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White Oak ISD meeting focuses on school safety

By Angela Ward award@news-journal.com
Jan. 6, 2013 at 10 p.m.

WHITE OAK - Mike Gilbert, superintendent of the White Oak Independent School District, assured parents Sunday afternoon the district has plans in place to deal with a variety of possible "worst case" scenarios.

"It's not perfect, because no plan is, and we're going to be reviewing and possibly revising it during the next couple of months," Gilbert said. "However, I do want all of you to know that the safety of our students is our first priority, because kids can't learn if they're scared."

Gilbert spoke to about 80 people who gathered to discuss school safety in the wake of the massacre last month of students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. Across the nation, school and law enforcement officials have been reviewing emergency plans since the mid-December shootings.

A variety of area officials, including Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano and the city's police chief and assistant police chief, also attended Sunday's gathering. The event was officially a public hearing conducted by the district's board of trustees. Board members also were on hand.

"We have a solid relationship with our first responders and an almost unique positioning of our school directly across from the fire station and just a couple of blocks away from the police station," Gilbert said. "We also have a variety of programs and procedures in place to make sure that unauthorized people are not gaining entrance to our campuses."

The district's students regularly practice two different kinds of drills, he said. One is a drill for staying and sheltering in place, which would be used in situations such as an armed intruder or a tornado alert. The other is for leaving, which would be used in situations such as a fire or gas leak.

"If you start talking about the various possible scenarios, they are literally endless," Gilbert said. "However, we believe that most situations can be covered with these two drills."

Most East Texas schools have plans in place for tornado, fires, evacuations in events such as bomb threats or gas leaks, and lock downs. The plans include phone trees, site maps that show evacuation locations for every class, detailed information on how many students are in each classroom and other information. Such planning is among the reasons that, statistically speaking, students are safer in schools and on school buses than they are in their homes or private vehicles, Gilbert said.

"There are ways we could probably make our schools even safer, but that would require turning them into an almost prison-like environment, with guards, barred windows and metal detectors," he said. "And I'm not sure that's conducive to learning or to the emotional well-being of children."

Board president Jim Ramsey said the meeting was not to solve problems, but to let parents know the board and administration are looking into what areas they may need to make changes or clarifications in to ensure the safety of the students.

"I firmly believe that a knee jerk reaction is not the right way to solve any problem," Ramsey said.

Shannon Trest, whose son attends school in the district, said she was pleased with the information the meeting provided.

"I came up here because I had some questions and concerns and a lot of them were answered here today," Trest said.

In December, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urged school districts across Texas to review their state-mandated safety plans and implored districts that had not submitted complete school safety audits to make doing so a priority.

A later review found a handful of East Texas districts were among 78 districts statewide that either had not prepared or submitted school safety audits, according to the Texas Education Agency. Those which had not were Leverett's Chapel, Laneville, Union Hill and Pewitt Consolidated ISDs.

In 2005-06, the state Legislature required all districts to complete a security audit, and to update it every three or four years.



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