HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County officials gathered nine days after the Parkland, Florida, massacre to discuss school safety concerns with the community. Sundance Grill was filled to near-capacity during Friday’s Movers and Shakers morning meeting as residents congregated to hear School Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong and Sheriff Clinton share their thoughts in the aftermath of the tragedy. Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith, and Hiawassee Council Amy Barrett and Kris Berrong attended the weekly forum.
“It is extremely sad that we even have to have this conversation, that schools are put in a position like this where students are unsafe,” Dr. Berrong began. “I would love to stand here and say this would never happen in Towns County, that we’re one hundred percent safe, but the truth is there’s nobody who can say that.”
Superintendent Berrong informed the group that each teacher is provided with a standard 57-page emergency operations plan before providing measures to take in an active shooter situation. Dr. Berrong advised students and faculty to escape if possible. If unable to safely exit, the second best course of action is to fight back, throwing chairs or other available objects to immobilize or distract the shooter until the assailant is subdued. Berrong also suggested a wood wedge and a hammer, which if placed in classrooms, could be used to secure doors from the inside, preventing an active attacker from gaining entry.
Dr. Berrong says a training course will be provided to school faculty on March 27, teaching bleeding control and supplying kits, in the event first aid is necessary while awaiting the arrival of medical responders.
“We were getting that training regardless of what had just happened,” the superintendent shared.
Dr. Berrong went on to say the school is looking into ALICE program training. ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. The ALICE website states their mission is to change the way people respond to active shooters while removing the “it can’t happen to me” mentality.
Superintendent Berrong says the school has a “Crisis Go” system, which alerts personnel of emergency situations through their cellular devices. Berrong also explained there are panic buttons located throughout the school that notify law enforcement and administration of the exact location of an emergency situation when activated. A false alarm occurred a few years ago when the button was accidentally pressed by a student, resulting in a stealthy one minute, 23 second response time from the Towns County Sheriff’s Office.
Dr. Berrong states there are no students on his radar within the Towns County school system that raise his concern. “I think our school is as safe or safer than any other school I can think of,” Berrong said.
Both Superintendent Berrong and Sheriff Clinton acknowleged the dedication and competence of school resource officer, Deputy Donnie Jarrard, assuring a situation like the one that occurred in Florida, where the officer did not enter the building to engage the shooter, is not of concern.
Sheriff Clinton, a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment, conveyed the violence was a “condition of the human heart” and relayed the best course of action is to make the school a harder target to strike. In the event of an active shooter scenario, Sheriff Clinton reiterated Dr. Berrong’s instruction to retaliate if a safe escape is not available. “Buy us time,” the sheriff advised. Sheriff Clinton says the Towns County Sheriff’s Office is trained to immediately eradicate the threat prior to rendering aid to those wounded. “We’re coming to silence the gun,” the sheriff affirmed.
While some details on precautions were omitted for security reasons, Sheriff Clinton assured the community that the Towns County Sheriff’s Office trains accordingly. “If I know something you don’t know, I have the tactical advantage,” the sheriff explained.
Members of the group inquired whether the installation of metal detectors at entry points, arming the teachers, or hiring a second school officer would deter a shooter. In reference to the metal detectors, due to the activity level of persons entering the facility, Superintendent Berrong replied, “We would literally have to hire someone to stand there. We can buy one and stick it up there, but that isn’t going to stop a shooter.” Sheriff Clinton says his office may seek grants for an additional officer, but it is ultimately up to the community to decide what level of security they want in place. Both officials implied they did not believe the arming of teachers was the proper response. Sheriff Clinton mentioned discussing the topic with a teacher at the school, relaying in her own words that there are many things her classroom needs, but a gun is not one of them.
Mental health issues were raised, leading the sheriff to reveal he believes the state of Georgia is doing a “terrible job” in terms of treatment.
Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw briefly addressed the listeners at the conclusion of the meeting, assuring that the sheriff and superintendent do not take the threat of violence lightly: “It’s on their minds every day.”
Community concerns related to school safety can be submitted anonymously to the Towns County Sheriff’s Office by dialing 706-896-3697.