do.” The second, Budd said, is improving the safety of “soft targets” such as schools. Third are societal issues, such as the availability of mental health care. And fourth is “respecting the Second Amendment.”
Many leaders are arguing for more school resource officers (SRO’s) – armed law enforcement officers assigned to cover the schools – and Budd certainly sees that as part of the solution.
“We need fully trained SRO’s in every school,” he said.
In all of the discussions, in and out of meetings, more armed officers in schools is one solution that comes up consistently. It’s seen by many as a first step, since it could be taken immediately and it would provide a first line of defense against shooters in schools. It also isn’t as controversial a move as arming teachers in school.
Guilford County Schools already has an SRO in nearly every middle school and high school, but not in the elementary schools. Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said this week that’s because most serious school violence problems happen in middle and high schools, funds are limited and there are a very large number of elementary schools in the county.
Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Scott McCully spoke on moves the school system was already making – as well as needs the system has. He said one step being taken is making sure that entry doors to schools are locked and have cameras. He said those doors should remain locked so any visitor has to be buzzed in. He also said school officials have accelerated the effort to upgrade all entrance doors that need to be improved, and he expected that project to be complete later this year.
Some large schools, such as Grimsley High School and High Point Central High School, he said, have many buildings and students must have the ability to leave one building and enter another, which creates a security challenge.
According to McCully, the schools will need $4.9 million to secure doors in all county schools and provide fobs to those who should have them. Given that there are 126 schools in Guilford County with over 72,000 students, that is no small undertaking.
McCully said allocating money for that is difficult, given the age of school buildings in Guilford County and other needs.
“The average age is 49 to 50 years, and there are other needs for those buildings on top of security,” McCully said.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue was the county’s Emergency Services director for years before becoming a commissioner and he expressed one concern about securing the doors properly. He said fires are a significant threat in schools and that had to be taken into account when any security measures are taken.
“Locking people from the outside is OK,” Perdue said. “We have to be mindful that we don’t lock doors on the inside.”
He had another concern as well – the state of emergency communications in schools.
“In many of the buildings at the 126 campuses that we have here in Guilford County, our radios won’t work,” Perdue said. “We have a very robust radio system with interoperability with all agencies, but, when you step into that building – because of the type of construction and the distance from the tower and many different factors – our radios won’t work, which creates a huge issue.”
Another precaution discussed was the widespread use of security cameras in schools.
“We have 60 schools currently that have no cameras at all,” McCully said, adding that some cameras now in use are analog cameras that use outdated types of storage.
In recently built schools, on the other hand, there are more modern cameras and security systems.
“Western Guilford Middle School is a good example. It’s a brand new school and it has state-of-the-art fob systems, that type of thing, but not all of our schools have that,” he said.
He gave an estimate of $10.8 million to complete that project, putting cameras in the 60 schools that don’t have any, and updating ones in the schools that do.
At the meeting, Budd said he recently gave a talk to students at Southwest Guilford High School and was glad to find he had trouble getting into the building. He said a newly installed security system kept him from entering through any side doors. He added that he also visited a school in Davidson County and saw the same thing there.
“So it’s a good start,” the congressman said.
McCully also said the school cameras currently in use don’t have all the capabilities law enforcement would like them to have. One thing local law enforcement agencies want is a camera system that can send live feeds to mobile devices.
“The cameras do record obviously what’s occurring and can be incredibly helpful in piecing together what has happened after it’s happened, but currently our cameras don’t do a whole lot more than that,” McCully said.
Sheriff Barnes and his staff have been pushing hard this year for a “Mutualink system” in all county schools – a camera network that covers key areas of schools such as hallways and cafeterias. It provides a video feed that can be sent straight to law enforcement agencies with the flip of a switch in the event of a shooter on campus or some other crisis.
District 61 state Rep. John Faircloth brought up the Mutualink system at the April 5 meeting. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department had the money lined up to put that system in schools in 2010 but school officials didn’t want the system at that time, largely due to privacy concerns.
Faircloth said he hoped that wouldn’t be the case now.
“I would hope that, as we move forward, we don’t let things like ‘We don’t want anybody watching what the teacher is doing’ to prevent the installation,” he said. “We need to think about safety first.”
Barnes said the camera system would help in other ways as well. He referenced the security guard in Parkland who didn’t go in to the school even though he heard shots being fired.
“You won’t have an officer outside saying he doesn’t know where the shots are coming from – he’s going to know where the shots are coming from,” Barnes said.
High Point Police Chief Ken Shultz said that, just before Christmas last year, a non-student came on to the High Point Central campus and fired a gunshot and the camera system helped the SRO identify the shooter and see that the shooter had fled.
The Guilford County Board of Education may be more willing now than in the past to install cameras with a video feed that can be sent to law enforcement.
McCully said the schools have about $22 million in terms of immediate security needs. In addition to better doors and more cameras, he said, money is needed to train staff and support the equipment.
Barnes said one problem is that law enforcement has no way to take guns away from citizens even when they are a clear threat.
“We need the tools to be able to do that,” the sheriff said.
Faircloth said the legislature is looking at a bill now that would allow judges to order guns to be taken away from someone who’s a clear threat even if no crime has been committed.
“Of course, we have to word it very carefully,” Faircloth said.
Another move that some support, including Barnes and several Guilford County commissioners, is arming teachers.
Budd said 80 percent of people are against that move and 20 percent for it.
Barnes is in the 20 percent.
“I do not fear an armed citizen if they done it legally and they’ve done what they should do,” Barnes said.