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How Forsyth County’s sheriff, school superintendent work to keep students safe
SRO
A School Resource Officer with the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office aims with a fake weapon while using a new simulator that allows law enforcement to train for different scenarios, including school shootings. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Families across the nation were getting ready for end-of-year festivities and summer vacations when news first broke of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

On May 24, 19 children and two adults were killed at the school, and the tragedy has shaken parents and students.

Now, as many prepare for the new year, Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden and Sheriff Ron Freeman said worries around school safety have only grown.

“I don’t know of anybody whose stomach hasn’t been turned by what happened [in Uvalde],” Freeman said.

Bearden and Freeman said they have been working to assure the community that when they send their kids off to school this year, the district and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office are doing everything they can to make sure students are safe while on campus.

The two agencies have a strong partnership to put in place protections such as training for Student Resource Officers, or SROs, and school staff, security vestibules at each school and compliance checks to ensure protocol is followed.

But they both stressed the best way to keep students in Forsyth County safe is for everyone in the community to be involved in school safety.

See Something, Say Something

The school district and sheriff’s office first started some of their safety protocols in 2018 following a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three adults were killed.

In that same month, Bearden and Freeman commissioned a team of leaders from both the school system and sheriff’s office to perform a safety audit on every school in the county and identify areas where they could improve the facilities.

Following that audit, they made several changes.

“But I would say, of all of those, the ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign we started after [the Parkland shooting] has been huge,” Bearden said. “Our students have responded appropriately.”

Through the campaign, the agencies created a tip line through P3 Campus that enables students and families to report suspicious activity or school threats anonymously.

Students can download the P3 Campus app, visit the website at www.p3campus.com, or call 770-888-3466 to report a tip. Bearden said the tip line is always monitored, so no matter what time of day a tip is submitted, it will be immediately investigated.

“If they’re on social media …. really late at night and see something, they know they can call that tip line anonymously 24/7,” Bearden said.

Freeman said for the past few years, students have begun to take advantage of the tip line. Nearly 95% of all threats investigated by the sheriff’s office are reported by students.

But he wants to remind residents that the tip line is not limited to students. Anyone can use P3 Campus to report threats or activity involving any school or student in Forsyth County.

“It takes a whole community to keep our schools safe,” Freeman said. “The school system and sheriff’s office can’t do it alone …. I wish I could do it alone. I wish I could tell you that putting a deputy there solves every problem and we could never have something bad happen. We all know that that’s not accurate.”

Both agencies stressed that tips from the community could help protect students and possibly save lives.

Freeman said most of the threats they investigate turn out to be a misunderstanding or a situation where a student may say “something they shouldn’t have said when they were upset,” but there have been instances where a student did bring a weapon on campus or threatened a school in the county.

Deputies investigate each tip to make sure they never miss the few that turn out to be serious.

“The one thing we can’t be is wrong about those,” Freeman said.

Looking at the history of school shootings in the U.S., Freeman explained that a significant number of shooters have shown signs of violence long before the shooting occurred.

“And there were opportunities, including in Uvalde, for somebody to intervene and do something,” Freeman said. “That’s why it’s so important that people ‘See Something, Say Something.’”

Protections on campus

Other safety measures have been added to schools since 2018 that families can see by simply walking onto one of the school campuses.

Before entering a school, visitors to campus will likely see at least one sheriff’s office vehicle in the parking lot. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office encourages deputies to park in school parking lots while finishing their administrative work, so the patrol car is visible.

Beginning this school year, each school will also have its own SRO.

“Last year, we had a school resource officer on every campus,” Bearden said. “So what that meant was schools that shared a campus — for example, Matt Elementary and Liberty [Middle share a campus] — there was one SRO who would travel between the two schools. Starting this school year, thanks to [the sheriff’s office’s] recruitment and hiring, we will have [a deputy] in every single building.”

School resource officers go through ongoing training to stay updated on safety protocols so that they know how to best protect students daily and in the event of a crisis. But most importantly, they work every day to help build relationships with students.

Bearden explained that SROs are never assigned to work in a school. If a deputy is interested in the position, they must go through an interview process with both the sheriff’s office and the school district to make sure they are the right fit.

“We don’t just hire anybody to be a school resource officer,” Bearden said. “We want them to be relationship builders, and they’re really good at it. Because of that, our student population, by and large, trusts and respects the law enforcement in their schools.”

Going into a school, every student, family member and visitor is stopped by a security vestibule positioned at the entrance where they must show their ID and speak to a staff member before entering the building.

Added after the Parkland shooting, the vestibules and security cameras positioned all over the schools allow officials to not only keep track of who is coming in and out of the facility, but to also save time in case of an emergency.

Freeman said the vestibules can serve as a barrier between an active threat and students, giving law enforcement time to stop the threat before they can fully enter the school. Cameras also allow school staff to let law enforcement know where an active threat may be in the building.

During an active threat, students and teachers are instructed to lock classroom doors and pull the blinds over door windows. On the back of the blinds are printed instructions on what to do in an emergency in case students or teachers need a reminder during a crisis where “there is a lot of anxiety and upset.”

Stopping the crisis before it starts

Aside from the protections on campus, the school district and sheriff’s office work together behind the scenes to try to prevent incidents from ever reaching the schools.

One example is the school system’s Student Advocacy Specialist program, which helps to address and provide support to students in crisis.

Through the program, eight specialists meet with students regularly to talk with them and make sure they are provided with system or community resources that they may need. They may meet with them several times a week or just once a month depending on the student’s needs.

The specialists also take that time to build relationships with students and help them to feel more comfortable both in and outside of school.

“Because oftentimes, those kids are lost,” Bearden said. “They’re not connected to someone. And now someone is showing they’re invested in them, they care about them, they’re going to support them.”

Bearden said it’s important to identify a person in crisis early in their lives to help provide those relationships and support when they need it most.

“When we can [do that], they are far less likely to move into this really dark place where they just feel like there is nothing to live for anymore,” Bearden said. “[Where they feel like] nobody cares about me and I don’t care about anybody either.”

Forsyth County Schools has the largest of the few student advocacy specialist programs that exist in the state.

FCS and the sheriff’s office has also worked closely with school leaders and staff on training and threat protocols.

Earlier this year, Freeman said every teacher, counselor and assistant principal came out to the sheriff’s office to go over “real-life threats that happened here in Forsyth County,” so they could learn what to do and what not to do in a similar situation.

“Not only were the teachers and administrators hearing from law enforcement, they were hearing from their fellow teachers, counselors and administrators, ‘This happened at my school and here is what we did to work together with the sheriff’s office and here is how we were successful,’” Freeman said. “They saw first-hand how every cog is important in the engineering of that threat assessment protocol.”

Going into this year, law enforcement has focused more on finding out exactly what happened during the shooting in Uvalde to learn from the tragedy and train to prevent a similar crisis from ever happening in Forsyth County.

“Wouldn’t it be tragic if we didn’t learn something from it?” Freeman said.

With Uvalde in mind, school leaders are training staff to keep doors in the schools always locked. Bearden said they plan to start compliance checks to ensure protocols like these are followed.

During the checks, district leaders or plainclothes deputies may come to campus to try to get into a school in areas other than the front entrance or check doors throughout the campus.

Bearden explained these checks are not meant to serve as a “gotcha” for administrators or teachers, but to make sure doors and locks are working properly and to remind staff they must always remain vigilant and ensure doors are locked.

He also stressed that if students or teachers notice a door not working properly, they need to report it to the school administration so it can be repaired.

“We all have to be aware, and we just have to make sure we’re communicating that something isn’t quite right or something needs to be fixed so we can address it immediately,” Bearden said.

What happens if there is a crisis?

Even with these preventative measures in place, some families in Forsyth County are still worried going into the new school year.

Over the last two months, Freeman and Bearden have heard questions from people in the community like, “What happens if there is an active shooter in a school?” and “Do your deputies have to wait for permission to do something to stop a shooter?”

They said they hope to never have to find those answers because of a real-life situation. They never want to get to that worst-case scenario where students in Forsyth may be in a dangerous situation.

But in that situation, Freeman said deputies would not hesitate to protect students.

Deputies have access to every door in every school and, beginning this year, will have tools on each campus to break down doors that may be barricaded. Freeman assured there would be no delay for deputies to get into a school where an active threat is taking place.

Once inside, Freeman said deputies “will immediately go neutralize the threat.”

“I make no qualms about what that means,” Freeman said. “If someone is posing an active threat in a school …. we’re going to go immediately, and if they’re an active threat, we’re going to shoot that person. And we’re going to shoot them a lot.”

He said he wants families to know that student and staff safety is their No. 1 priority, and deputies will not wait for backup to get inside a school and try to stop an active threat.

“We’re going to protect our kids,” Freeman said. “I have literally told our SROs, ‘God forbid if something like that happened, when I get on scene, one of two things better have happened. You better be full of bullets, which means you got shot trying to protect our kids, or you better be out of bullets because you shot the bad guy that many times.’ As horrific as that sounds, it’s what we have to do to protect our kids if we got to that ultimate, critical level.”

School leaders and law enforcement “work really hard not to get to that level” and provide preventative measures that work for students, staff and parents.

And the best way to avoid a crisis in the schools is for everyone to work together and report suspicious or threatening activity.

“All we want to do is make sure everybody is safe,” Freeman said.

For more information about school safety, visit the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office website at www.forsythsheriff.com or the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us