The Douglas County School System’s top law enforcement officer said he believes procedures already in place would have prevented a school shooting like the one in Newport News, Va., earlier this month.
The lawyer for the teacher who was shot by a 6-year-old student at Richneck Elementary alleged at a news conference this week that concerned staff members warned school administrators three times the student had a gun and was threatening other students in the hours before the Jan. 6 shooting.
The teacher, 25-year-old Abigail Zwerner, was hospitalized for two weeks and is now recovering at home.
“On that day, over the course of a few hours, three different times — three times — school administration was warned by concerned teachers and employees that the boy had a gun on him at the school and was threatening people. But the administration could not be bothered,” Zwerner’s attorney, Diane Toscano, said.
DCSS Police Chief Tracey Whaley oversees a department of 30 school resource officers charged with protecting all public school campuses in Douglas.
In an interview with the Sentinel on Friday, Whaley said he didn’t want to get too specific about safety policies because it would “compromise our safety in the schools.”
But when asked if policies and procedures already in place would have prevented a situation like the one in Virginia, he said ‘yes.’
“Yes. I believe that our policies would speak to any situation that comes up,” Whaley said. “And I believe that our people understand that safety is everyone’s — everybody has a piece of safety. Every staff member. And that our policies would have kicked in and prayerfully made sure that nothing like this happens.”
Those policies worked last month when a Lithia Springs High student was arrested for having a gun on campus. Another student told school administrators that 17-year-old Sa’mora Patterson had a gun at school. Patterson was immediately taken into custody after admitting she had a gun when questioned about it, according to an arrest warrant.
While school shootings have become all too common in America, the Virginia shooting was unique because of the age of the alleged shooter.
The administration at Richneck Elementary School “was paralyzed by apathy” despite the multiple warnings that day and didn’t call police, remove the boy from class or lock down the school, Toscano said.
Toscano said that Zwerner first went to an administrator at around 11:15 a.m. on the day of the shooting and said the boy had threatened to beat up another child, but no action was taken.
About an hour later, another teacher went to an administrator and said she had taken it upon herself to search the boy’s bookbag, but warned that she thought the boy had put the gun in his pocket before going outside for recess, Toscano said.
“The administrator downplayed the report from the teacher and the possibility of a gun, saying — and I quote — ‘Well, he has little pockets,’ ” Toscano said.
Shortly after 1 p.m., another teacher told an administrator that a different student who was “crying and fearful” said the boy showed him the gun during recess and threatened to shoot him if he told anyone. Again, no action was taken, she said.
When another employee who had heard the boy might have a gun asked an administrator to search the boy, he was turned down, Toscano said.
“He was told to wait the situation out because the school day was almost over,” she said.
About an hour later, “Abby Zwerner was shot in front of those horrified kids, and the school and community are living the nightmare, all because the school administration failed to act,” Toscano said.
“Were they not so paralyzed by apathy, they could have prevented this tragedy,” she said.
Whaley said that in Douglas County, “administrators have the ability to do administrative searches and that is based upon the policy of our school district.”
“I am telling you the basics of it,” he said. “If a report of a weapon or the report of a threat comes up we’ve got procedures 1-2-3-4 things that automatically kick in. It’s just best that we know those things and people on the outside don’t.”
And he said DCSS takes all reports of weapons on campus seriously, whether the person with the gun is a 5-year-old kindergartener or a 17-year-old high school senior.
“Yeah, any person who has a weapon is considered a threat,” Whaley said. “And then that would be addressed. The main thing is to keep outside outside and to keep kids safe on the inside.”
Whaley said his department will look at the way the Virginia shooting was handled and try to learn from it.
“We always look at every situation and try to learn the lessons that we can and grow from it,” he said. “That’s what every school district — that’s what I hope every school district does and every police department does. I know here in Douglas that is what we do. We take the information, we dissect it and then we look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we doing what we’re supposed to?’ ”
Ultimately, he said he believes that “safety is everyone’s job.”
“Everybody has a piece of it,” he said. “Everybody has eyes. Everybody communicates. Students and parents. We want our stakeholders to communicate anything we need to know so we can address it. It may be something that we’ve already addressed or are in the process of addressing. But please communicate it. If I had to say one thing, it is — continue to communicate and encourage students to continue to communicate anything that they believe we need to know so that we can work together and maintain our safety. I believe that every school is safe. I’m confident in that. And I know that if we continue to communicate and work together that they will continue to be safe.”
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