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Sheriff says latest shooting highlights need for SROs in ABSS schools

Representatives from the Alamance County sheriff’s office assured The Alamance News Wednesday that each of the 13 schools within its jurisdiction – six ABSS elementary schools, three middle schools, three high schools, and Clover Garden School, which is one of four charter schools – has a dedicated full-time school resource officer provided by the sheriff’s office throughout the school day, which they say is a first line of defense against a potential school shooting (see related story HERE).

School shooters typically look for “soft targets, where people are defenseless,” Alamance County sheriff’s major Curtis Morris told The Alamance News Wednesday morning.

“The sheriff’s office routinely works with the school system in conducting active shooter drills at all of our county schools,” Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson told The Alamance News Wednesday morning in response to the Texas shooting.

These drills are designed to train school staff on how to identify a threat get help, the sheriff’s office said.

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Part of that training includes learning how to identify the sounds of firearms and get to safety and go into a “hard lockdown,” Morris, the sheriff’s major, said in an interview Wednesday morning.  Active shooter training has been conducted at the 13 schools within the sheriff’s jurisdiction since 2019, Morris explained.

At the same time, the sheriff’s SROs train for active shooters as part of their ongoing annual firearms training so they can be prepared for any type of threat they may face while on duty, Morris explained in the interview.  “We feel with all the training we do, it’s going to be beneficial with whatever occurs,” he said.

In the meantime, one of the most important ways that school resource officers work to protect ABSS students is through building relationships, the sheriff’s spokesman Byron Tucker elaborated in the interview.  “Our SROs are so connected with those students, we are confident they will do anything to protect their kids.”

Morris recalled Wednesday that the school board agreed several years ago to prioritize funding for the SRO program.  “Our focus is to develop relationships with those kids,” not only during the school year but also through community events and programs such as the Junior Police Academy, which sheriff’s department offers each July in collaboration with the Burlington police department, Morris said. Local school children, who are identified as being at risk, “for whatever reason,” are invited to participate in the program, with their parents’ permission, Morris said.

The active shooter training – i.e., drills intended to prepare school staff on how to respond in the event of a shooting – is conducted at ABSS schools during teacher workdays, when students aren’t school, Morris said.

‘By the time the first shot goes off, it’s too late’

Lt. Brandon Mays, who oversees the SROs for the sheriff’s department, subscribes to the adage that, at least in law enforcement circles, by the time the first shot goes off, it’s too late.  Mays said that when they arrived at school Wednesday morning, the sheriff’s SROs were hearing concerns from “a few  parents but not many” in response to the shooting in Texas.

Mays, who spent 10 years working as an SRO in two high schools before moving into his current role, said that SROs “are by far the most visible division in the sheriff’s office and in the community.”

“We have SROs assigned to and providing coverage in every ABSS school [within our jurisdiction] and Clover Garden School – full-time, every day,” Johnson told The Alamance News Wednesday morning.

“Between students, staff, parents, and other visitors to campus, SROs see anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people a day,” Mays told the newspaper.  “For a lot of school-age students, the SROs are the only contact with law enforcement they ever have.”

The sheriff’s department’s SROs are trained to spot the warning signs of future violent behavior.  Mays pointed out that, Nickolas Cruz, then 19, who Mays said had had 39 prior interactions with law enforcement before he murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.  “The warning signs were not missed; the dots just were not connected,” Mays told the newspaper.

Rather than waiting for a school shooting to happen, the Alamance County sheriff’s office is taking a proactive steps to identify certain behaviors and mitigate the threats to the safety of students and the community, Mays explained.

“Yes, we are seeing an increase in mental health issues from pre-Covid [levels],” Mays said, referring to SROs that the sheriff’s department provides for ABSS schools.  “A majority of my SROs have been through BETA [Behavioral Threat Assessment] training,” which is offered through the State Bureau of Investigation, he said.

“My biggest thing for anybody to do,” Mays said Wednesday, “is communication: for parents, to your children; for teachers, to your students.  There have been studies where kids had these kinds of ideations and were asked ‘did anybody ever reach out to you?’ and they said, ‘well, no.’

“I don’t want to take a chance on having a student have a story to tell and nobody to tell,” Mays continued.  “If that student needs an outlet, a means to communicate what’s bothering them, I want my SROs to make that first step to get that conversation started.  There’s a much better way; we care about them very much – they are not alone.”

The BETA training is taught by two retired Secret Service agents, who live in Maryland and come to Alamance County for three days of intensive instruction, Mays explained.  BETA is basically a “fact-finding mission” in which law enforcement officers gather information – who, what, where, when, why, and how – in order to evaluate the validity of a potential threat and mitigate it, the sheriff’s lieutenant said.  That assessment is conducted by a team that includes law enforcement, intelligence analysts, and medical professionals, as well as parents and the student, and it “requires voluntary consent from all parties involved,” Mays said.

For example, if a student were to post a message on social media that “referenced making a threat of bringing a gun to school and shooting up a school,” that’s where BETA would come in, Mays said.

“We all receive training in juvenile mental health that gives us the tools and means to identify a student who may be suffering a mental health crisis,” Mays told the newspaper Wednesday.  “All my SROs work extremely closely with the student support staff [at ABSS schools] to attempt to identify the source of the issue and connect the student with any and all available resources to help.”

Among the early warning signs that SROs are trained to watch for are: changes in behavior, including frequent or sudden mood swings; isolation; and a new or heightened interest in such things as previous mass shootings and/or firearms, Mays explained.

Programs such as the “Sandy Hook Promise,” named for the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, which Mays said help raise awareness of the potential warning signs for gun violence.  ABSS school board members discussed implementing the Sandy Hook Promise program here several weeks after the shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018 but haven’t revisited the topic since.

Mays stressed Wednesday afternoon that training for SROs “is not one-and-done – it’s constant.”

Asked about the importance of having SROs in schools, the lieutenant said, “They are the one person a school campus who would take a bullet for a child,” knowing that they may not go home to their own families at the end of the day.

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