By Beth Lawrence
and Dave Russell
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners heard a presentation Oct. 29 on steps the school system is taking to keep students safe.
Jake Buchanan, assistant superintendent of Jackson County Schools, updated commissioners on the progress of upgrades to security of area schools.
Plans to improve safety in schools was twofold, Buchanan said. The work was broken into two segments to be more cost efficient.
“One was for additional personnel,” he said. “The commissioners generously funded those six additional student support specialists; that has been a tremendous, tremendous addition to our schools. The second part of that was actually doing some capital improvements to our buildings, four buildings in particular because their design really did not make single entry point feasible.”
Physical upgrades will be required at Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary, Smokey Mountain Elementary and Blue Ridge School and Early College. The buildings needed construction to make single entry point feasible.
“All the research shows that is the direction that schools need to move to help increase safety,” Buchanan said.
He has written grants and applied for state funds for additional safety equipment like swipe card access at certain locations within each building to allow for internal movement.
“We’ll have the ability to limit times of when people can come and go and turn off somebody’s pass instantly,” Buchanan said. “For youth sports – we can turn them on for Saturday but turn them off for Monday morning.”
Architect John Cort of Asheville has designed plans for the four campuses that would create a single entryway and harden the remainder of the buildings to outside access.
The project consisted of creating a “large number of walls,” moving other entries and making sure the structures were still Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.
“Those have gone through all of the approval levels,” Buchanan said. “We met for the better part of a year with local law enforcement, emergency management, fire chiefs and a great deal with code enforcement to develop these plans.”
The plans were submitted to the N.C. Department of Insurance and Department of Public Instruction for final approval. Feedback and questions about designs were sent to Cort, who will clarify any questions about parts of the design.
As it stands, Cort believes the project should be able to go out for bid on Dec. 2 with a possible 18-month construction timeline.
A completion date could be hampered by the way the bidding is set up, Buchanan said.
“One of the things that complicates it a little bit is the fact that it’s on four different campuses,” he said.
“We will set the bid process up so that if one company wanted to do all four, if one company wanted to do Fairview and Smoky Mountain High School because of the proximity, if somebody just wanted to put a bid in on Blue Ridge or just on Smokey Mountain Elementary, so a little bit of multiple ways that bid goes out so we can capture the best bid that we can for the project.”
Another component of the improvements is how activity in and around schools is monitored. To that end 134 additional cameras will be added to those already in place on school properties.
“For real-time information but also to aid in law enforcement so that when things do happen, hopefully things never happen, that we have that documentation there for use for legal action,” Buchanan said.
The cameras and software chosen have some of the most up-to-date technology available. The system has the ability to recognize weapons and can differentiate between a long barreled gun and an umbrella. It will also send out automatic alerts to necessary staff and law enforcement.
The cameras are being separated out of the construction part of the job to keep costs down.
Jackson County school staff have been trained to install the camera systems eliminating the need for contractors or subcontractors or to have the architect handle the job, Buchanan said.
Six new counselors were brought aboard, Superintendent Kim Elliott said Friday.
“As soon as the funds became available from the commissioners, we hired six student support specialists,” she said. “Their job is for the social and emotional well-being of students and to help with counseling and crisis intervention.”
The ideal is one counselor for every 250 students, a goal the school system has now met and exceeded, she said.
The new counselors were placed in Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary, Cullowhee Valley Elementary, Scotts Creek Elementary and Blue Ridge, along with a district behavior specialist who serves all schools.
Each school now has a school resource officer, with the exception of Smoky Mountain High School, which has two.
“We are extremely fortunate because we are the only system in the western part of the state that I know of that has an SRO at each school and two at its traditional high school,” she said.
“I do not think we would be as far along as we are without grant assistance and the commissioners’ assistance. Our school board feels strongly about the safety of our students. We have a great plan. Let’s hope we don’t have to use it.”