CLARKESVILLE – School safety remains a paramount concern, and officials in Habersham County will take steps Monday to ensure the county’s schools are as safe as possible.
“We believe we’ve been leading the state of Georgia when it comes to school safety,” said Superintendent Matthew Cooper. “We have initiatives here like Raider Report that no other school system in Georgia has. We’ve added resource officers. We added a mental health counselor – the first system in this region to do that.”
The Raider Report was inspired from the “See something, say something” movement and allows law enforcement to see geofenced messages about current or past suspicious activity, while allowing the community to capture images, video or audio of suspicious activity and autonomously send it to the closest school.
On Monday, the Habersham County Board of Education will approve one of 18 proposals for replacement of outdated and analog cameras on 13 school campuses. Habersham Central High School already replaced its camera system.
“We’ve identified security cameras as a real need,” Cooper said. “We need to upgrade those in our elementary schools, middle schools and our ninth grade academy. We have received the state school safety security grant from the governor, and we’re very appreciative of that.”
Habersham County School System Technology Director Dennis Unbehant said the existing cameras don’t provide the quality of images needed nor do they make it easy to “pull” images needed in investigations or incidents.
Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Kemp approved the school safety grants in the amount of $30,000 per school to be used by June 30, 2020. Local school systems must advance fund grant projects but will be reimbursed from money in the state budget.
That forward-funding requirement can provide a challenge for school systems that don’t have reserve funding on hand, Cooper said. Fortunately, Habersham County is not in that situation and has available funds.
Habersham County will receive $420,000 in state funds ($30,000 each for 14 campuses) to address some of those security concerns.
Cooper said in many systems officials would have required schools to spend their school safety money on cameras because it is a system need.
“The problem with that is we had principals and schools telling us they needed other things,” Cooper said. “I didn’t want to put our schools in a situation where we told them how to spend their grant money when they needed other things.”
One of the concerns, especially among administrators at the county’s eight elementary schools, is allowing people access into the building.
“All of our schools expressed that they needed a visitor management system,” Cooper said. “What is a visitor management system? Raptor is probably the best-known visitor management system out there on the market.”
The Raptor Visitor Management System is used in more than 26,000 schools nationwide to protect students and staff. The system screens for sex offenders, alerts staff of custody violations, and provides districtwide reporting for all visitors.
“When a parent or visitor, anyone that comes in that building, they have to produce their driver’s license or government-issued I.D. to get in the building,” Cooper said. “Raptor will scan your government I.D. and it will immediately perform a background check on that individual. If you’re on the Sex Offender Registry, it pops up and no, you can’t get in that school.”
The system also has other management applications, such as printing a visitor badge once the visitor or volunteer is screened.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Cooper said. “It creates a safer environment when you have a visitor management system. Right now, the plan is that every school – with their remaining safety grant money – they’re going to purchase that visitor management system. They also expressed to me that they needed new radios, and that’s important.”
Cooper used an elementary school as an example of why reliable radios are important.
“You need radios on your playground, radios in the P.E. gym, radios in your kitchen,” Cooper said. “You need radios, obviously, in your office areas. All your custodians need to carry a radio; they are in effect security guards at the school. They’re out and about all day. They’re outside and they know what’s going on.”
Currently, most schools have aging portable radios.
“We want to put radios in the hands of everyone we can put them, but also make sure that they work properly,” Cooper said. “What’s happened is over the years you end up with three or four different brands, they don’t all communicate with each other, so we decided this is a great thing to spend your safety money on, so all of the schools are replacing their old radios, they’re getting new batteries. We’re going to have significant radio upgrades.”
After the discussion at Monday’s work session, Cooper said he is pleased to hear the willingness of board members to spend additional money to keep schools safe for the county’s nearly 7,000 students.
“I was very pleased tonight at the work session that our board indicated they were willing to also contribute about $350,000 worth of local funds,” Cooper said. “Those proceeds will actually come from the sale of a piece of land that we sold a couple of months ago. I’m just really pleased as superintendent that our school board supports school safety the way they do.”
Because the high school already replaced its camera system, members of the school safety committee have asked to upgrade barriers that limit access to the campus by unauthorized people.
“The high school has what we call the guard shack,” Cooper said. “We, this year, had the guard shack manned for the entire school day. That was progress for us. This was the first year we actually had that manned for the entire school day. They want to take the next step and put reinforced stop arms there at that guard shack so that folks couldn’t just drive by the guard and into the campus. They’re looking at using their safety grant funds for that purpose.”
Cooper said he and Chief Financial Officer Staci Newsome spent time in discussion and feel the requested projects are important safety upgrades to keep the school system among the top 15 safest in Georgia.
“It would be, I believe, a wise use of some of the proceeds we made from selling that land,” Cooper told the board. “We wouldn’t have to use all of it. We could use some of it, save some of it.”
Cooper said the requested safety updates and upgrades are not “pie in the sky” type items, but instead practical measures that will assist administrators every day with maintaining a safe learning environment.
“I believe we’re funding the right things,” Cooper said. “When you look at what we already have in place, you say what’s next? Again, this is input from our system and school leaders, our system safety team, and we’re all in agreement.”