By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
School shootings and events affecting the safety and well-being of students across the country have become all-too-familiar these days. Officials at Cherokee Central Schools are well aware of these events and the threats affecting students nationwide.
“When I first started, the thought of someone hurting a child was just unheard of,” said Dr. Michael Murray, Cherokee Central Schools superintendent. “We didn’t build schools as prisons because our primary function is to educate, love, and nurture children. We’ve watched what we do change because of how society has changed and the evil that is out there where people actually think of harming children. We’ve upped our game every year trying to protect the most valuable resource we have which is our children. I’m pretty proud that in western North Carolina we’ve put that as a priority. You can’t teach them a thing if you can’t protect them.”
Dr. Murray noted that the school system has plans in place for such events, but he couldn’t divulge any of the details to the One Feather or the public. “The reality of it is that we do not want people to know all of the details of how we work every day on a continuous improvement model to keep the children safe.”
He added, “I’m worried that people ask their child, ‘have you had active shooter training today?’ We don’t talk about active shooter training to children. We talk about things like lockdowns and shelter in place. We’re trying to find common themes that we can focus on that will fit multiple situations, and an active shooter training involves all of that.”
Debora Foerst, Cherokee High School principal, commented, “We do several things at CHS to make school a safe space. One thing we have started doing consistently is holding safety team meetings. This team is made up of representatives from various departments, and in our monthly meetings, we review any incidents, discuss and address any concerns, and we leave with ‘next steps’, or assignments for our team members, that will make our school an even safer space.”
She went on to note, “We do have a complicated campus, but we work well with CCS security, our SROs, and tribal agencies to make sure our students and staff are safe. We also take all concerns very seriously. When we have a student, parent, or teacher share a concern, we investigate fully, utilizing Tribal law enforcement if/when necessary.”
Every classroom in the three-school campus has a Crisis Communication Procedure poster. “We do have a Cherokee Central Schools Crisis Management Plan, and that is not only practiced but talked about with safety committees ongoing,” said Dr. Murray. “Each one of the three schools on this campus has safety committees in place that meet frequently and do practices and brainstorm.”
He said having all three schools in one campus is ideal for safety. “We are under one location. We are under a guarded, gated system, and I couldn’t be happier with the precautions that we have in place.”
Four school resource officers (SROs) are on duty – one for each school and a supervisor. Of their role, Dr. Murray commented, “Their role is crucial. It’s a preventative measure. If the relationship starts in the elementary school and continues in middle school, by the time they get to high school, the students have a trusting relationship and not an adversarial relationship with our SROs because they know that they love them and care about them and are going to make sure that they’re protecting them.”
Those relationships help in the overall safety of the school says Dr. Murray. “It’s absolutely wonderful for someone to say, ‘hey, officer, I noticed that this happened at my bus stop and somebody has put this on Facebook.’ Then, we can prevent something from happening. It is played down some, but a lot of things are prevented before they even get to the part that we’re seeing on the 6 o’clock news where children are being killed. And, I honestly believe that those types of measures are more important.”
Foerst adds, “Relationships are key when it comes to safety. We encourage our teachers to have a good, positive relationship with their students. We seek to have a good, positive relationship with our students and with our parents. That way, if there are any concerns or fears, if they’ve heard anything or are worried about anything, they can come to us with those concerns. We take every one seriously. We investigate everything.”
In all, there are 162 security cameras in place at Cherokee Central Schools and all exterior doors remain locked. “We’ve limited access to schools because we’ve had to. Before that, we were wide open because we were nurturers. So now, we’ve limited access. We’ve put up gated systems, locking doors, and we funnel everyone through one entrance. When you restrict that, you make it a hard target. Before Columbine, you wouldn’t have found anybody that worried about locking all of your exterior doors. I did a walk-through yesterday and checked all of the exterior doors and didn’t find one propped up.”
He said the main issue behind all of the security is safety not to stifle students. “I think all of us are doing a better job at making this a harder target. We do not want it to be a prison. Children should still love education, and they need to feel that we love them and that we’re not trying to keep them completely isolated from the world. We still take field trips. They still have P.E. time and playtime…”
Recently, President Donald Trump brought up the idea of arming teachers to help prevent school shootings. Dr. Murray disagrees vehemently with this idea. “We are educators. I don’t support arming teachers. I never have. I never will. I think you’re asking people that are supposed to be shining light into doing something that they’re not trained to do, and I think the collateral damage would not be worth it.”
All threats to school safety are investigated. Therefore, false alarms and pranks end up being treated the same as bona fide threats and are a drain on manpower, time, and resources. Dr. Murray said sending students home for a day off of school can sometimes encourage that behavior.
“I would much rather relocate the kids, bring in a bomb dog and whatever measures law enforcement wants to do to clear my building, then bring them back. Therefore, we’ve not reinforced that you’re going to get a day off if you decide to scrawl something. There has to be some responsibility put back on the students and the families, and false alarms are not the way that we want to go. It wastes the resources and time of everybody, and for the kids caught doing that, there will be consequences.”