By Chris Kieffer and JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi school superintendents said they will review their district’s safety plans in the wake of Friday’s fatal school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Those interviewed each said their districts have crisis management plans for incidents like fires, tornados and intruders on campus. The plans are generally updated annually, but were on many people’s minds after a gunman shot and killed at least 26 students and parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.
“When something like this happens, you want to double check and make sure you are doing all you can,” said Itawamba County Superintendent Michael Nanney.
Nanney said he asked all of his principals on Friday to review the plans for their individual schools. He also had conversations with Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickinson.
“You don’t want to panic because we have these plans in place, and you want to be proactive instead of reactive,” he said.
Details still are emerging about the Connecticut shooting. As schools wait to see what lessons can be learned, Randy Sprick, educational consultant for the national organization Safe and Civil Schools, said it’s important to have a plan in place.
“My only advice in the shorter term is to adhere to, and perhaps review current safety plans,” he said in an email conversation Friday. “In the longer term, review what is learned from the current tragedy to see if there are any additions/modifications that can be made to make the school even safer.”
Local law enforcement officials said they prepare regularly to be ready in case such a situation arises.
Prentiss County Sheriff Randy Tolar said his community began formulating its plan just under two years ago.
“Every officer in Prentiss County and the cities within were trained in active shooter response (when we developed the plan),” he said. “We used one of the schools as a training facility and went through how they would respond in that sort of situation.”
Tolar said his department doesn’t have school resource officers but his deputies are tasked with stopping at each school while on patrol and walking the campus to ensure safety and an established presence in the schools.
The Tupelo Police Department keeps four school resource officers on duty during school hours. One officer is always on duty at both Tupelo High School and Tupelo Middle School. Two other resource officers are responsible for floating among the city’s 11 other schools.
Tupelo Police Sgt. Terry Morgan said the benefit of having the school resource officer is having a fully-trained police officer assigned to be in the schools.
“You have an armed officer on campus that can address a situation immediately,” Morgan said. “We all have active shooter training so an officer can actually drive to that threat rather than wait for additional backup.”
Tupelo Assistant Superintendent Matthew Dillon said in addition to resource officers, the district also employs security officers and uses faculty to patrol and monitor its buildings at various points during the day. The district also has a crisis management plan it reviews regularly and discusses in meetings. He also said the district will learn from the details that emerge from Friday’s shooting.
“We try to make sure we are prepared for any type of scenario that has happened in the past or could happen,” Dillon said. “We try to make sure the safety of our students and faculty and staff is the first thing on our mind.”
Lee County Schools Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said his district has five school resource officers and tells each campus to keep any doors locked that it can. It also reviews its crisis plan annually.
“I will tell my principals at our staff meeting on Monday to get those crisis manuals back out and go over them,” he said. “Let’s make sure you’ve done all of the required drills. Let’s keep people aware and keep this on the front burner.”
Mississippi Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said in a statement it is important for the state’s schools to be prepared for such situations.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic news in Connecticut today,” House said. “Our hearts and prayers are with the students, teachers, administrators, families and the entire community.
“In Mississippi, we know superintendents and principals are vigilant in ensuring safeguards are in place. We will continue to review our policies and procedures for any improvements.”
News of the shooting was haunting for parents locally.
“I don’t even have words,” said Tupelo’s Carley Johnston, the mother of four girls. “The loss of a child is devastating to any family.”
Tupelo’s Harry Rayburn said he feels that the city’s schools do a “great job” with safety but that things can still happen.
“Your first reaction is you want to go and pick up your kids,” said Rayburn, who has a daughter in third grade and a son in first grade. “Any time an event like this happens, it makes you think, are our school safe?…The reality is you can have everything in place, but there are crazy people out there.”
Nettleton Superintendent Russell Taylor said tragedies like Friday’s are a reminder to be extra cautious. He said the district had a discussion on Friday afternoon about its preparations.
“You can’t afford not to think about that,” Taylor said. “It is the most unpleasant plan you’ll ever go through and the most unpleasant thing you’ll talk about, but you can’t afford not to talk about it so everyone is where they need to be.”