Hendersonville – On the heels of a very rare shooting in a local school, Henderson County Public Schools officials are grateful for the quick response to halt the incident but are looking at how to further enhance school security.
Metal detectors and armed teachers are harsh options that might get considered, but have drawbacks. School officials point to the current system as adequately equipped to handle most situations. The school board meets Monday, Dec. 14 at 4 pm in a live-streamed session that is its first since the shooting on Tuesday, Nov. 24.
The shooting occurred at Hendersonville Middle School (HMS) two days before Thanksgiving. Hendersonville Police, Hendersonville City and school officials limited case information because it involves juveniles, and the police investigation is ongoing. Motive details remain unclear, but they provided a sketch of what happened.
The incident erupted at about 7:45 am in the HMS gym, with about 35 students gathered there. Students arriving early congregate in the gym or cafeteria, the largest school-wide rooms so they can “properly distance” to guard against COVID-19, new Supt. Dr. John Bryant told The Tribune. Dr. Bryant was still associate superintendent when the shooting occurred, and oversaw school security.
A 13-year-old male fired one shot with a handgun in the school gym, striking a 12-year-old girl in the leg, authorities said. She was treated at Mission Hospital in Asheville, and released days later. The shooter was placed in custody, and his parents were brought in to aid the investigation.
HMS school resource officer (SRO) Bruce Darrah and other Hendersonville police arrived within a minute of the shooting, and first responders soon followed, police reported.
A school administrator promptly restrained the shooter, and students in the gym followed active shooter protocols, Supt. Bryant told the Tribune on Friday. He was impressed with the “entire school’s ability to respond to a crisis.” He said a key is getting away from the shooter, finding a “secure shelter” to hide in, and remaining still and quiet.
First, there was a Code Red lockdown of the HMS campus at Ninth Avenue and Whitted Street, then lesser Code Yellow once the suspect was detained. School was dismissed soon after 10 am.
School board Chr. Blair Craven thanked the “swift, seamless, and courageous response to the shooting…My heart goes out to the victim of this senseless act, and the students and families who are feeling fear and uncertainty in the aftermath.”
“Crisis Team” counseling has since tried to ease their trauma. This is the third year of school social workers in Henderson County Public Schools (HCPS), with eight full-time, Bryant noted. Before, school counselors managed student crises. Social workers, nurses, resource officers are also each “critical pieces, to create a safe, inviting school environment.”
“Imagine the other little kids in the gym seeing that”, said school board member Dot Case. “I know how they feel.” Case, a recently retired North Henderson High School teacher, said that in the late Fifties she witnessed a similar incident as a Mills River Elementary fifth-grader.
“A boy brought a gun to school and held his sixth grade classroom at gunpoint — for hours,” Case told the Tribune. “We were taken to the playground. He didn’t shoot anybody, thank goodness. His mother came, and talked him down.”
Double Doors and Monitors are Keys
Craven vowed “We remain resolute in our commitment to providing the safest learning environments possible…District leadership and school system staff will work with investigators, to further continue our deliberate efforts to increase student and staff safety each day moving forward.”
Henderson County is ahead of the curve in keeping out dangerous-acting intruders, taking safeguards in recent years after a few school shootings across the country.
Access was strongly limited on each of the 23 HCPS school campuses, armed SROs were stationed in each school, and better monitoring systems were installed. “We have outfitted all schools with secured entrance vestibules,” Director of School Safety Scott Masington told the Tribune.
Each school typically has a secured single campus entrance, with other areas fenced off or with locked doors. Double doors are among upgrades since Masington started his new safety position a year and half ago, in July of 2019. The visitor can escape winter cold, but is scrutinized. “There is the exterior door, then a middle space where you can be identified (via intercom) and (if cleared) be granted school access” through the next door, Masington explained.
He foresees periodically upgrading surveillance capabilities.
Caution about Metal Detectors
Metal detectors to screen out guns onto campuses (including elementary schools) “may be a topic we explore over time”, but are a double-edged sword, Masington said.
Students would be bunched up in line outside the detector at the main entrance, boosting COVID-spreading risk, and lending a concentration camp feeling. “Their environment should be warm and inviting,” Masington said.
Supt. Bryant agreed, saying “we provide the safest environments possible, while balancing them as schools where we nurture and respect each other. Those behaviors are important as much as a metal detector would be, or a security camera or officer.”
Another dilemma is how to conduct active shooter drills en masse. “COVID has certainly challenged us” in that regard, Masington said. He opted for verbal instruction, rather than acting out drills in groups. Such drills usually happen three times per school year, with a mid-year drill approaching.
Massington noted that in a lockdown, all doors are closed and locked in the school. Then students try to avoid detection by an armed intruder, by “gathering in the corner of the room that is non-visible from a hallway doorway that may have a window, or an exterior window.”
Clustering into the most secure corner is still the way to go, he said. “God forbid if we get into that kind of real-life emergency, COVID is not obstacle for immediate and imminent safety.”