By RICK NORTON
A former Bradley County educator who now directs a state teacher association headquartered in Nashville says it’s time “… to quit playing political football” with school safety.JC Bowman, …
A former Bradley County educator who now directs a state teacher association headquartered in Nashville says it’s time “… to quit playing political football” with school safety.
JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee and a regular contributor to the Opinion page of the Cleveland Daily Banner and other newspapers in the state, is challenging government leaders to overcome their political biases in order to make schools safer for students, teachers and administrative staff.
Bowman is stepping forward with his views less than three weeks after the tragic shootings in Parkland, Fla., that left a toll of 17 students and adults dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“School safety policies must be flexible and practical,” Bowman wrote in a commentary submitted to the Banner. “However, the issue of improved school security will not be resolved in the current political environment, as long as real solutions are not considered [because of] a liberal or conservative bias.”
Bowman is a Bradley County native. During his early years in education, he taught in the Bradley County Schools system.
The state teacher association that Bowman heads up is an advocate for public education, and operates as a nonpartisan entity.
“Real lives, those of children and adults, are at stake in our schools,” Bowman said. “The time for talking is past; it is time to take action. Any viable option that can lead to a safer environment in our schools and communities should be on the table.”
Bowman’s call to action, and his personal appeal to decision-makers to abandon partisan ideologies on the issue of school safety, were preceded by a lengthy assessment of the problems, the past practices that have failed and future actions that could make a significant difference.
“Schools must be safe zones for students and teachers,” he said. “That means the first step in school safety is securing the perimeter of a school.”
He added, “It seems like simple logic that we should keep intruders out and also make sure the area inside those boundaries is safe for children and adults. Students are our priority, but teachers need protection, too.”
are easy targets
The education advocate described past shootings, including the atrocities in Parkland, as being evidence that “… our schools are easy targets for those who wish to harm others.”
He pointed out, “When premeditated attacks and school shootings occur, they are usually over within minutes. Most of the time law enforcement is simply not able to respond quickly enough to the event and lives are needlessly lost.”
Bowman believes most intruders intent on harming students and teachers are already familiar with a school’s defense system, and they develop plans around that information. In some cases, a school’s defense strategy can be found in the student handbook that is posted online, he said.
“These people know when to attack, where to go and often how to escape,” he said.
Bowman stressed students and teachers alike, as well as approved visitors, should always wear a visible identification badge during their time at the school facility.
“There needs to be secure exterior doors to limit building access points, and each district should develop a uniform policy for entry into a school,” he said.
Local school systems
rising to occasion
As public alarm escalated across the nation in the immediate aftermath of the Florida shootings, the Bradley County Board of Education held a closed-door session with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office to discuss school safety, and to develop additional plans for protecting the lives of students, teachers and staff.
Tennessee Code Annotated authorizes these types of closed sessions when school safety is the primary topic.
The strategic planning event led to a joint announcement by BCSO and Bradley County Schools that outlined some of the school system’s future plans. Dr. Linda Cash, school system director, also pointed out schools in the future will be holding community meetings to provide public information about safety plans at each of the schools.
Dates and times for those meetings have not been announced.
In a related development, Cleveland City Schools has confirmed plans for a Community Meeting on School Safety on Tuesday, March 13. The public gathering will get underway at 6 p.m. at Cleveland High School.
Featured speakers will include Dr. Russell Dyer, school system director; Dawn Robinson, chairman of the Cleveland Board of Education; Cleveland Chief of Police Mark Gibson; and additional city school system administrators and law enforcement professionals.
paid by the feds?
In his assessment of school safety needs, Bowman quoted Bill Gemmill, a former principal in Metro Nashville, who said, “All schools need upgraded security, whether it is as simple and reasonable as inside locks on classroom doors.”
Bowman took Gemmill’s suggestion further.
“It is also time to put metal detectors in every school across America,” he said. “The federal government could absorb the cost by simply eliminating any of the already wasteful programs they are funding.”
Bowman added, “Public school safety must be a priority at every level of government. If you see something, say something, and then someone in authority must do something.”
The longtime educator said the “last line of defense” for students, and employees, is “… an armed person willing and ready to defend them if the unspeakable should happen.”
This is justification for expanding the school resource officer program, Bowman surmised.
“This is a highly effective program that serves many purposes during the school year and is invaluable where it now exists,” he said of SROs. “It is important that the program be directed by a local law-enforcement agency, working in conjunction with the local education agency. The school can employ and utilize additional security, but the primary responsibility should fall to local law enforcement.”
Locally, Bradley County Schools works with the BCSO to provide SRO personnel in each school. Likewise, Cleveland City Schools and the Cleveland Police Department operate such a program, as well.
SRO roles need
Bowman outlined the “three basic roles” of an SRO, as defined by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. They include serving as 1) safety expert and law enforcer; 2) problem solver and liaison to community resources; and 3) educator.
However, the roles need to be reviewed, Bowman believes.
“While all three are important functions, the primary role should focus on the law enforcement and safety component,” he stressed. “SROs should be preserving order and promoting safety on campus, and serving as first responders in the event of critical incidents at schools such as accidents, fires, explosions and other life-threatening events.”
Bowman added, “They [SROs] are not supplementary school administrators dealing with minor school discipline issues or emergency instructors.”
Bowman said society changes require the SRO review.
“It is clear that we must better define SRO programs, what we want them to accomplish, and better analyze how we measure their effectiveness,” Bowman stated. “Law enforcement and school district leaders should yield to the law enforcement professionals on matters of school safety and law enforcement.”
a major problem
Along with completing an intense evaluation of school-safety protocol, Bowman called guns one of the most critical issues.
“It is time to discuss the gun issue,” Bowman said. “I strongly support the 2nd Amendment and have a handgun carry permit myself. We must have a common sense approach to who, when and where we can carry firearms, without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Bowman called for increasing the age for purchase of certain guns to 21, but he said this should exclude active-duty military.
“We prohibit drinking of alcoholic beverages until 21, [so] we should follow suit here as well,” he said. “Many young people just are not prepared for the responsibility of drinking or owning a firearm.”
Bowman also called for more in-depth background checks, and these should include criminal background and mental health. He also wants bump stocks — devices that can convert conventional guns to automatic weapons — to be prohibited.
“We should more aggressively punish those who commit crimes with guns,” he stated. “But we will need to be careful that the policy is reasonable.”
Bowman also addressed state legislation — at the state and federal levels — that would empower school districts to arm teachers and other personnel.
Before any are authorized to bear arms on school premises, they should be qualified, certified and licensed, he stressed.
“If a district decides to allow trained and armed teachers and administrators into the schools, the decision should not be taken lightly,” Bowman pointed out. “The state should never mandate educators having to carry firearms or prohibit them from carrying, if permitted by the district.”
He added, “It is a decision that should be made at the local level based on the needs and size of the community.”
Bowman suggested armed teachers who are properly trained, or who have a military background, would deter some intruders. However, “… trained law enforcement personnel are much preferred and would be a much greater deterrent,” he said.
Bowman quoted Mike Conrad, a teacher in Detroit, Mich., who recently said in a published interview that arming teachers would dramatically change the education landscape.
Conrad told a reporter, “I think the moment you put a gun on the hip of a teacher in a classroom, that we have accepted the norm that school shootings will not stop, that we are now on the front line to defend against them, instead of trying to find a way to stop them.”
Bowman conceded school safety is a complicated issue and that communities should be granted authority to make their own decisions.
“The subject is very emotional, with good arguments coming from either side of the debate,” Bowman closed. “[This is] why each community must decide for themselves this issue.”
on school safety
Last week, Professional Educators of Tennessee launched an online survey on school safety. Bowman described it as a 10-question form directed at safety measures in schools. Active and retired educators were invited to participate. Friday was the deadline.
Survey results should be released in the near future.
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