Hawkins sheriff: Communication, training the best defense against school violence

Jeff Bobo • Mar 7, 2018 at 8:15 PM

ROGERSVILLE — A week after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead, Hawkins County deputies descended on Volunteer High School to investigate rumors of a potential violent act.

Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said a student was overheard stating he planned on shooting himself, but following an investigation it was determined that the student was talking about a video game.

“I had detectives and SROs on the scene conducting an investigation, and in this case it turned out that there was no threat,” Lawson said. “Our officers follow up on all leads and rumors. If someone hears about a possible attack or threat of violence at a school, we want to hear about it. Let us determine whether it is true or false.”

He added, “We don’t mind checking out 999 false rumors as long as we catch the one that’s true and prevent a possible tragedy in one of our schools. When you hear or see something, notify somebody, whether it be a teacher, parent or school SRO.”

Arming teachers not the solution

Hawkins County has 11 HCSO school resource officers serving 19 schools —  some working full time at one school, and some splitting time between schools.

Lawson said he would like to have a full-time SRO at each, but that would be cost prohibitive at this time.

Lawson said he doesn’t believe arming teachers is the solution. His concern is that teachers and plain-clothes police couldn’t tell each other from the shooter.

“It could be an option if teachers took the same training that police officers take,” Lawson said. “My biggest concern is if we have officers in plain clothes from our narcotics units. Teachers aren’t going to be able to tell the suspects from the police officers.”

Communication and training are the best defense

Lawson said the best weapon right now against school violence is communication and training.

For the next several weeks, armed deputies and/or municipal police are training with school faculty and staff on a school shooter scenario.

There was also a countywide active shooter scenario training last summer at Joseph Rogers Primary School. That event included multiple police, rescue EMS, fire, dispatch and EMA officials and agencies.

“We’ve done that for the past couple of years and we’re doing it again this year,” Lawson said. “This training familiarizes teachers with what to expect from officers during an actual event, and it gives our officers a better knowledge of each school’s layout and experience working with teachers on campus. It’s a learning tool for everyone.”

Cooperation between police and schools is essential

Lawson said an important aspect of school safety is the strong partnership between the HCSO, municipal police departments and the schools.

During a recent Hawkins County Board of Education meeting, Chairman Bob Larkins asked Director of Schools Steve Starnes to give a report on the status of school safety.

“We conducted a training in a school this past Monday (Feb. 26), and the next three Mondays in a row we have training scheduled in conjunction with the sheriff’s office and municipal officers,” Starnes said. “Obviously we conduct drills, and I’ve asked all the principals to implement as part of their safety team, that our safety team routinely walks the school to look for not only safety issues, but maintenance issues to make sure we’re staying on top of those issues. Also, talking with our staff, this isn’t something that a staff member or student wants to have happen at our schools, but this is something that we continuously focus on.”

See something, say something

Starnes noted that faculty and administrators attend training routinely through the state department and the Tennessee Organization of School superintendents.

School safety expert Michael Dorn conducted assessments of Hawkins County schools and worked with principals in creating and updating safety plans and procedures.

“We’re always looking for a way to improve,” Starnes said. “I think the strongest thing we can do is having our students and staff members — there’s kind of a slogan, ‘See something, say something.’ That’s our biggest defense. Any kind of rumors we do follow up on. We’ve been involved with the sheriff’s office, and if there’s been a rumor reported, we chase those down and investigate those. We’ve actually gone so far as to do home visits.

“We have addressed some rumors and investigated those and taken appropriate action as needed. Not an open record because we don’t want to share those with the general public.”

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