As the school year progresses, many parents are wondering if their student will be safe as they send them off to class each day.

Madison County Schools has taken student and faculty safety seriously, especially in light of recent school shootings, one of which has come too close to Madison County for comfort, with the January 23 shooting in Marshall County. Neighboring counties, like Fayette, have taken matters into their own hands, by creating a 10-point comprehensive safety plan aimed at putting more mental-health professionals and police officers in schools. But plans like this one don't come cheap.

The 10-point comprehensive plan will cost $13.5 million and will be paid for by a new 5 cent property tax that was approved by Fayette County's Board of Education in July. The plan was met with opposition by members in the community. Residents created a petition, which needed roughly 14,000 signatures to force a recall vote, but on September 4, the petition had only garnered roughly 11,000.

"Two months ago, I asked our community to make a significant and permanent investment in the safety of the 42,000 children who attend our Fayette County Public Schools and the 7,800 employees who serve them," Manny Caulk, Fayette County Superintendent, said at a Sept. 7 news conference. "I promised you that day that with your support, our district would be able to implement a plan that would make Lexington a leader in the area of school safety not only in Kentucky, but across the United States, and ensure that our schools are among the safest in the nation."

The 10-point comprehensive plan includes upgrades to exterior and interior facilities by adding security cameras and alarms, renovating the remaining 24 buildings without secure vestibules, and adding metal detectors. Also, the schools will be partnering with University of Kentucky Adolescent Medicine to provide access to comprehensive adolescent assessment and health services for all middle and high school students.

In addition to that, social media monitoring will be implemented by contracting with an external vendor to monitor possible safety/security threats made publicly on social media across multiple platforms, and alert district and school administrators to posts warranting investigation.

Our schools

Staff, contractors, and middle and high school students will all be required to have ID badges as well. Currently, Madison County schools require teachers to have ID badges as well, but the use of the badges isn't consistent across the county.

According to Randy Neeley, former Madison County Schools superintendent, there was a time in which the schools didn't have key-card entry at all.

"Now, we have them at partially every school, so that's our goal is to become a keyless entry district," Neeley said. "At older schools, if you have one key, you've got a hundred keys, and that's what we're trying to do, is limit that number of keys for safety reasons."

With the newly built Boonesborough Elementary School, safety was a factor in design and construction. Similar to how B. Michael Caudill and Farristown schools are built, BES was designed with three different wings with one point where an individual can stand and observe all three wings at the same time.

Tony Thomas, architect for Clotfelter-Samokar, said another added security feature in the new school is the security vestibule. Visitors also have to go through the school's office before being given access to the rest of the schools. But the added security feature isn't new to the rest of the county.

"They've done a good job at retrofitting their older facilities," Thomas said. "They've come back and put security vestibules and cameras in those schools."

Other schools have been proactive in their security measures as well, like Waco Elementary. According to Principal Venessa Coner-Worley, the school was given a grant through AT&T Pioneers to install an intruder defense system, which is in the last stages of installation.

Erin Stewart, the district's community education director, said county schools have continued to add to the lists of safety precautions and checks, which included extensive training for safety monitors and beginning the work of securing school campuses even further.

"Safety has remained in the forefront of our minds as we navigated the summer months," Stewart said.

But safety doesn't just start with the physical threat. The emotional and psychological threat is just as imminent, which is why Madison County Schools has a counselor at each school, with the exception of the high schools, of which, Madison Central has four and Madison Southern has three. In addition to that, the district is equipped with a staff of school psychologists who work with students and staff and in times of emergency or crisis.

The county's counselors are apart of statewide and national organizations which offer annual trainings and conferences as well as a network of professionals to utilize on a case-by-case basis, Stewart said.

Last spring, the district added Safe Schools Hotline to their arsenal, according to Stewart. The hotline can be downloaded as an app, visited online or persons can call 24/7/365 to receive help. Information regarding any safety concerns can be reported to the hotline and when those reports are gathered, the district is notified so immediate action can be taken.

Madison County Schools have come a long way in regards to school safety. Stewart remembers a time when there weren't metal detectors or random backpack checks, or the presence of school resource officers.

"If a police officer was on a school campus, something "big" was going on. Since that time, our school campuses have become accustomed to uniformed officers, random backpack and locker checks as well as lock down drills," Stewart said. "It is a different time, but as a result of those measures, we know our students and staff are in a safe environment every day."

Stewart said she believes the district has had resource officers in schools for at least 15 years. But their purpose isn't just to sit in an office and wait to be needed, she said. The men and women who don the blue have become trusted members of the school community, building relationships with students and adults in their schools.

"Those relationships are the foundation for success. While resource officers' first priority is campus safety, they also recognize that they are most effective when they are a trusted member of the school family," Stewart said.

Moving forward

Following the tragic high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Madison County Schools didn't waste time in assuring the safety of their students and faculty was priority number one.

"There is no way Madison County Schools can accomplish the instructional goals we have set if our students and our staff don't feel safe while they are at school," read a statement released by the district.

Working with the Kentucky Center for School Safety and local law enforcement, the district set several safety measures in place.

According to the statement, those measures include:

• High schools voluntarily participate in safety audits by the Kentucky Center for School Safety.

• Adult supervision.

• Fostering relationships with students so each is known by at least one adult advocate.

• School resource officers are placed in middle and high schools.

• During school hours, visitors must enter through the front doors into safety vestibules, which give staff a chance to know who is coming inside and why they are there.

• Many elementary schools have implemented the Watch D.O.G.S (Dads of Great Students) program, allowing father figures be trained to supervise/monitor students during the school day.

• Each school has a safety committee, which helps develop safety plans for school buildings.

• Schools conduct periodic lock-down drills to prepare students/staff for emergency situations. Additionally, many safety members have experienced active shooter training by Kentucky State Police.

• The district monitors data from staff/student surveys to know who they feel about the environment they teach/learn in.

Practice makes perfect

In July, first responders from the Berea Police Department, Berea Fire Department, and Madison County EMS participated in an intense exercise aimed at simulating scenarios in which a gunman invades a school. The Active Attack Coordinated Response Course took place at Madison Southern High School.

The exercise, one of the first coordinated tactical trainings recalled among the various departments, gave first responders training for apprehending and/or neutralizing a suspect, first aid practice and securing the scene.

Practices like this one helps to give first responders a glimpse into what could happen should someone decided to enter the school with a weapon.

Reach Kaitlyn Skovran at 624-6608; follow her on Twitter @kaitlynskovran.

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