Safety and security were the topics addressed at a special community meeting held Tuesday evening at Gallia Academy High School. Gallipolis City Schools Superintendent Craig Wright and Gallipolis City Schools Transportation and Safety Supervisor Troy Johnson, along with a panel of law enforcement, school board, school staff and mental health services representatives, led a discussion with those in attendance focused on measures the district has taken to protect students in their schools. Also addressed were efforts to prevent crisis situations from occurring in the first place.

After a brief welcome and overview, Wright turned control over to Johnson to present on some of the security protocols in the district in an effort to address questions they’ve received from parents and the community following the Parkland, Fla. shooting in February.

While Johnson touched on multiple procedures and security-related items the district has in place, there was some information left out of the presentation.

“Now understand some of these things are in our crisis management plan and have to remain confidential for the right reasons,” said Johnson.

The first topic Johnson addressed was the digital camera system, which includes a total of 234 cameras installed in schools across the district. The number of cameras installed at each school varies and can be monitored off-site. In addition, Johnson said plans to have Gallia County 911 monitor those cameras is also in the works.

Outside lighting, which has been a “huge investment” made by the district, was also discussed, which Johnson said aids in the overall security of the buildings and deters criminal activity.

While locking exterior doors may not be a new thing, Johnson said the district also launched a policy where all interior doors are also locked during the day. In high-stress situations, Johnson said the mind and body do not always cooperate. By having the interior doors already locked, they have deemed it to be a good tool during lock-down drills.

“Already having things like locked doors are huge in providing extra security and more than anything time,” said Johnson.

In addition to the cameras, lighting and the locked door policies, the district also instituted a protocol where only one entrance, which is monitored, is available for entry by the public during school hours. The district also has digital radio systems in every building and on every bus, to ensure communication is available across the district. If needed, they can also be patched directly to outside agencies, such as law enforcement. Classroom door barricade devices have also been added throughout the district, which Johnson said has resulted in staff feeling more secure in a lock-down situation.

“These devices have been purchased and received by donations from our PTOs, our local businesses, a couple law enforcement agencies, and our parents have made donations,” said Johnson. “Several parents have made some very large donations to our district, in order to keep all of our kids safe.”

Beyond the safety devices, the district has also focused on ensuring building staff is deployed to student gathering places. Johnson said he has studied school shootings and they often occur where students are assembled in large numbers. According to Johnson, the goal is to deter and confront problems before they begin.

Johnson said they also strive to have as big of a law enforcement presence as possible throughout the district. In addition to staff members who are also law enforcement officers, the district encourages law enforcement to do building walk-throughs daily.

“This gives our staff peace of mind and it also builds relationships with our students,” said Johnson.

Each room, said Johnson, is equipped with phone systems that can both dial out to 911, as well as make announcements via the intercom system.

“One of the things that we do encourage, especially in our drills, is that anybody in any of our buildings has the authorization to put us into lockdown. You don’t have to have a special degree. You don’t have to have a special title. If you see trouble, sound the alarm,” said Johnson. “We see that in these active shooting events, seconds, and I mean seconds, save lives. Approximately every 11 seconds in an active shooter event, someone dies. In Sandy Hook, 26 people died in four minutes. That’s not very long. And law enforcement response, at best, would be four minutes or more. So, seconds save lives. We want to be able to get that alert out. We want our staff to be able to have the ability to protect themselves as quickly as possible.”

Because cellphone towers have a tendency to be affected in emergency situations due to the amount of traffic, the schools also have dedicated landlines.

Outside of the safety features and protocols, the district also holds regular drills to practice those procedures ranging from lock-down drills with students to full-scale drills with staff, law enforcement, and other emergency personnel. While the state only mandates the full-scale drills every three years, the district holds one every year.

“It’s very realistic, the amount of stress that the body goes through when you think that you’re just doing a role play here, but your body doesn’t know that. And we want to practice it and we want to get that stress level down,” said Johnson. “We want to get that confidence built up in them of their own abilities, that they’re communicating the right information, so they get the help coming and they also secure their students.”

The district has also implemented a voluntary Crisis Management Response Team, consisting of staff members who submit to intensive and advanced training to rapidly respond to threats.

Whether it is lock-down or evacuation, Johnson said the district practices varied scenarios to give staff and students multiple options for survival should an incident occur.

“What we see in a lot of these events is that one answer isn’t the solution. It might be for someone on the second floor, but not the first floor. It might be for someone in the academic wing, but not someone in the gym or cafeteria,” said Johnson.

Those techniques vary by grade level.

“What’s good for high school and middle schoolers, might not always be the best for grade schoolers,” said Johnson.

Communication with the community and parents is key, said Johnson, who stated the District regularly uses its website, social media pages for the district and the individual schools, as well as a text message and email system. Parents are encouraged to sign up for those text and email messages. The district also has an app. Should an emergency incident occur, the district also has plans in place to unify children with their loved ones.

Johnson said information about unification locations will be sent through the school’s notification systems. They will be keeping documentation in those situations to ensure children are accounted for and it is logged when students are reunited with their loved ones.

While the district has gone above and beyond in preparing for the worst, Johnson said, “If, at all possible, we want to prevent an event before it happens.”

To address potential issues, the district has a variety of programs in place, including providing services for those in need and an anonymous bullying tip line.

Gallipolis City School District, according to Johnson, is currently in the top 1% of the state in terms of its security policies and procedures and has shared its plans with other school districts throughout the state.

“I think that says a lot about our staff. It says a lot about our leadership. I think it says a lot about our school board and the efforts they put through to make sure that we protect our students,” said Johnson.

From a law enforcement perspective, Gallipolis City Police Chief Jeff Boyer and Gallia County Sheriff Matt Champlin both indicated their respective departments work closely with the schools on a regular basis.

Sheriff Champlin said, following the Parkland shooting, he received multiple calls and questions about the safety and security of the school district.

“I’m very happy to be able to look people in the eye and say, we’re already doing it. We’ve been doing it for several years,” said Sheriff Champlin, who went on to say the school staff and administration has gone above and beyond to set everyone up for success should a traumatic event ever occur.

Both School Board President Morgan Saunders and School Board member John O’Brien said the board has supported the staff’s initiatives to implement the high standard of safety and security throughout the district and will continue to support those efforts.

O’Brien said he has seen an effort at the community level to reach out and connect with each other.

“We don’t know what has maybe been prevented just by reaching out and doing these things,” said O’Brien.

In addition, he publicly thanked the school staff who, in addition to being teachers and administrators, often take on a more personal role of mentor to students in need.

Robin Harris, executive director of the Gallia-Jackson-Meigs Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services discussed mental health services.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that kids are showing increasing signs of the distress that’s permeating our society,” said Harris.

Staff from their agency work with school staff to assist them in identifying trauma in students and give them resources to assist those students. She said when school shootings occur mental illness is often brought up and, unfortunately, the science of the brain is not an exact science.

“The truth is, when we look at all of the mass shootings across this nation that have occurred in recent years, there are very few similarities. There are some, but very few. Not anything that we can say, let’s go after this factor. And the truth is, that a person with a severe mental illness is much, much more likely to be the victim of crime than they are to commit a crime,” said Harris. “We have a very small population of people with mental illness who develop these sociopathic tendencies that create a killer. So we have to be careful as we get our message out there, that we don’t create this idea, that anyone with any kind of mental illness is dangerous because the vast majority are not.”

Harris focused on the need for prevention and doing a better job at meeting the needs of kids.

“We’ve got to do a better job. The kids are crying out. They’re telling us something is wrong. And we can see the increasing stressors on the children. We can see the trauma factors that are on the kids and then just try to give them a voice,” said Harris.

The organization has been actively reaching out and engaging in the community to try to find ways to fill the gaps.

Gallia Academy High School Principal Josh Donley said when he entered the education field 20 years ago, sitting in a “public forum talking about school violence in this capacity” is something he could not have foreseen.

“You just don’t ever dream that’s going to happen and where we’ve come the last 20 years. I want to say something about the staff here. Every time that we get together and we do an active shooter training, we do a lock-down drill, there’s 100 percent support for that. It is the first thing that we think of, get them into school, teach them the best that we can, get them home safe to you guys,” said Donley.

He also commended the staff for their willingness to address the issue head-on.

“The staff here, they didn’t come into this job – our secretaries, our janitors, our teachers, our aides – to be doing something like this, but now they’ve assumed that role and they do it and they do a great job with it,” Donley continued. “They’re bought in and the last they want is anything to happen to anybody’s kid in this district. I can’t say enough about what they do and what they’re willing to do and what they have done thus far, in an effort to keep everybody safe. I’m very fortunate. I get to work with people that have total buy-in on that, so you guys are very lucky with the staff, what I see here every day.”

While the district may be in a financial situation, said Wright, those finances do not affect what the district offers the students.

“We’re not just educators and I think that’s something that people get confused with. It’s a school, it’s education, but we’re so much more because if we can’t meet the need of the individual child, they can’t learn,” said Wright.

Wright touched on the topic of students who may only get meals while at school and the efforts of various community organizations and churches who fill in for that need during school breaks. He also talked about the Snack Pack program, which sends food home with kids over the weekend.

“We talk about personal hygiene in a child that doesn’t have a change of clothes or doesn’t have access to water or is technically homeless because he’s living with other families,” said Wright.

Many may not know, he continued, that the schools often launder clothes for children in need or provide confidential access to showers.

“We do a lot for our kids and we want to meet those basic needs,” said Wright.

He talked about the effects of opioid abuse and physical abuse on the community and the children and their perceived lack of respect when they simply haven’t been taught any different. He discussed how some children are simply paychecks to their families and the importance of having someone in their lives that cares about them and is willing to serve as a mentor. He talked about the importance of members of the community stepping up and taking on that role.

“We need to stop being judgmental, learn the culture that we serve and try to help these people and provide hope to get them where they need to be. Because a lot of the struggles are related to just that,” said Wright. “So this is not a school problem. This is a societal problem. This is a community problem and it’s going to take all of us to fix it. We can’t just wait for someone to come in, look for another role model, look for somebody else to come in and take the lead on this thing. What I’m finding is, [mentors are] no longer the majority. We’re becoming the minority and we’ve got to take that back as a community.”

If you are interested in donating to the Gallipolis City School Safety Fund, which is earmarked to provide safety and security services for the district, checks can be made to Gallipolis City Schools, 61 State Street, Gallipolis, Ohio 45631. Put Student Safety Fund in the memo line. If you would like to discuss specific needs, contact Johnson at (740) 441-9872.

To sign up for notifications, visit the Gallipolis City School District’s website or download the app.