By Gus Cross and Graysen Doran
Rockbridge County Schools are spending up to $141,000 for new school-safety projects, including the addition of a shatter-proof glass wall in the high school’s library.
Three schools are getting improvements that will be paid for with surplus funds that the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors told school officials last summer could be spent on safety, said Randy Walters, the director of transportation and maintenance for Rockbridge County Schools.
School officials are not tying the increased focus on safety to the fatal shooting of 17 students in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. But the recent initiatives address concerns.
Rockbridge County High School is securing the entrance to its library, which currently has a 20-foot-wide gap in the hallway with only a drop-down metal gate as a barrier. The new entrance will feature a glass wall and two new doors that will cover the gap.
“The librarians had requested that it be installed for a noise barrier primarily,” Walters said.
The glass barrier will likely be built with shatterproof glass, which will prevent the glass from breaking into pieces. It is not as strong as bulletproof glass. If smashed, the glass will crack and splinter but won’t break apart.
The installation of the barrier, costing about $9,000, should be completed by the end of April.
Walters said school officials decided against bulletproof glass for now to save money for other safety features at the entrance to the building.
“We are trying to focus our safety funds on things that would prevent an active shooter from making their way into the building,” he said.
Fairfield Elementary School also will have the locks on all of its classroom doors replaced so teachers can secure doors from inside classrooms. Previously, teachers had no choice but to exit classrooms to lock the doors from the hallway.
Walters said changing locks will cost about $32,000. The renovation began earlier this week and is scheduled to be finished by the end of the day Friday.
In a third project, the playground at Natural Bridge Elementary School will be moved closer to the school by the end of the year at a cost that could be between $75,000 and $100,000, he said.
Principal Vicki Stevens said the playground is currently too far away from the school building, causing many safety concerns.
“To get kids back to the building, if we needed to do a lockdown, it would take them forever to get them back to the building,” she said. “And that is not a safe situation.”
Stevens said it is also hard to hear the bell or any announcement “for kids to come in the building, for kids to take shelter, whatever announcement that may be.”
Kristen Mazingo, a teacher at Natural Bridge and a parent, said it would be more convenient if the playground were closer. “It has always been in the back of everyone’s mind that it would be nice if it was closer,” she said.
The school system also wants to add one to four armed resource officers to cover the county’s four elementary schools. Currently, the county has two resources officers, one at Maury River Middle School and the other at the high school.
Walters said having armed school resource officers at all Rockbridge County Schools, not just the upper-level schools, is critical to keeping a dangerous person out of the buildings.
The county is applying for a grant from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services that could pay for one or more additional resource officers.
The grant applications are due on May 11. The winning grants will go into effect on July 1.
The county’s two school resources officers are from the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, which received a state grant for the system’s first resource officer at the high school in 1999.
Sgt. Hugh Ferguson, the current resource officer at the high school, says he plays many roles. Sometimes he is called on to be a guest speaker in classes. He teaches classes on drug abuse and legal issues because he says students should understand the law if they come into contact with police.
But stopping violence by an intruder is his top priority. “The best defense,” he said, “is to have a competent police officer to try and prevent something.”