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Safety measures beefed up

Municipal and school district officials made the decision to enhance police presence at the seven schools in White Hall and Redfield during the weekend, noting the potential for anxiety among students and parents following Friday’s deadly shooting rampage at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

White Hall School District Superintendent Dr. Larry Smith said principals of the district’s four elementary schools, two middle schools and high school were asked to have counselors and faculty members to be on the alert for signs of distress among students.

He said the additional officers should help ease the fears of parents who were concerned about the safety of their children at school following the Newtown massacre, which took 26 lives, including 20 children.

Districts across the country asked local law enforcement to increase patrols this week. “This is not in response to any threat at White Hall or Redfield schools, but a joint police and school effort to confirm safety and security around the schools and to help ease the high levels of anxiety,” Smith said Sunday.

In addition to students’ physical safety, administrators were also concerned about the psychological toll of the Connecticut shootings, Smith noted.

White Hall district students will be released early Thursday and Friday afternoons for the Christmas break following semester tests at the middle and high schools.

“We know people think that ‘it can’t happen here,’ but it has happened in a number of close-knit communities like White Hall,” Police Chief Richard Wingard observed Monday. “We don’t want to take any chances.”

The school district and White Hall Police Department have a compact involving three school resource officers (SROs) at the five schools here, Wingard said. The program, started in the mid-1990s, involves the district paying one-half the salaries, benefits and car expenses of the three SROs.

One officer is assigned to White Hall High School when classes are in session and during extracurricular activities, including athletic contests, and one is on duty to White Hall Middle School.

One SRO is normally assigned to the three elementary schools here when classes are in session, rotating among the three, Wingard said. However, this week an officer will be assigned to each elementary school.

Mayor Noel Foster said he authorized overtime so one officer would each be at Gandy, Moody and Taylor schools.

Wingard said he believes the SRO program is a deterrent, noting SROs can bring drug dogs on to each campus and even search for weapons. The presence of an officer reduces the likelihood of a non-custodial parent attempting to remove a child without authorization.

“The presence of an officer at a school is a reassurance to students and many students have developed a good rapport with our officers,” added Wingard. “It provides many young with a father figure when there is not one in the home.

“You can’t say an SRO will eliminate all problems, but we believe it does reduce the potential,” the chief said.

Redfield Police Chief Steve McFatridge said his department has implemented beefed up patrols at Redfield Middle School and Hardin Elementary School this week.

Aside from the students’ physical safety, the presence of the Redfield police officers at the two campuses may reduce the psychological impact of the Newtown shootings, McFatridge noted.

“Obviously, this is a very difficult situation all school communities are dealing with,” observed Redfield Mayor Tony Lawhon. “We can’t change what occurred in Newtown, but we can try to help parents and children cope with this horrific act.”

McFatridge said he is interested in establishing an SRO program at Redfield and Lawhon said he would work with the chief and Redfield City Council to determine if the program could be expanded to the town’s schools.

Dorothy Welch, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and technology, said principals and teachers can help students with grief and fear issues.

Returning to an environmental where students feel safe helps ease any trauma, the veteran educator emphasized.