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Back to School:

School Safety, Innovations
Back to School:
AROUND THE TABLE - Toombs County School System Principals gathered at the Board Office last week to discuss protocols and innovations for the new school year. From left, Principal Marissa Morris, Toombs County High School; Principal T.J. Mercer, Toombs County Middle School; Assistant Principal Reggie Roberts, Lyons Primary; Superintendent Barry Waller; Principal Rhonda Stone, Lyons Upper Elementary; and, Destiny Levant, Toombs Central Elementary.Photo by Deborah Clark
Back to School:
AROUND THE TABLE - Toombs County School System Principals gathered at the Board Office last week to discuss protocols and innovations for the new school year. From left, Principal Marissa Morris, Toombs County High School; Principal T.J. Mercer, Toombs County Middle School; Assistant Principal Reggie Roberts, Lyons Primary; Superintendent Barry Waller; Principal Rhonda Stone, Lyons Upper Elementary; and, Destiny Levant, Toombs Central Elementary.Photo by Deborah Clark

Summer break is almost over and a new school year is just around the corner. Preparations for the classes of 2022-2023 are in the final stages.

Several “Back to School” bashes have been held or are coming up soon, and open houses and orientations are scheduled. (Look inside today’s “Back to School” edition for open house dates, dress codes, calendars and more.)

First to welcome area students back will be Montgomery County, which begins classes on Monday, August 1. Vidalia City Schools, Toombs County Schools, Vidalia Heritage Academy, and Robert Toombs Christian Academy start classes on Friday, August 5. Wheeler County, which is putting the final touches on a new school, will not start classes until September 6.

Administrators and instructors are busy with curricula, scheduling, and numerous other activities connected with launching a new term, but because of recent events in continued from page

communities across America, including the recent tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, providing a safe environment in which to learn is an issue on everyone’s mind.

In an effort to inform our readers about how area schools are working to keep students, instructors and staff safe as they continue to deliver quality education, The Advance sent a questionnaire to area School Superintendents. Questions were based on a recent speech by Governor Brian Kemp that outlined Georgia’s school safety protocols. These measures included $30,000 per school to implement school security measures; APEX funding to address student mental health issues; and state-sponsored training for School Resource Officers. The Superintendents were also asked for an overview of their system’s approach to school safety and how faculty, staff and students have been prepared to respond in a crisis.

The Superintendents’ responses follow.

Montgomery County Schools

The Montgomery County School System is working to increase their school safety protocols with many new and continued practices, including the implementation of a new School Resource Officer (SRO) at the Elementary School.

School Resource Officers

Deputy Melinda Williams graduated from the Georgia Police Academy on June 22, 2022, and will be serving at the school campus throughout the year. Though a recent police graduate, Williams is not new to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, as she served as a dispatcher for the county from 2016-2020. “Melinda is a loyal and dedicated employee and resident of Montgomery County,” Sheriff Doug Maybin commented. “She will be an asset to our team.”

Deputy Justin Phillips will continue to serve as the SRO for the middle and high school campuses. According to Montgomery County Assistant Superintendent Brian Barnhill, in addition to training with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, both Phillips and Williams are required to attend the School Safety Training Center in Forsyth annually to receive training in law enforcement, counseling, and emergency management, and to learn how to increase positive student behavior and implement comprehensive safety plans.

The deputies also show their presence within the campuses, as their patrol cars are parked outside the schools and the officers frequently walk the halls.

Use of State Funds

Barnhill also said that the school utilized funds received from the state for school safety to purchase safety “call badges” for the elementary school personnel, which enable staff members to contact administration and emergency personnel immediately in case of an emergency. Staff members will wear these badges at all times to ensure they may have this form of communication if needed.

Safety Plan

Each year, the administrators of the Montgomery County School System review and update a comprehensive safety plan that addresses protocols for severe weather, internal and external threats, and medical emergencies on campus. These procedures are practiced as each campus so that if the need arises, all staff and students are prepared to deal with the situation.

Entrances and exits at all school campuses require visitors to be admitted by staff to enter the schools further than the reception areas. To accomplish this, visitors complete a checkin system, in which a receptionist checks the identification of visitors and the purpose in their visit. Previously, only receptionists at the middle and high schools sat behind bulletproof glass to conduct this business; yet, Barnhill says that the elementary school will now be equipped with this security. Each school also has a free-standing metal detector on its campus, which is used randomly to screen students coming onto campus. These devices are used during sporting events as well, along with law enforcement presence. Training for Staff and Students Barnhill says that ensuring the school system is secure and prepared in case of emergency is his primary focus to starting the school year. He is conducting walkthroughs prior to school starting to learn more about the campuses, and will work closely with law enforcement and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) to ensure the staff and students feel safe while at school. Currently, as part of the System’s safety plans, schools regularly conduct lockdown drills to help prepare students and staff for protocols in the event of internal or external threats. Barnhill said that plans are also being made for local law enforcement to be onsite during lockdown drills at the campuses to participate in the simulation and ensure the practice is effective in securing the campus. Active shooter drills are also planned to be conducted with staff on teacher workdays.

Vidalia City Schools

School Resource Officers

According to Superintendent Garrett Wilcox, SROs within the Vidalia City School System have completed training with both the specialized SRO program and the Vidalia Police Department (VPD). These officers, along with other officers from the VPD, can be found on campus frequently in order to make the security presence known.

Use of State Funds

Wilcox said the school has not yet decided how to spend the state funding for safety but is currently reviewing its options.

Safety Plan

All campuses of the Vidalia City School System utilize a secure access system similar to Montgomery County Schools, as well as the implementation of cameras throughout campus. Training for Staff and Students Wilcox also commented on the training that the school system provides for staff and students. “We have protocols in place in each school’s safety plan that would hopefully dictate an appropriate response to a crisis situation,” he explained.

Wheeler County Schools

On September 6, Wheeler County students will be moving into a new facility that accommodates all grade levels under one roof. School superintendent Suzanne Couey described how state funding was used to improve safety at the previous system facilities and how these improvements will be transferred to the new school.

Use of State Funds

Wheeler received a total of $90,000 ($30,000 per school) in state funding for addressing safety protocol. “We purchased a new intercom/ alert system for the middle/high school that we are moving to the new school and expanding to include the elementary side; and added fencing at the elementary school to secure a playground area which we will be able to move to the new school site.”

She noted, “We purchased visitor/employee/ student sign-in system that screens all visitors by driver’s license and prints labels with picture Ids. The system also generates an automatic roster of students and staff currently on site in case of an emergency. We will move this system to the new school as well and expand it.”

Couey added that the school system also purchased exterior and interior signage for all buildings to assist law enforcement responders in locating classrooms in an emergency.

APEX/Mental Health

“Our schools work with APEX counselors on a regular basis through Community Mental Health (Community Service Board of Middle Georgia) in Dublin to provide services to students,” Couey said, explaining that CMH has also begun a “Parent Café” each month for parents to promote family mental health. “We will be extending our partnership with CMH through the teleconferencing equipment purchased with USDA grant funds we were awarded last year. That equipment should be in place this fall,” Couey said.

Resource Officers

The system’s resource officer communicates with Wheeler’s local GEMA representative and other law enforcement officials on a regular basis. The officer attends regular training through the Wheeler County Sheriff’s Office and attended the GEMA School Safety Conference in Columbus last month. This was the conference at which Governor Kemp announced future funding for expanded training for resource officers. “We will certainly explore those opportunities once they are made available,” Couey assured.

Best Practices for School SafetyA rchitects designed Wheeler County’s new school to comply with best practices for school safety, and the building will include state-of-the-art security systems.

“Our middle students will no longer have to travel to exterior buildings for elective classes (e.g., P.E., Ag., band, art). Exterior doors will remain locked at all times, and front entrances are designed for maximum safety,” Couey stated.

School administrators have been working throughout the summer to develop safety procedures for the new building. “We will practice them extensively with staff members during preplanning,” Couey noted.

“We practice safety procedures with students and staff on a regular basis, and staff members also have quick reference guides for numerous scenarios (e.g., student health emergency, severe weather),” Couey said.

System staff members have received “Stop the Bleed” emergency response training, and multiple staff members are CPR-certified. “We will be utilizing a new system next school year, which will provide every staff member with an emergency response ‘badge’ that can immediately alert administrators and local law enforcement and initiate emergency procedures throughout the school,” Couey said. Toombs County Schools

Safety First Priority

“The safety of our students, instructors and staff is our number one priority. We want all of our kids to feel safe coming to school,” Toombs County School Superintendent Barry Waller said last week as he and the system’s principals provided a preview of the coming school year. During “Principal’s Media Day” on Tuesday, Waller and his school administrators offered insight into both standard protocol and innovations for the new term. Waller and the principals addressed a number of proactive projects intended to create not only a safe environment in which to learn but a solid foundation for positivity on the school campuses. Since school safety has been on everyone’s minds following the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, Waller outlined safety protocols that are in place. Toombs County recently purchased a crisis alert system (Centigix) that augments safety measures already in use. All school employees already have a badge that is required to enter all exterior doors. continued from page

Each school’s entrance requires visitors to “buzz” in at the front door and then be screened by front office staff for admission. “This was implemented a couple of years ago,” Waller said, noting all exterior doors stay locked.

With the new crisis alert system, additional badges have been issued to staff and in the event of an emergency, staff can press the button on the badge three times and alert administrators’ phones, sending a message to respond to a specific location. If staff presses the button eight times, this action results in a full school lockdown. “The first line of defense in our emergency preparedness plan is to lock down and contact 911,” Waller said. Instructors, staff and students at all schools are drilled on emergency response to fire and weatherrelated situations, as well as to intruder situations. “The good news is that we have a great relationship with law enforcement and they are willing to come anytime and to provide training,” Waller said.

A school resource officer is stationed at the high school but can be posted anywhere throughout the system. During the school day a Sheriff’s Deputy patrols the grid area of Toombs Central for quick response. Back campuses are secured with fencing with electronic gate locks.

Toombs County High School Principal Marissa Morris explained that a phone app (Premysis) that she and a limited number of administrators can log into monitors exterior doors. The app allows for doors to be secured remotely and can detect when a door has been left ajar.

Destiny Levant, Toombs Central Principal noted that with the area in such close proximity to Plant Hatch in Baxley, emergences at the nuclear plant have been folded into the system’s preparedness plans. She also mentioned that system staff undergoes “Stop the Bleed” training as a response protocol for shooting incidents. Innovations in the New Term The 7 Mindsets This year, the Toombs County School System is rolling out a new teaching component for social-emotional learning called “The 7 Mindsets.” “It’s the old character education on steroids — a full emersion of each school teaching social-emotional learning — and this program is really gaining traction nationwide with mental health professionals,” Waller said. The “7 Mindsets” is an approach based on the premise that success depends less on what a person knows and much more significantly on how he or she thinks. “The 7 Mindsets” Academy teaches the mindsets in schools and youth organizations. For students, benefits are significant and measurable: increased self-determination and self-awareness; improved behavior; test scores and graduation rates; greater confidence and engagement.

“Teachers don’t have to come up with lessons platforms, they can simply log into the program to find grade appropriate content. It is a student friendly program and we hope to involve the parents in the process,” Waller said. This year, the program will be available to grades K-8, but high school students will have some aspects of the program available to them. Waller said the school system is operating the program in the lower grades as a pilot with plans to expand to the high school at a later date.

He noted that counselors and assistant principals will be utilizing the mindsets in conjunction with disciplinary measures. “We are looking at the whole child. How can they make the right decision? If you can’t deal with their mindset, the reading and the math will not come along as well.”

The High School has also hired a behavior support specialist who will be handling some assistant principal duties and providing mental health counseling as well. T. J. Mercer, who is starting his first year as principal of Toombs County Middle School, is hopeful that “Mindsets” can help students in transition successfully through the trying years from sixth to eighth grade. “They come in as babies and we hope they leave as young men and ladies. The middle school counselor said she had days when she did not leave her office because she was counseling students throughout the day. Our hope is that 7 Mindsets, as part of the social studies curriculum, will be proactive and help student to navigate this age.”

Communcations Plan

Toombs County is now in its second year with its systemwide strategic plan. This plan includes communications initiatives.

“We live in and information rich society and we are looking for ways to communicate better with parents and the community,” Waller said.

Former principal Tabitha Nobles has been named public information officer for the System. She and her communications team will stay in touch through various media channels with the community to keep parents and residents abreast of developments at the TC school campuses.

Among Nobles’ duties will be spreading the word about the mindset theme of the month in hopes of getting parents and the community on board with focusing on these themes, such as theme 1: “Everything Is Possible: dream big, embrace creativity and expect great results.”

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