The recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School of Connecticut has made us all too aware of the need to find answers regarding our children's safety in the classroom. Solutions run the gambit - from installing medal detectors, to posting armed guards, to arming the teachers. Williamsburg County School District is no different.
Williamsburg County Emergency Management (WCEM) has partnered with Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office and Kingstree, Lane, Hemingway, and Greeleyville Police Departments to prepare faculty, staff, and administration in the event of an active shooting.
District administration, which for several years has been implementing security measures, made the request to the WCEM. "We're the ones who actually set up the scenarios, develop all the exercises and training programs," said WCEM Director Tiffany Cooks of project dubbed Operation P.A.T. (Preventing Acts of Terrorism). "We'll first undergo a school assessment to check the vulnerability of the schools then training sessions will follow." Sessions will consist of classroom instruction as well as counterterrorism training. Law enforcement in tandem with the agency will conduct the training.
Cooks said the classes are focused on awareness but as things progress they will address the prospect of additional physical law enforcement presence - without making the schools resemble prisons. Currently all but the elementary schools have some form of security, whether it is contract or local law enforcement.
However, in order to expand the presence of security will take additional funding and that opportunity, said Cooks, will open up as things progress. "To make physical changes to an environment takes money. We have to get the plan together then develop our emergency operation plan - because that is one of the things they're going to ask us during the grant phase."
KPD Chief Eric Williams commended the strong show of support. "When you come together and tackle something like this it sends a message," said Williams whose former positions before being hired in September include Homeland Security and SWAT. "And we want to send a message, especially to the people who have intentions of doing something in a terroristic manner, that we see you, we're preparing for you, and we want to deter you."
Williamsburg County Supervisor Stanley Pasley, speaking on behalf of Williamsburg County Council commended the joint effort saying as unfortunate as recent incidents like the tragic shooting in Connecticut create opportunities. "Preparation is worth pounds of cure," said Pasley. "And the fact that we can come together in order to address or be prepared or try to prevent these kind of incidents is very noble. And the fact of the matter is when you have as a deterrent the visibility and the knowledge and the education and informing the community of what is happening then we're going to be better prepared...And when you work together in a collaborative effort like this then it creates opportunities for grants and whatever resources are out there." Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson expanded on Pasley's comments. "We're moving in the right direction," said Johnson. "We see the shooting that happened at Sandy Hook. We see the shootings that happen in this county. We have to prepare for those types of incidents. We have to be prepared for when the unknown happens. And I see that collaboration in this room and working together, especially with E-911 who is our lifeline."
In 2010, the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office conducted an active shooter training operation at the Williamsburg County District Annex that included the county’s police departments and top school district staff. "We started this two years ago and now it is all coming together because of the partnership," said Johnson. "Now, any incident that may happen - that we can think of may happen - we're putting a response to it."
Cooks said future plans are to expand the training to the community, a judicious step that Williamsburg County School District Superintendent Yvonne Jefferson-Barnes agreed with. "The truth is, it isn't just about the schools," said Jefferson-Barnes. "It’s the community and any public entity, any public area. We’re looking at our hospitals and county council sessions, your different office buildings. We can all be at risk, regardless. Everyone needs to be involved in this process."
Taking these steps now may seem extreme to some but if a worse case scenario was to occur, those who are the closest to our children may well be the ones who stop the gunman before the SWAT team arrives. "The key is to be prepared," said Johnson. "But with the training, we will be better able to deal with a situation if one arrives."