10/20/13 — WCPS: Safety still a priority

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WCPS: Safety still a priority

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 20, 2013 1:50 AM

If parents think it's tough maintaining order in their own home, try implementing rules and regulations for more than 19,000 students.

While Wayne County Public Schools has never experienced a tragedy like Columbine or a Sandy Hook, safety procedures have changed markedly in recent years as security remains a priority.

There are plenty of laws and policies in place to create a safe learning environment, school officials say. Some of them can be customized for the local school system, while others are strictly regulated.

This year's local headline-making incidents have included a student being tasered during a fight at school and two high school students charged with making threatening comments.

"With any youthful behavior incident that can occur rapidly, without warning, we can be thankful that we have our SRO (school resource officer) at the high school level and transitional SRO that moves from middle school to middle school," Allison Pridgen, director of student support services, said.

The assigned officers play a critical role in the schools, Mrs. Pridgen said, but are not limited to handling crises.

"You don't hear about the assemblies they conduct. Our SROs are very active in our high schools," she said. "And when a disciplinary issue arises where SROs are involved, there are things that the administrators can do and things that our law enforcement is trained to do.

"Our (Goldsboro) Police Chief Jeff Stewart and Sheriff (Carey) Winders hand-pick the officers that they're going to put into the schools. They need experience. When you're working with other people's children, you want to make sure you're making the right decision in accordance with the law."

The severity of the situation will usually dictate who handles it, she noted.

"Sometimes the principal has to step aside and allow the officer to invoke the law," she said. "The principal does not have the authority to say, 'I want you to arrest him or take him to jail.' There's a fine line and the officer has to take over.

"There have been times when principals have said to me, 'I wish the arrest didn't have to occur but the officer acts in accordance with the expectations of their job and the law.'"

In her 16 years as hearing officer for the district, she said the majority of referrals she handles fall into in two categories -- weapons and illegal drugs.

"It can be a knife or a pen, not a firearm, which is a category by itself," she said, explaining that the consequence for bringing an actual gun to school carries an entirely different penalty.

"Public law requires the superintendent to suspend a student for 365 days for possession of a firearm on campus," she said. "The Board of Education cannot reduce that. It's 365, hard and fast."

School personnel are also expected to be trained in and familiar with district policies and a crisis manual, both of which are regularly updated.

"Our teachers do have a protocol with regard to a crisis. They know what that protocol is, they train that protocol -- (for example) when there's a communication of a bomb threat, whether it was actively voiced or written on a bathroom wall with a hot pink magic marker," Mrs. Pridgen said.

But there is one variable over which school systems have no control.

"We open the doors and the public comes in," she said. "I think first and foremost people need to understand that we throw open our doors every day and we take what's brought to us. When you bring the public in, you're going to have some behavior issues. It's seldom unavoidable."

The population served is a "microcosm of the community," she said.

"Our community unfortunately is not arrest-free. It's not crime-free. So unfortunately I think it's easier to understand why these things will come from the community into the schools and quite often there are things that brew in the community so culminate on the school grounds," she said. "Those can be difficult to deal with as well.

"As a public entity we deal with more than 19,000 other people's, as my mother used to call them, OPC's, other people's children. There's no such thing as being too careful. We err on the side of caution and what's in the best interest of the 19,000 children that come to us every day."

As behavioral issues have escalated, so have the incidents of suspensions. But Mrs. Pridgen suggested that one of the least favorite things a principal has to do is suspend a student.

"We went into education to give the child a good sound education and when you suspend them, that education does not occur," she said.

The decision to suspend a student, whether short- or long-term, or to send him to an alternative school is not taken lightly, she added. And even though it is the child's behavior that puts him in that position, every effort is made, where allowed, to avoid far-reaching consequences.

In the more extreme cases, though, such as the 365-day suspension, Mrs. Pridgen said there is little leeway -- no alternative placement; reciprocal agreements between counties and states preventing students from enrolling there.

"A child can end up more behind than a school year depending on when they're in possession of a firearm," she said. "Say it happens in November. They lose that semester, the next semester and the following one."

The age of offenders also seems to be getting younger and younger, Mrs. Pridgen said.

"Before the law changed several years ago I saw just as many middle schools as I did high school for the very same things, weapons and illegal drugs," she said. "Every year we see more and more serious issues with the elementary schools. They can't go to an alternate school because that's strictly for grades 6-12, but we have had elementary children that have brought knives in school."

By now, Mrs. Pridgen said, parents and children should be aware of policies and laws -- as well as the student code of conduct, handed out to students and available online, and which parents have to sign a form acknowledging they have seen it.

Ultimately, she said, it's all about common sense.

"Parents and citizens in Wayne County need to understand that if it's against the law in the community, it's against the law in the schools," she said.