VHA Goes a Step Further To Protect Campuses
Vidalia Heritage Academy is taking protecting its campuses to the next level. A select number of the school’s staff has been trained as members of a School Response Team whose purpose is to use deadly force — if and when the unthinkable occurs.
Hardening VHA as a Target
On August 2, administrators at Vidalia Heritage Academy held a School Safety and Security Informational meeting on Facebook Live. VHA Head of School Jeff McCormick made clear the intent of the online session. “For all of our VHA families joining us tonight the first thing I want to say is that all the information shared in this meeting is for one purpose only — to protect the most valuable asset at VHA — your children and our staff.”
McCormick went on continued from page
to reference the “tragic and horrific shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas,” that caused virtually every school in the country to reexamine its policies and procedures concerning campus security. McCormick informed those who had joined him online that just two days after the Uvalde incident VHA’s Board of Directors and school administration began to finalize a safety and security plan that had actually begun two years earlier. “The tragedy in Texas became the crescendo to implementing our plans over this summer,” McCormick said.
He pointed out that schools are soft targets filled with defenseless and vulnerable individuals. That is the reason VHA determined, and implemented over the summer, policies, procedures, technology, and defense mechanisms that “harden VHA as a target at all of our facilities.”
The process included meetings and evaluations with both state and local law enforcement officials, and the formation of an internal School Safety Team which meets monthly to assess threats, report on staff and student safety violations alike, and to continually seek to improve readiness in the event of some active threat. “Our goal is to never allow anyone intent on harming our students or staff into our buildings or on even on our campus grounds,” McCormick stress.
McCormick reinforced the reasoning behind the new policies at VHA. “If you think it can’t happen here — think again. Look at the crime statistics here locally — drugs, gang activity, mental health issues, homelessness, not to mention the number of murders that have occurred over the last couple of years in our piece of small town America. Putting it into perspective, Uvalde, Texas, has only a couple of thousand more people than Vidalia,” McCormick pointed out.
“When the unthinkable does happen swift response time is critical,” McCormick noted. When a gunman walked into Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 and murdered 17 students and staff, it was more than 3 minutes after the first shot before a Code Red, indicating an active threat, was reported. And it was more than 4 minutes before the school was placed on lockdown. Everyone that died was shot within 3 minutes of the gunman’s arrival — the gunman left the building after only 5 ½ minutes inside, blending in with other students escaping.
It was more than 11 minutes after the first shot before law enforcement entered the building — and there was an armed deputy on duty at the school serving as the School Resource Officer who never entered the building or engaged the gunman. “And of course, the horror of Uvalde is fresh on our minds,” Mc-Cormick stated.
In actuality, VHA begin thinking about hardening its target as far back as 2012 after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Security was tightened, but as more school shootings occurred, VHA considered doing more.
McCormick appealed to those joining in the Facebook Live session, “Please hear my heart and the heart of our Board of Directors — we never want to have to stand before you after some horrific event and explain to you why we cowered behind locked doors waiting for help to arrive as students and staff lost their lives.”
School Response Team
The VHA School Response Team is armed and trained to run toward any threat to students and staff and neutralize or eliminate that threat, McCormick said. The VHA program is patterned after a successful effort in Laurens County.
Four years ago, the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office and the Laurens County School Board developed a program through which it would evaluate, equip, train, and arm school employees to engage any active threat in Lauren’s 9 schools. “They were the first school system in the state to do so. Since that time, Laurens County has trained numerous school systems in and outside of the state of Georgia through this program,” Mc-Cormick noted. This summer, a select group of staff members at VHA engaged in and completed this training.
In early June VHA administration informed its staff of the program, its rigor, its risks, and its commitment. Over 20 of the VHA employees volunteered, but, in the end, a much smaller number was selected for participation.
Before entering the program each team member had to pass an extensive psychological evaluation and IQ exam administered by a licensed psychologist, attend a “Stop the Bleed” training course provided by Toombs County EMS, and become CPR certified through the American Heart Association. The training provided through Laurens County is intense. The VHA team received instruction on using proper judgment, as well as current laws relating to the use of force for the defense of self or others — all before ever stepping foot on the shooting range, Mc- Cormick said. When the team did arrive on the range, training on gun safety was the top priority. After that, the team was trained in marksmanship, firing over 800 rounds individually during their time on the range. To verify that team members are both proficient and safe with their weapon, they were required to qualify on the range — just as any law enforcement officer in the state of Georgia would do—by passing the Georgia Semi-Automatic Pistol Qualification Course conducted by a qualified Range Master.
“I am proud to report that each member did so with flying colors. However, unlike most law enforcement officers in Georgia, our team is required to train on the range with a qualified Firearms Instructor each month,” McCormick noted. The team members are also required to pass the qualification course annually.
After qualifying on the range the team began training for active shooter scenarios. All of this was done under the guidance of seasoned law enforcement, SWAT, and former military personnel. The team trained as individuals, as pairs, and as a group. “Again, each member of the team passed this portion with very high marks. As a part of our ongoing policy, team members are required participate in Active Shooter Drills quarterly. Through all of this our team was trained to run toward and neutralize or eliminate any threat to children and staff.“ No Outward Changes
The extra measures taken to protect students and staff will not be obvious outwardly. “No classroom teacher or paraprofessional is going to be walking around with a weapon attached to them — we believe that would be detrimental to what we are here first and foremost to do — provide a Christcentered education to your children,” McCormick told parents and guardians in his Facebook Live comments.
All approved weapons and ammunition are secured and locked placed strategically in the system’s three buildings. For safety and security reasons the locations where the weapons will be kept are known only to team members and to administrators. Also, for safety and security reasons the names and number of team members are known only to school administration and board members. “These team members are also known to our local law enforcement so they are identifiable in the event law enforcement enters the building during an active threat,” McCormick assured.
McCormick, who has been principal at VHA for 16 years, said, “There is so much more to our plans than simply arming and training a select group of employees to engage an active threat—and we have put so much thought and planning into all of them. Why, because these are “our” kids. We spend 7.5 hours a day, 180 days per year with them and we are vitally connected to them as our family.” He emphasized, “These team members are the people who are with these students everyday — and already close in the event of a crisis. We are not going to wait and sit by idly by and hope that law enforcement gets here in time.” VHA parents and guardians, who were emailed copies of the new policy, were invited to contact the school with any concerns or comments. McCormick said so far, no one has objected. “It’s been nothing but praise. They say, ‘Thank you for protecting our children. The world is crazy.’ ” Response from the Board of Directors and the school staff has been unanimously supportive, he added. Before VHA administrators announced the new plan to staff and parents, they met with Vidalia and Toombs County law enforcement to advise them of the new protocol. The school is also working to develop and refine its relationship with local law enforcement, specifically regarding immediate notification in the event of community emergencies that necessitate a school lockdown. McCormick said he is not aware of any other schools in this area, outside of Laurens County, which is instituting a similar plan to VHA’s. McCormick commented on the fact that the willingness to use deadly force in a Christian-centered school may be controversial for many. “I believe that it is easy to reconcile protecting our children with Christian beliefs. We are not police; we are not here to arrest. We are here because these are our children and we are entrusted with their protection. How could we say that we believe in the sanctity of life when these children might be needlessly harmed because nobody did anything? There is nothing Christian about letting that take place.”