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March 15, 2018
South Forsyth HS and Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS are not unalike. Both are located in residential, upper middle class suburbs. Both are regularly commended for their academic achievement. Both have an eagle as their school mascot. And most importantly, both have been recognized for the safety of the communities that they serve. But Valentine’s Day, 2018, shattered the parallels between their school and our own. In the late afternoon a fire alarm was pulled. Then shots were fired. And six minutes later, seventeen defenseless students and staff lay gunned down and murdered in the classrooms where they had just been preparing for the end of the school day.
Suddenly Stoneman Douglas, the school with a 94% graduation rate, seemed separated from our school by an invisible force. “That can’t happen here,” people will say. Before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the attitude of residents in Parkland was very much the same. The reality is that school shootings happen regardless of the median income of the community, regardless of the academic achievement of its students, and regardless of a person’s will to believe it won’t happen. This tragedy has prompted Forsyth County’s educators and administrators to revisit the design of its school campuses to ensure the safety of students and staff.
South Forsyth High School is one of the county’s more vulnerable schools because of the openness of its campus and the age of its infrastructure. Although the school underwent renovations in 2015 and 2016, the construction failed to unify the campus under one roof which means that there are countless exits and entrances into the school which remain unlocked throughout the day. As Parkland High School students returned to their classes on the last day of February, two weeks after the mass shooting, school safety once again dominated prime-time news cycles. In the metro Atlanta region, several students have been arrested and charged for threatening to shoot their classmates. A student from West Forsyth, and a student in Gwinnett County have both been apprehended for making terroristic threats. At Dalton High School in Dade County, a teacher shot a bullet through a classroom window which prompted a lock-down.
South Forsyth High School is the largest public high school in the county and has a student population that exceeds 3,500. Marjory Stoneman Douglas has a substantial population of approximately 3,150 students in attendance. The responsibility of protecting so many students may appear to be a daunting task. In many ways, a high school like South resembles a small city. In order to ensure the safety of South’s students and staff, the school administration, the district, and law enforcement have strengthened their efforts to find a solution to school safety loopholes. I had the privilege of interviewing Principal Laura Wilson who sat down with me to answer questions about the concerns which many students have about our campus.
“We are actively looking at things. It is not like now that the heat of the moment has passed this issue is now on the back burner,” Principal Laura Wilson said. “I think we will now see some things come out of that joint task force that has been assembled.”
Students in Parkland, and across the country, have reiterated that they do not want the issue of school safety to fade out of the spotlight. In fact, many students have created campaigns and scheduled protests to advocate for gun control, among other things.
“I think that after Parkland…people are much more aware…I think people are actually more concerned that it may happen here,” said Wilson. “I think it is something we need to be conscious of, I think we need to walk the campus and walk the school and really look at things we can do to make our school safer.”
Some of the solutions which have been suggested by staff and students are still being mulled over by the district. Denmark High School, which will open its doors to students in 2018, has state of the art technology and safety features which are absent from older schools like South which was constructed nearly three decades ago.
“It is going to be a cultural change for our students” said Wilson, discussing the new safety protocol.
South’s campus remains relatively open since neither West Hall or East Hall are connected by an interior hallway. There are also three Mod-Pod trailers located at the front of the school, in addition to two different campus entrances; one which is located along 141 and another which is situated on Ronald Reagan. The openness of South is a concern for the administration, especially since many of the adjacent schools have security measures where students and parents must be buzzed into buildings.
“There are a lot of ways to enter campus,” said Wilson. “People walking on campus is not as alarming to us as it may be someplace else. Again, staff being in the hall between class changes helps, and if you see someone that doesn’t seem to fit in for some reason…you can always say something to an adult. I have had students from both sides of what I would consider the political gun debate reach out to me.”
Principal Wilson is encouraged by the fact the two trailers which run perpendicular to the school will be removed this summer. The trailer which runs parallel to the school will stay. Locking exterior classroom doors during the day may become a more viable option after the removal of these trailers.
“It makes it difficult to lock doors when so many students are outside during class changes,” said Wilson. “There’s been a conversation of continuing a hallway from East that would link with West Hall so that there would be a completely internal route. As well as a hallway to the marketing building and one that would connect the arena to East Hall as well.”
Securing the front office of the school is another priority for Mrs. Wilson. Many schools in the area require parents to present their ID before they are buzzed in and can enter the school. At South, however, visitors have the ability to enter dozens of entrances without being immediately detected.
“There is a locking mechanism in the front doors. Technically we could buzz in parents or visitors through these doors which would remain locked at all times,” said Wilson. “Every adult that comes through the building is scanned with their ID for any arrest warrants or sexual arrests issues to keep students safe.”
Although scanning adults for outstanding warrants is important, this step takes place after individuals have already entered the building through the double doors near the Main office.
A solution which some schools have introduced is an identification badge that students must wear to gain access through exterior doors.
Principal Wilson remarked that, “We’re trying to explore solutions without creating more issues.”
The underlying question is whether these solutions will create the change required to improve student safety. It is a difficult and complicated dilemma to overcome, because so often school shootings are perpetrated by those who no longer attend the school. Shooters Nikolas Cruz and Adam Lanza were no longer students of the schools where they committed mass atrocities. And in Decatur, Georgia (DeKalb County) in 2013, an armed twenty year old entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy and was intent on committing a rampage before he was encouraged to lay down his weapons by the school’s clerk. So clearly, strangers do present a danger to schools in the same way that disturbed students do.
Mental illness remains a common thread that links most school shootings together. Nikolas Cruz is reported to have suffered a mental illness and repeatedly demonstrated on social media that he was prepared to carry out a school shooting. Mrs. Wilson explained that mental health is a subject which the school takes very seriously.
“Anything to do with mental illness is very confidential” said Mrs. Wilson. “I get a lot of weekend electronic contact from students. We have a very specific protocol that we follow, and it is district wide. We all have a red notebook, and it is very prescribed the steps that we take, the questions we pose.”
Across the country, students share a credible fear that their schools are not prepared or are overwhelmed by students with a variety of serious mental illnesses. In Parkland, Nikolas Cruz was never arrested, despite dozens of police visits to his residence and the several threatening posts he put on Instagram and Snapchat. Students in Parkland vocalized their anger towards school officials and law enforcement who continued to emphasize the narrative of “see something, say something.” Students explained that they alerted administrators and teachers on numerous occasions about Cruz, but the problem was ignored.
“Faculty and staff, everyone is trained to know if they hear of a situation…they need to tell an administrator or a counselor” said Mrs. Wilson. “They are professionally skilled to do that. But getting the student to them [the Counseling Department] is collectively the responsibility of all of us.”
Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Morlanne explained that counselors make weekly or biweekly visits to students struggling with mental illnesses to ensure that they get the help they need. They urged students to use the anonymous tip line which is ABSOLUTELY anonymous to share information about a student who may pose a threat to themselves or others.
“Sometimes students will end up in treatment facility or in long term counseling” said Wilson. “We leave that to the professional to decide. On the weekends if we cannot get a hold of a parent, we call the police. Anyone can call in…”
Mrs. Wilson wished to assure students that their safety is the school’s number one priority and students with mental illness will receive additional assistance to prevent any acts of violence from taking place on campus.
A Code Red Lock-down has never been practiced at South by its students during a regularly scheduled day. This comes as a surprise to many since Code Red Lock-downs are practiced by schools in adjacent counties. Mrs. Wilson explained that there is one very important reason for this.
“We don’t practice code-red. If you ever hear code-red, it is legit. There is no kidding. Code Yellow is the active shooter lock down drill which we practiced last week. The door should be locked now, and we’ve had that conversation with our teachers.”
During an active shooter situation, Mrs. Wilson urged that students, “move to the most secure location you can to take cover and not be in the hallway. If you’re near an exit door, you can make the determination at that moment to get outside…it’s really going to depend what happens that day, where you are.”
She also explained that students will react differently to a shooting scenario. “Instinctively, some people are fight and some people are flight and people are going to respond differently” she said. Principal Wilson explained that at a school safety seminar she attended, one of its speakers reminded staff and students to “try to fight, try to distract, or get the gun away.”
Ms. Wilson went on to explain that all students should “lock down and stay there first, but if a student finds him/herself locked out in the hall to run, seek cover, and fight if you are able.” In all reality, these are imagined scenarios based on horrific events. Forsyth County Schools suggests several alternative scenarios and how to respond on the School Safety and Discipline section of the county website.
“There are several panic buttons” said Wilson. “There is one in Mrs. MacAllister’s office, one out front, one there [inside Wilson’s office], one in the West Hall Office and one in the East Hall Office. There are a lot of them around, depending on who needs it.”
The panic buttons are an important safety measure which alert the entire Forsyth County Police Department of a possible active shooter at one of the local schools. The police response time is very quick, particularly for a school like South which has a police precinct located behind its campus.
Mrs. Wilson emphasized the importance of remaining silent during a Code-Red Lock-down, and reminded students not to leave their safe space until being told to do so by a school administrator on the intercom or by a law enforcement officer.
On March 14th, a national walkout took place in schools across the country. More than sixty metro-Atlanta schools hosted protests despite threats of disciplinary measures. At South, students were not allowed to protest outside of the school. Instead, they were allowed to leave class at 10:00 am to stand in the Blue and Silver gyms.
“This is a big learning time for you all” said Mrs. Wilson, referring to the planned student walkout.
In a learning environment now tarnished by the Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Parkland massacres, school safety continues to spark debate between politicians and educators. At South, and all schools in the district, the administration and county office will do everything in their power to protect their student body and staff.