Late this morning, Knox County Schools held a small press conference in its downtown offices to address the community's concerns after last Friday's tragic elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn. The message: Our schools are already safe, and we're constantly working to keep them that way.
"We want to reassure parents we focus on school safety already every day," Superintendent Jim McIntyre said.
McIntyre read a statement about safety protocol in the schools, which was followed by brief comments from Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones, Knoxville Police Department Chief David Rausch, and KCS Supervisor of Psychological Services, Dr. Clovis Stair. (KCS Security Chief Steve Griffin was also on hand.) The mood was somber, and McIntyre was visibly emotional as he spoke about his response to the shootings, even at one point tearing up.
McIntyre said an initiative was already underway to make sure every single classroom has locks on its doors on the inside, and the process should be finished by February. In response to a reporter's question, McIntyre said the school will not be installing metal detectors, although they are regularly used as part of random screenings, but KCS is working to implement secure vestibules in schools, especially in all new construction. McIntyre also mentioned that the 13 random screenings conducted so far this year at KCS middle schools and high schools have only turned up "a couple of pocket knives" and that in the past three years of screenings, security has only found a total of two handguns.
"I think our working relationship with law enforcement is pretty unique," McIntyre said, adding that school officials, law enforcement, and justice officials already meet monthly to discuss school safety. He said that once all the facts and details are known on the Newtown shooting, the school system will see if there's anything it can learn from the tragedy to prevent a similar occurrence here, but at this point it's "premature" to look at any potential changes to safety protocol.
In the meantime, parents dropping off or picking up their children today may have noticed an increased police presence at local schools. This isn't because KCS is worried about a copycat attack; it's pretty much solely to make people feel better. "We will do everything in our power to keep children in Knoxville and Knox County safe," Rausch said. "The security of the school is as good as it was last week," he added.
Jones noted that they will not be increasing the number of officers at the schools permanently--they are just working to make their presence more visible. "We will keep your children safe in our schools. That is our number one priority," Jones said.
Basically, what KCS really wants to convey is that it loves your kids almost as much as you do, and you shouldn't feel worried sending them to school, despite what happened in Newtown. "This unspeakable tragedy reminds us what a privilege it is to work with children every day," McIntyre said.
Will all of this -- heartfelt statements and a few extra cops -- actually make parents feel better? Maybe. But since the schools' winter break starts on Friday, local parents will soon have plenty of time to spend with their children safe at home.