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Security upgrades underway at Jackson Schools

After 2018’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, county and school system officials in Jackson County put their heads together to come up with a plan to reduce the chances of such a tragedy someday happening locally. After more than a year of planning and research, the school system is now getting close to implementing the more complex of those safety measures.

The safety upgrades have been divided into two separate projects: ensuring that every school has a single point of entry for students and visitors, and increasing the number of security cameras installed on each campus. 

In 2018, commissioners appropriated $27,000 for the school system to engage John Cort of Asheville-based Cort Architectural Group to come up with plans to bring all eight school buildings in Jackson County’s system to a single-point-of-entry design. Schools across the country have been going to single-point-of-entry systems in recent decades, as these types of entrances are easier to monitor and guard against unauthorized entry. 

Four of the buildings required only minor work to become single-point-of-entry facilities, with that work completed during the last school year. However, the other campuses — Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Smokey Mountain Elementary School and the campus housing Blue Ridge School and Blue Ridge Early College — required more extensive changes. Cort estimated the work would cost $2.5 million, and commissioners voted to appropriate that amount. The plan is to install swipe card readers at doorways other than the main entrance so school staff can still use those access points. 

“As you can imagine, you’re building a large number of walls on these campuses and relocating entry points,” Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan told commissioners during an update provided at their Oct. 29 meeting. “Keeping in ADA compliance and all these things was not a small task.”

For “the better part of a year,” the school system met with local law enforcement, emergency management, fire chiefs and code enforcement to develop the plans before submitting them to the two state agencies — the N.C. Department of Insurance and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction — that are required to review them, Buchanan said. That review process is now all but complete.

“He (Cort) saw no reason why we wouldn’t be able to go out to bid on that project on Dec. 2,” said Buchanan. 

Construction will likely begin in January and is expected to last for about 18 months, meaning that the security upgrades should be complete by mid-2021. 

However, there are some variables at play. Principally, the fact that the project involves work on four separate campuses, the most distant of which are separated by 37 miles of winding mountain roads. The school system will set up the bid process so that contractors can give their prices for individual schools or provide a quote to complete the work all four campuses. 

In addition to restricting access points in its school buildings, Jackson Schools is working to install 134 additional security cameras across its eight campuses, mostly in interior spaces. That work is a continuation of security monitoring upgrades already underway. Last year, Jackson Schools replaced 10 outdoor cameras and eight indoor cameras. The district also added a dozen 4K cameras to cover all single-entry points, as well as about six other cameras in random locations throughout the school system and large monitors in the lobby of each school so visitors know they are being watched. In 2018, commissioners appropriated $400,000 for security cameras and monitors. 

“What we’ve worked on the last six, nine months is building our own internal capacity to be able to install those cameras ourselves,” said Buchanan. “Those projects will be going on at the same time now that we have staff that are trained up to install those cameras, so it will make the dollar go much farther than if we hired one of those companies to do it.”

The technology surrounding security cameras has advanced dramatically in recent years, said Buchanan, with some programs actually having the ability to identify weapons from security footage — the system knows the difference between, for example, a long arms gun and an umbrella and will send out an alert when a weapon is detected. 

“Not only are we adding more cameras, but we’re adding smart cameras in locations that are considerably more expensive. But we’re being strategic in where we place those to get the most bang for our bucks,” said Buchanan. 

To further support school safety, with the 2018-19 budget commissioners committed an annual $667,000 to hire four new school resources officers, a juvenile detective and six student support specialists. During a May budget presentation, Superintendent Kim Elliott told commissioners that the student support specialists have kept busy and have been making an impact, with the six new positions seeing an average of 572 students since coming on the job.

“That has just been a tremendous, tremendous addition to our schools, and we’re grateful for that,” said Buchanan.

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