By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack County Public Schools operations and management staff at Tuesday night’s school board meeting presented an overview of the school division’s 2022 safety audit and discussed next steps, such as coordinating with local law enforcement to hold active shooter drills.
“We can’t control every part of society, but we can try to make our schools as safe as possible,” said ACPS Operations and Management Director Robert Bennett.
He explained the safety audits are conducted annually with the cooperation of the administrators at every school in the division, and the data collected is reviewed at the state level to identify school safety and security issues and develop solutions.
ACPS Coordinator of Technology Services Jack Bowden recently attended a local safety committee meeting including school principals, members of law enforcement, and EMTs, in which participants discussed measures that would get Accomack schools “moving in the right direction” concerning safety and security, Bennett said.
The safety committee considered involving law enforcement in active shooter drills and tabletop exercises, in which a team discusses how members would respond in various emergency scenarios, such as bomb threats.
Bowden discussed the school division’s security camera system and its history.
Today, a total of about 520 video cameras operate throughout Accomack’s 11 public schools and other facilities, including the school board office.
The more than 200 video cameras originally installed in Accomack schools were analog, but they have been upgraded to IP or internet protocol. (Analog cameras transfer video to a DVR or digital video recorder via coaxial cable. An IP camera digitally transfers video to a recorder via ethernet cable. The key difference with IP cameras is that each has its own IP address and can be detected on a network and stream video through that network.)
Over the past winter, each exterior camera at every Accomack school was replaced, except at Tangier Combined School, which was scheduled for exterior camera replacement on June 22, Bowden said.
The school division invested about $210,000 in video camera upgrades over the past three or four years, he said.
Each video camera begins recording when it detects motion and follows a 30-day recording cycle. Every 30 days, the previously recorded video footage is overwritten with new footage, Bowden explained.
The video cameras are under maintenance and service contracts in case of device or hardware failure and to keep the software updated.
Those who may view and download school security videos include front office personnel, administrators, and school board office and sheriff’s office personnel.
School video cameras are located in common areas such as entrances and exits, vestibules, hallways, cafeterias, gyms, playgrounds, parking lots, and student drop-off and pickup points. “We try to cover as much of the exterior of a building as we can,” Bowden said.
School board members followed up with questions and concerns, including Camesha Handy, who inquired about having school resource officers at every Accomack school.
Currently, every Accomack high school has a school resource officer who also can serve the nearest middle school. Accomack elementary schools do not have school resource officers.
Superintendent Chris Holland noted the sheriff’s office is experiencing difficulty finding deputies but has been supportive of the school division.
Handy also asked if the audit identified any safety issues that must be addressed before schools reopen in the fall but was answered, “No.”
School board member Janet Turner asked if the audit was conducted while children were in school or afterward; Holland confirmed that the audit was done during the school day.
Turner also related a parent concern that at one Accomack school, doors had been propped open and left unattended when children were arriving at school in the mornings.
Holland said all students should be arriving through one entrance at the front of the school every morning; Turner asked him to follow up on the matter at the beginning of the next school year.
Bennett told school board member Lisa Johnson that the use of bulletproof materials in Accomack schools was not yet under consideration but likely would be contemplated in the future.
He also assured school board member Edward Taylor that every Accomack classroom door can be locked from the inside and all the locks will be tested before classes resume in the fall.
Transportation Director Paul Brabazon noted a bus driver had reported a safety concern regarding an unfamiliar student who had boarded the bus in the morning. Brabazon told the bus driver he was right to be concerned.
Brabazon told the school board that his department will communicate to schools that starting this fall, a student will not be permitted on the school bus if the driver does not know the student belongs on the bus.
Brabazon reported that aggressive parents also can cause safety issues for school bus drivers. For example, if a student is involved in a fight on the bus and is suspended from riding the bus, a parent may approach the bus the next morning and harass the driver.
Brabazon said he has instructed bus drivers to turn on their microphones as soon as an aggressive parent approaches so the conversation can be transmitted to the bus shop and a determination can be made whether or not police or other assistance is needed.
He said parents are not allowed on the buses and restraining orders will be issued against those in violation of the policy. “We just cannot have them attacking our drivers,” Brabazon said.
But he doesn’t mind when parents call the bus shop to ask questions or discuss concerns. “The more we have the parents working with us … and working with the drivers, we don’t have a problem with that.”