School Resource Officer Derrick Hammond escorts students across 8th Street after school on Sep. 8.
Midtown and Atlanta Public Schools have implemented new security measures and strengthened existing safeguards in response to recent safety concerns locally and nationally.
This year, there have been several incidents related to security at school and in the Midtown community, including an anonymous shooting threat in late August and a shooting after a party hosted at a former Midtown student’s home.
“It just makes me kind of scared knowing that in the Midtown community, even right next to where I work, there’s a possibility almost any day of a gun being right there,” senior Zakai Petilon said.
As a result of growing concerns in APS, metal detectors and bag checks have been implemented at Midtown and across the school district.
“This year the district-mandated screening for all high school and middle school students,” APS Chief of Police Ronald Applin said. “That was done in response to a lot of the guns that were found.”
According to a statement from APS, 27 guns were found or confiscated from schools last year.
Last year, prior to the current mandate, Midtown Principal Dr. Betsy Bockman chose to forgo metal detectors as Midtown returned to in-person schooling.
“Last year, my goal was to get everybody here to get them back into a routine,” Dr. Bockman said. “Let’s get everybody in, let’s get them back in a system.”
Social studies teacher James Sullivan said he believes the newly-implemented screenings work as an effective deterrent against violence.
“I do think that it’s effective,” Sullivan said. “It’s effective if it makes … people who might otherwise bring something to school … think twice and avoid doing something like that.”
Midtown parent Jacob Reson thinks that the use of metal detectors is important, and is glad to see that they are being used again.
“I think maintaining the metal detector line every morning and making sure there is enough time so it is not short-changed is imperative,” Reson said. “Also, just taking [screening] seriously, and not giving it up in case it’s too much of an effort to keep up.”
However, some members of the community doubt the effectiveness of the screenings.
“I feel like there’s plenty of people that get in different ways other than using the metal detectors,” Petilon said. “If someone really wanted to bring someone in something, then they still would.”
Others take issue with how the checks are conducted.
“I do feel safer with these new measures, but I would say that some people don’t like the changes due to how invasive some of the searches are, pulling stuff out of bags, and digging through people’s personal belongings,” junior Avi Crosby said. “Mostly, I’ve had good experiences with everything. However, one morning I had my clarinet and the people at the front made me open up my case and look through it, which was a little annoying and excessive.”
Applin recognizes some issues with the current process.
“We may not be perfect,” Applin said. “I noticed that there may be some issues here and there, but we’re looking at those issues. We’ll make adjustments when we need to.”
Another measure that is being pushed district-wide is the anonymous reporting hotline.
“The Say Something anonymous reporting is one of the things that we are really trying to make sure students, staff and community have access to,” Applin said. “We really want to push that. The Secret Service did a study, and in that study, they said, in 84% of incidents where there were active shooters, someone knew about it.”
The hotline is a particular focus for Midtown’s administration.
“I really pushed the ‘See Something, Say Something’ because that is where you can anonymously say, ‘Hey, I know this student has something in his backpack,’” Dr. Bockman said.
Some Midtown parents, including Connie Soave, think the implementation of “See Something, Say Something” has been beneficial in showing students how to be aware in the event that there was an emergency.
“I think that [‘See Something, Say Something’] has made a big difference in the school because there are visible signs, like you can literally walk and see the poster on the wall that says ‘see something, say something’,” Soave said. “So students know ‘Okay, here is what you need to be alert for; here’s what a suspicious incident might look like.’’
APS is also looking into further security measures. One proposal would require all APS students to use a clear or mesh backpack at school. Currently, each school can make decisions on such policies independently. At the start of the school year, several high schools in APS made the site-based decisions to implement safety policy for clear or mesh backpacks, including Mays, Washington and Maynard Jackson.
Applin believes backpack requirements could function as a complement to existing security measures.
“This must be in conjunction with other parts of the layered approach to dealing with safety [and] security in the district,” Applin said. “For example, it would significantly help screening in the morning and create a quicker process for all students.”
However, some community members think implementing a backpack requirement would be difficult for families.
“It’s more an annoyance for families and students that they have to buy a certain type of backpack and cater to their system, especially if they cannot find big enough and sturdy enough clear backpacks,” Heather Hallet, mother of a Midtown senior, said.
There are also other concerns about potential backpack policies.
“I am hearing from some school members that backpacks are not only not ineffective, but they have a negative impact on school culture,” said Paula Kupersmith, president of Atlanta Council of PTAs. “Many families report being concerned about their Black sons and daughters being targeted. There are other schools that I have heard from that the kids are scared about safety and like to see proof that we are listening and making an impact.”
Dr. Bockman, who is also a Midtown parent, is satisfied with the current protocols.
“If I felt as a parent or principal that something more needed to be done, that was able to be done in a school environment, I would do it,” Dr. Bockman said. “I really do feel comfortable.”
Midtown is not the only school implementing new safety protocols. Schools in the Midtown Cluster have also begun to increase security measures.
Howard Middle School, which replaced Inman to start the 2020-2021 school year, has utilized metal detectors for years, however, with the recent increase in school shootings, the intensity of safety checks has increased. Now, similar to Midtown’s protocols, instead of allowing students to enter through whichever entrance they choose, students are ushered through one entrance and taken through metal detectors.
Howard parent and PTO officer Katie Ludlam believes that security measures such as the use of clear backpacks and metal detectors may not actually be preventive. Instead, Ludlam thinks students should try to be more communicative about what they see and witness.
“I feel like the studies have shown that really the only thing that really prevents or helps keep students safe is word of mouth,” Ludlam said. “The truth of the matter is, if someone wants to bring something into the building, they’re going to find a way to bring it in.”
At Howard, clear backpacks are encouraged, but not required. The use of clear backpacks increases apprehension because of privacy concerns, especially with female students.
“Feminine hygiene is coming into play. You have 11 and 12-year-old girls who are just coming into their womanhood,” Ludlam said. “It’s still a very sensitive issue with a lot of them, to put them in such a vulnerable position where they would feel uncomfortable.”
In addition to this concern, both Ludlam and Howard eighth grader Karin Tian wonder how effective the clear backpack idea is.
“I feel like if they are gonna check our backpacks, they need to at least do it properly,” Tian said. “Depending on the teacher who checks them, some teachers don’t even look inside; they just touch the backpack, which isn’t really effective.”
Tian approaches the potential implementation of a clear backpack policy similarly to Ludlam.
“I don’t really want people seeing what’s inside my bag because if I had something valuable in it or something, they would be able to see,” Tian said.
Although some question a portion of these new protocols as to whether they are truly effective, other new protocols, like increased security in terms of visitor policies, make Howard’s visitors feel safe.
“The visitor policy and access has been addressed so visitors will check in and go through metal detectors, as well,” Ludlam said. “As well as the office doors are locked and there is no access to the school from the office without a key card; the office acts as a vestibule.”
While Howard has obvious safety protocols, elementary schools such as Mary Lin also take steps to ensure safety that might not be as obvious as looming metal detectors.
“Security-wise, I know that you have to be buzzed in at the main entrance,” Mary Lin PTA President Deanne Uroic said. “And once you’re there, if you’re a visitor, you have to check in at the front desk with your ID and get a printed badge that has your face on it and you have to wear that sticker if you’re going to be visiting.”
Safety concerns in elementary schools have become especially prevalent in the wake of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 22 people (including himself) and injured 18.
“I know elementary school is a really fun age, but we are definitely living in different times than we did when I grew up, or even when my son grew up,” Uroic said. “But in general, I feel like Mary Lin has a great, very small community, and I feel like it’s a really tight-knit community. All the parents walk their kids to school, you know, everybody’s looking out for everybody.”
Going forward, concerns may remain high.
“We never get that far away from headlines that remind us of the dangers that exist in the larger world,” Sullivan said. “Whenever something happens at a school, that kind of, again, brings it [safety] to the forefront for all of us.”
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