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Sullivan officials looking at safety for two new schools

Rick Wagner • Aug 29, 2017 at 8:58 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — With Sullivan County in the planning stages of building new schools in a few years, officials are already looking at safety measures.

They include the standard secure entrances where people have to be buzzed in, as well as bullet-resistant film on windows, the latest in security cameras and continuing intruder drills and other safety planning already in place.

Safety discussions inevitably turn to what happened at Sullivan Central High School seven years ago this week, when Thomas Cowan entered the school and pulled a loaded gun on Principal Melanie Riden (now Riden-Bacon) and School Resource Officer Carolyn Gudger.

The 13-minute standoff, which resulted in sheriff's deputies fatally shooting Cowan, prompted the county school system to make various changes, including the addition of security entrances to all its schools. Sheriff Wayne Anderson's efforts to add school resource officers to middle schools failed.

“I hope we have some type of input in it,” Anderson said of security at the two new schools.“The No. 1 priority of the county is the safety of our kids in these schools.”

Plans for new school buildings

One of the things county school board members asked about when they first saw the architect’s rendering of the new high school was the wall of glass windows on the front.

That $60 million building — to be located off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 — is to be sized for about 1,700 students, taking in all students from the current Sullivan North and South high school zones and most of the students from Central.

Anderson and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski have both referenced a film that can be applied to that glass to make it bullet resistant. Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Co. and 3M both make that type of film. Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent Andy True said KCS has installed the film on many of its buildings.

“There’s not real bullet-proof glass. There’s bullet-resistant,” Anderson said.

Rafalowski said initial plans to have two or three entrances to the new middle school have been changed to one entrance for safety reasons. That school is to be built near Sullivan East High School.

For the new high school, Rafalowski said there may be entrances to the campus for outdoor sporting events only. However, with consideration of alternative scheduling, including night classes, she said access along with safety must be considered.

Sheriff would like more SROs

Anderson wishes county schools had more school resource officers, but his efforts to get additional SROs funded have been in vain.

“I had tried before that time. After the shooting, I tried again,” Anderson said. “I couldn’t get it done.”

Two of the school system's four SROs are paid out of the sheriff’s budget, and the other two are paid from the school system budget. When school is out, the SROs do process service and other law enforcement duties.

After the Central shooting, Anderson and then-Director of Schools Jubal Yennie tried to convince Sullivan County commissioners to consider funding more SROs, but their efforts failed. Anderson said he still wants to have more SROs in the schools and believes the new high school and Sullivan East High, which will pick up some Central students, should have two SROs each.

“It’ll probably be good if you had two in each high school with that many students,” Anderson said. “There’s no way around it: We need more SROs. I wish we had them in every school in the county.”

Short of that, however, Sullivan County Sheriff's Office Lt. Lee Carswell, who oversees the four SROs assigned to the county high schools, said since the Central shooting patrol deputies are doing daily walk-throughs in all schools. Kingsport police do this in the city schools. The Kingsport city school system has four SROs: one at each of the two middle schools and two for Dobyns-Bennett, D-B EXCEL and Cora Cox Academy.

“We’ve really increased the presence,” Carswell said. “It always should be in the back of your mind when you go through any of the schools. It (an intruder incident) could happen in Sullivan County,” Carswell said.

The important human element

Officials said there is no “magic bullet” to secure schools from intruders and make them safe. However, a low-tech but crucial part of the safety plan, according to Carswell, is to have students be on the lookout for things that could lead to trouble.

“The people who know the most about what’s going on in the school are the students,” Carswell said. He and former Central High Principal Melanie Riden-Bacon said students, faculty and staff should report any suspicious or unknown folks in a building.

“What is very important is our making the students aware of what could happen and have your students report things that don’t look right,” Riden-Bacon said, adding that the same goes for teachers and staff.

“Students are your best eyes,” Riden-Bacon said. “You teach your students and staff anyone is empowered to call a lockdown. A school can’t take the chance of being wrong.”

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