Tonya Kramer, center, embraces her daughter Alyssa Kramer, 16, during a community prayer vigil at Parkridge Church. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

In the wake of a mass school shooting in Florida, McDowell’s superintendent and local and state agencies have responded with current and future ways to ensure student safety.

On Wednesday afternoon, an armed gunman now identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire inside and on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people – including students and faculty members – and wounding several others. He has since been held without bond on murder charges.

The McDowell News asked Superintendent Mark Garrett how McDowell County Schools prepare in the event of an active shooter situation.

“Student and school safety is top priority,” he said in a statement. “To that end we do not share specific emergency protocols or plans in an attempt to keep them out of the hands of anyone who might potentially want to do something to/at one of our schools. I can share that we have emergency plans in place and staff are trained on them. In conjunction with our local law enforcement partners, we conduct multiple lockdown drills at each site every year. These drills are not announced ahead of time in order to gauge preparedness and execution of the Critical Incident Response plans that are in place.”

He said certain steps have been taken to ensure safety at all of the schools buildings in McDowell County by requiring visitors to be “buzzed” in by electronic lock systems, expanding the number of school resource and law enforcement officers at the schools in partnership with the MCSO, MPD and OFPD.

But, with all of those plans in place, Garrett emphasized the importance of reporting any concerns students may have with behaviors they have seen on social media, or anywhere, before it’s too late.

“As for the recent events in Florida and in respect to school shootings in general, one of the most important things we can all do to help prevent such tragedies is to say something if/when we suspect something. I encourage folks to contact my office, a school, a principal, or any educator they know if they ever have a concern about a student or the possibility something may be about to take place,” Garrett said in his statement. “Law enforcement should also be contacted if there is ever such a concern. We need to work together to identify potential dangers and get people help before tragedy strikes; because there are usually signs of distress and duress leading up to school shootings. Social media posts and odd behaviors should not be ignored or dismissed as idle banter. After the fact is not the time to share information that might have been helpful in preventing something from happening in the first place.”

The law enforcement perspective

McDowell County Sheriff Dudley Greene offered similar comments in regards to active school protocol.

“Of course, school safety is something we take very seriously,” said Greene. “On a routine basis, the Sheriff’s Office coordinates with school personnel and other emergency agencies in lockdown drills in an effort to prevent or mitigate any injuries or deaths related to an active shooter situation. The drills are performed twice a year at each school. In addition, we periodically review our emergency plans relating to school safety. We hope we never have to experience anything like they did in Parkland, Fla. Our thoughts and prayers are with all that were affected by this tragedy.

Greene also mentioned that the Sheriff’s Office places school resource officers at the high school and two middle schools every day, as well as one that rotates between elementary schools.

“They are trained to respond to various situations and, in a number of cases, have deterred what could have been true emergencies,” said Greene.

In a prepared statement, North Carolina Department of Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey explained options to keep schools safe in the state including possible changes to the way schools will be designed in the future.

“The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Wednesday is a tragic reminder that active shooter situations can happen anywhere,” said Commissioner Causey, who also serves as the State Fire Marshal. “It is paramount to have emergency plans in place and the safest facilities available so we can proactively protect our most precious commodity – people.”

On Thursday morning, Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor gave a presentation to legislators during the Emergency Management Oversight Committee Meeting about the role of fire services in an active shooter incident.

“Our fire services units know the inside and outside of these buildings,” said Taylor. “They need to be part of the preliminary safety initiatives that outline plans as to how to handle active shooter drills and other emergency situations."

According to Taylor, all N.C. schools are inspected twice per year to ensure they are built to code with controlled access points and well-defined evacuation routes. The inspection process allows the Office of the State Fire Marshal to gather vital information about each school facility which can be used to gain control during an active shooter situation.

According to a press release, the OSFM says it will work closer with Emergency Management and Department of Public Instruction officials on the designs of future school buildings to make sure they are built in the safest way possible and access points are secure from all levels.

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