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Awareness in crisis: Schools focus on safety after visit from Sandy Hook mom

The Georgetown Times - 2/13/2018

After dropping her youngest daughter, Josephine, off at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Michele Gay was eating breakfast on a normal Friday morning in December 2012, when she received a call from the school district superintendent that changed her life forever.

Gay said it was a recorded call saying “All schools are in lock-down. There has been a shooting.” In a few hours, she would find out that although her two older daughters were safe, Josephine, her 7-year-old, a non-verbal child with autism, was one of 20 first-graders shot and killed by a gunman who entered the school shortly after Gay had dropped her daughters off that morning.

Gay, co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools, came to two Georgetown County schools on Feb. 8 - Georgetown and Waccamaw high schools - to share her story and urge students, school officials and first responders to work together to prepare for crisis situations.

“If we really want our communities to be safe, it is all-hands-on-deck,” Gay said. “It is about creating a culture of safety where everybody is involved, everyone is participating, everybody has a voice and everybody buys in.”

She said schools that are really making a difference use a collaborative method and involve safety professionals like firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel; community members, including parents, students, medical physicians and mental health professionals; and school officials.

Gay said schools have taught students to respond to fire and tornadoes, with drills, education, innovation and practice. She asked why schools couldn’t do the same for other crisis situations, including active shooter scenarios.

“We haven’t had a fire related death in a U.S. school in almost 60 years,” Gay said. “Why can’t we apply the same approach to preparing for a lockdown situation?”

After Gay’s presentation, district Superintendent Randy Dozier said he and other school officials often discuss ways to prevent and prepare for active shooter scenarios. He said each time there is an incident, they get together to determine how effective their approaches would be in that situation.

“I think it is one of the biggest things that causes me concern as a superintendent - the safety of our students and employees - and it certainly keeps me up at night, worrying about those things,” Dozier said. “We meet periodically during the year and review and assess where we are and look at how we can improve safety for the school district.”

He said the district has participated in an extensive training program and strives to be as current as possible. He said there are Georgetown County Sheriff’s deputies and School Resource Officers in every school and security at all of the front entrances has been improved.

However, for active shooter scenarios, he said it may be more effective to discuss plans of action with teachers, school staff and students. He said the district would have to be careful to share information with emergency officials if and when they do drills for active shooter scenarios.

“We have intruder drills and we talk to students about who to let in the building and who not to let in the building,” Dozier said. “The other things are probably more discussions in the classroom, including: What would you do? How would you exit? How would you protect yourself? And how to make sure all the doors are locked.”

When speaking to students in the Waccamaw High School auditorium, Gay challenged them to form Safe and Sound Youth Councils. She said all of the information for the free program is at www.safeandsoundschools.org.

“We encourage you to visit the site, share the video with friends, teachers, sponsors, anyone you think as an adult might want to support you in this,” Gay said. “You’ll find that it has everything you need to get started setting up your own chapter of the Safe and Sound Youth Council at your school.”

Students from Georgetown Middle School and Georgetown High School who attended the presentation said they were impressed with Gay and her message of inspiration.

“It makes me happy and feel comfort because this lovely woman is coming to our schools and trying to help bring safety and more things to help us keep things safe and calm,” GHS senior Samantha Belusz said. “I have four other siblings and the youngest is in the elementary school. This is my last year and I want them to be safe.”

One of her siblings, Nancy Belucz, a junior at the school, said the presentation was informative and she is all for creating a youth council.

“We need to step up and get more ideas for evacuation and how to deal with this type of situation that could happen,” she said.

Miller Nash and Aliyah Greene, both 7th graders at GMS, said they were struck by the fact that a nightmare situation could happen here if it happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“This is something that can happen anywhere and you shouldn’t think it cant happen here,” Nash said. “You have to have a plan and be prepared.”

Greene said the focus should be awareness in crisis.

“Anything can happen, you never know,” she said. “Just sitting in this room, listening, something could have happened instantly to us.”

Alan Walters, director of safety and risk management for GCSD, joined Gay in challenging the students.

“Today you’ve got a mission when you leave here, you’ve got a charge,” Walters said. “That is to go back to your school, step up, and get a youth council started.”

For more information, visit www.safeandsoundschools.org.


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