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School safety officials want Richmond County to be better prepared

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Cpl. Jeff Tilley walked the halls of Lamar-Milledge Elementary on Tuesday and observed how classes reacted to Principal Raye Robinson’s announcement that the school was in a hard lockdown.

Richmond County Board of Education Cpl. Jeff Tilley and Capt. Ted Brown discuss the results of last week's hard lockdown drill at Lamar-Milledge Elementary School.  MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
MICHAEL HOLAHAN/STAFF
Richmond County Board of Education Cpl. Jeff Tilley and Capt. Ted Brown discuss the results of last week's hard lockdown drill at Lamar-Milledge Elementary School.

Students were supposed to remain silent and out of sight, and teachers should have locked their doors and turned out the lights.

But moments after the drill began, a child walked directly in front of Tilley toward the front office, while teachers continued class as usual after bolting their doors.

On the second floor, Sgt. Troi Niehus saw a group of students file out of the cafeteria during the drill.

“None of these teachers are doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Tilley, who was named the school district’s emergency preparedness officer in September. “This is not a good sign, but this is why we’re here. We have a lot of work to do.”

As federal, state and local officials continue to debate school safety in the year after the deadly shooting in Newtown, Conn., Richmond County is wasting little time making campuses countywide more prepared for catastrophe.

Last week, the corporal began three weeks of practicing lockdown procedures with teachers and staff at each school. He soon realized some schools were not as prepared as they should be.

After the Lamar-Milledge failure of the drill, Tilley returned that day to explain to faculty the difference between soft and hard lockdowns. A soft lockdown is issued if there is a threat off campus, such as a robbery at a nearby business, which just requires teachers to lock doors and continue teaching.

A hard lockdown, which Tilley called for that day, means there is a threat on campus, and teachers should stop everything and hide with their students.

Tilley said this is the first time schools are getting guidance on the drills, which should have been done twice a year, but were not monitored or enforced.

The corporal said he hopes to grow the exercise into a three-tier plan that’s done at least four times a year and possibly once monthly. Higher stages of alert will consist of classes barricading themselves in rooms, with lower levels involving administrators securing a campus’ perimeter.

“We’re going to work on this and get better. That’s why I’m here,” Tilley said. “We are trying to make a difference.”

U.S. Rep. John Barrow supported the increased security, saying that the most tragic circumstances originate from a deranged person bent on killing.

The Augusta Democrat visited Richmond County in July to gain support for a bill he introduced in the House of Representatives to reinstate a $30 million federal grant program that links classroom panic buttons directly to police hand radios and cell phones.

Richmond County schools have panic buttons in each classroom, but School Safety and Security Chief Alfonzo Williams said the devices alert staff only in the school’s administration office, who then calls the police.

“We spent millions of dollars on putting metal detectors in schools to keep people from smuggling weapons into schools, but we have nothing in the way of having the best state-of-the-art technology in schools to respond to someone invading a campus and indulging in mass murder,” Barrow said. “Kids are entitled to the same level of security judges and members of Congress get in their offices and courtrooms.”

Barrow said the bill remains in the House Judiciary Committee. He urged local school systems to be proactive about their security.

“Time after time, studies have demonstrated that the sooner law enforcement arrives on the scene, the sooner innocent victims stopped being killed,” he said. “Time literally is a life-saver in these situations.”


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