The school shootings in Newtown, Conn., on Friday have focused attention on school security in Tennessee, led to pledges to increase the police presence at some schools, and bolstered calls for more school resource officers across the state.
It has also revived an intense debate about gun control in the United States.
The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last week killed 20 children, six adults, the gunman, and his mother. On Tuesday, the National Rifle Association said it was prepared to “offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again” and would have a major news conference on Friday.
In Tennessee, a few legislators have proposed requiring school resource officers in all schools, training at least one staff member to use firearms, or allowing teachers to carry handguns into schools not patrolled by armed police officers. But it’s not yet clear how much support—or funding—those proposals will have.
In Oak Ridge, Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer said education officials will continue to advocate for more school resource officers, or SROs. But local officials said adding SROs could depend upon funding.
In Anderson County, Mayor Terry Frank sent out information on Tuesday on the positive measures taken this week by the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department after last week’s shooting, including four walk-throughs at Dutch Valley Elementary School on Monday.
“The Mayor’s Office thought you might be interested in knowing what local law enforcement officials are doing to keep our children—Anderson County’s future—safe,” a statement said.
Fillauer said the Oak Ridge school system now has one SRO, but once had three: one at the high school and two at each of the middle schools. The officers have primarily been funded by the city, but Fillauer suggested some funding priorities might need to be reconsidered to add officers.
“It has to be a partnership between the schools and the city to fund that,” Fillauer said.
He said Oak Ridge schools are, for the most part, very secure. Visitors to many local school buildings have to be “buzzed in,” and that security feature is being added at other facilities. All the local schools have features designed to keep people from walking in undetected and unimpeded, Fillauer said.
Still, he said school officials are always examining and re-examining their security measures.
“If you get too comfortable, that’s when you put yourself in a position to not be as prepared as you need to be,” Fillauer said.
Children are encouraged to report unusual incidents to staff members and the SRO.
“You have to have a society within the school willing to be part of the security plan,” Fillauer said. “You just don’t know if you’re prepared.”
Any specific proposals in Oak Ridge will likely have to wait until the school system hires a new superintendent or names an interim administrator early next year. The current superintendent, Tom Bailey, is retiring at the end of the year.
The discussions would presumably include school and municipal officials.
“We’re certainly concerned with what happened in Connecticut as well as all the other active shooter incidents that have occurred in the recent past,” Oak Ridge Police Chief James T. Akagi said. “We’re looking at partnering with the schools to provide better prevention and reduction of crime with regard to all students and staff.”
Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, said guns are generally prohibited at or near schools in the state. She doesn’t anticipate any specific legislative action related to last week’s shootings in the upcoming session in the Tennessee General Assembly, but the TEA board will meet in Nashville in January.
“We have always advocated for school safety and crisis management plans,” Summerford said Tuesday. “That’s the main way we approach a situation like this.”
She said Sandy Hook Elementary School had plans in place, so it could be time to look at other options. The school was reportedly locked when the gunman arrived, and he used an assault weapon to shoot his way into the building.
“These things are extremely rare,” Summerford said. “But they are also extremely tragic.”
For now, school officials have focused much of their attention on the heroic actions of the educators who tried to save children during the Newtown shootings, and concern for the families and teachers affected by the massacre.
“Whenever there’s a crisis that affects schoolchildren and educators anywhere in the county, there certainly is an outpouring of support and grief for those involved,” Summerford said. “We are a community.”
The TEA said its thoughts and prayers were with the victims.
“Such violence against our children is simply unimaginable,” the organization said in a statement. “Like all of you, we will be hugging our loved ones a little tighter this holiday season.”