By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
It’s almost impossible to predict and stop a school shooting, but Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper thinks they can stall the gunman if one ever does occur locally — and that tactic could potentially save dozens of lives.
Talking to a crowd of more than 50 education and law enforcement personnel Wednesday morning, Culpepper noted some stop-gap measures like secondary classroom door dead bolts and stronger glass in main doors as two cost-efficient and effective options that could make local schools more secure.
By making it harder for a potential gunman to enter the school and break into classrooms, Culpepper said it would buy time for police to arrive.
“If we can delay this person until law enforcement gets there, that will save lives,” Culpepper said. “Can we save everyone? Sadly, probably not. But two [victims] is better than 26.”
For the city system, which is within the Cullman Police jurisdiction, Culpepper recommended replacing main door glass with a thicker material that would be harder to shatter. In the recent Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut the gunman shot his way through a locked door to gain entry before killing 26 people.
Culpepper also recommended adding dead bolt devices to the inside of each class, so rooms could be easily barricaded from the inside. Officials are also developing a plan to install tasers at each campus — protected inside a biometric safe — that could be used by resource officers or trained school officials on-campus in the event of an emergency.
The department has kept an officer at each school ever since the Sandy Hook incident last month, and law enforcement officials are working to make that arrangement permanent.
Much like safety standards have evolved for fire prevention, Culpepper said he expects regulations to change in the coming years to make schools safer in the event of an attack.
“I think it will get to a point where we have new codes for things like dead bolts and shatter-proof glass,” he said.
The city police tactical unit plans to tour each school campus next week to start developing specifically tailored response plans.
Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said she believes a renewed attitude of vigilance, between students and faculty, can also serve as a deterrent against violent acts in school.
“What we can do as teachers is to educate people and stress to the kids that if they see anything that makes them feel unsafe to tell someone,” she said. “Working together, I feel so good about our path moving forward.”
County: ‘Focus on what we can change’
For Cullman County Board of Education officials, the question of safety is a complex one. Made up of more than two dozen schools spread over several campuses, the system is a mish-mash of old and new buildings that have been built and connected over the years. Some buildings have a half dozen entrances, while other campuses have classrooms that open to the outdoors.
But instead of focusing on what he can’t change, Superintendent Billy Coleman wants to tackle areas he can control.
“We can talk about the laws and all those things, but we need to focus on what we can change,” he said.
Coleman said he believes one of the biggest priorities for the county system will be to install some type of secondary locking mechanism inside the classrooms, so teachers could lock down their rooms and hopefully prevent a gunman from shooting through the door.
Max Bartlett, with the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office, said officers will begin surveying county campuses next week to generate ideas for updated evacuation and lock down procedures.
“We want to walk through every campus with tactical officers to identify cover and concealment options and exit strategies,” he said.
Education and law enforcement officials both agreed that increasing the amount of on-campus school resource officers would be a top priority this year.
Most county schools have a resource officer assigned, though many schools share officers due to funding limitations, meaning not every school has a consistent law enforcement presence.
“The goal of the sheriff’s office is to have resource officers at every school,” Bartlett said.
* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.