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Statewide school security report finds access, vehicle control and surveillance are 'greatest weaknesses'

Zach Vance & Brandon Paykamian • Updated Nov 14, 2018 at 11:49 PM

Less than 10 percent of Tennessee public schools either meet or exceed safety standards, according to the first-ever statewide security preparedness report released Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Education.

The report analyzed security and security standards among the state’s 147 school districts based on detailed school security assessments, Emergency Operations Plans and drill logs.

“We take seriously the responsibility of providing a safe and secure learning environment for Tennessee students and will continue to support our schools in this daily effort,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release accompanying the report.

“Critical work to improve school safety has been started under Governor Haslam’s leadership, and this report shows us several ways we can continue to improve our practices moving forward. We know that safety must be an ongoing process of continuous improvement. This report continues the work started with individual school assessments by providing a state-level view of current practices and identifying opportunities for improvement."

Overall, the findings from the state showed most of Tennessee’s schools actually met or exceeded eight of the nine emergency planning and prevention items, but vehicle control, access control and surveillance were deemed to be the greatest weaknesses.

On average, Tennessee schools only met 1.9 out of the four items related to vehicle control, which was defined as limiting vehicle access to and on school grounds.

As far as access control, schools met an average of 8.2 items of the 11 items related to preventing unauthorized access inside schools, classrooms and sensitive areas. For the surveillance section, schools met an average 2.8 of the four items analyzed pertaining to monitoring and documenting activity on school grounds and within school buildings.

“It is possible that schools scored the lowest in these particular domains because they include measures that require the greatest fiscal resources to implement,” the report stated.

“For example, these domains (vehicle control, access control and surveillance) include items such as vehicle barriers, blast-resistant windows, and closed circuit television (CCTV) surveillance systems — all items for which implementation carries a significant price tag.”

Another concern outlined in the report was the majority of Emergency Operations Plans examined met fewer than half of the rubric items, and none of the Emergency Operations Plans met all items.

Because this was the first time school safety and security data was collected, the state plans to use the 2018 report to establish a baseline for statewide safety needs, the Department of Education press release said.

Moving forward, the department identified five actions to address some of the challenges identified during the analysis:

• Identify priorities for supporting districts and schools;

• Revise Emergency Operations Plans and drill log templates to enhance planning and improve documentation;

• Create options for delivering training and guidance that provides flexibility and builds local capacity;

• Monitor grant spending and results to identify promising practices; and

• Integrate safety planning requirements into the school approval process. 

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security coordinated with the Department of Education and local school officials to complete the statewide individual school safety assessment by rating each school based on 89 safety standards. The review was part of a recommendation made by Gov. Bill Haslam’s School Safety Working Group.

To support the evaluation, the Tennessee General Assembly approved $25 million in one-time funding for schools to address vulnerabilities and $10 million in recurring grant funding for ongoing safety and prevention programs.

Johnson City Schools received a total of $228,760 — $65,360 in recurring funds and $163,400 in non-recurring funds — from the state after the review, some of which will be used for new cameras, school officials said.

“Johnson City Schools takes the safety of our students as a top priority, as does our Board of Education. This year our board and school administration formed a safety committee that meets to discuss and review our safety procedures and address any concerns,” Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Safety and Mental Health Greg Wallace said Wednesday. “The formation of the committee, along with the money provided by the state, has helped strengthen our efforts in providing a safe learning environment for our students and staff.

“The money that the state provided has already been used to update and add cameras in our schools. We will continue to use that funding to address safety concerns as we see fit.”

Washington County Schools received $70,460 in recurring funding and $176,140 in non-recurring dollars following the statewide school safety assessment, but the Johnson City Press was unable to reach county school officials for comment Wednesday.

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