Officials say equipment will help protect kids by thwarting intruders

The smallest school district in Washington County has 478 students separated into an elementary and a junior/senior high school. Gaston is a quiet town, so why do its schools need a phone system that disperses emergency information to thousands of people per minute, special door-locking mechanisms and a motion-sensing DVR that records in color?

To those who nurture the kids every day, spending $12,000 to do it better seemed like a bargain.

“We’re not trying to be ‘big brother’ here,” said Superintendent David Beasley. “We’re just taking necessary steps to keep the children safe.”

In the wake of a rash of school shootings across the country last year, the Gaston district took steps to reduce the risk of such an event happening locally, running a hefty tab on technical equipment meant to keep children and teens out of harm’s way.

Faculty members at Gaston schools have taken an online course about how to avoid bullying and other disruptions to everyday school life. They also received training about what to do in the case of an active shooter on campus, with some curriculum gleaned from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Everyone — from the superintendent to custodians — took the course, said Beasley, who pointed out that a Washington County tactical negotiations team member evaluated the district’s emergency plans and procedures.

Staffers were taught to do one of three things in the case of an active shooter: run, hide or fight back.

In order to prevent the need to hide or fight, the district invested some cash in a motion-sensing color DVR that provides officials with a more effective way to review suspicious behavior in and around school hallways. The color feature will make subjects more identifiable and the limited footage will save authorities time in reviewing unimportant material, Beasley said.

Sixteen cameras are mounted inside the high school, and the district will follow suit at the elementary school this fall.

Along with the newly installed DVR and cameras, Gaston has a phone system called Alert Now that can make 3,000 calls per minute. The device allows the school to quickly and efficiently alert law enforcement officials and parents to any disturbance or suspicious event taking place at the schools. In the event of an intruder making it inside one of the buildings, Beasley said the district also purchased door blocks that keep doors from closing, enabling them to remain locked at all times.

All teachers have to do in case of an emergency is remove the door block and let the door close. The blocks are made of neoprene and fit around the doorknob. There is an extension that wraps around the front of the door and holds it open by about an inch and a half. Once the block is removed, the door will close, and consequently lock.

A two-button system — one in the principal’s office and another in the secretaries’ area — will provide staff with a fast way to sound an alarm. A pressed button causes a high-pitched sound to be sent out over intercoms and the school is immediately sent into lockdown. After that, the Alert Now phone system goes into effect and parents and authorities are notified.

When parents arrive on campus during an emergency, they’re required to pick their children up one at a time so faculty can be sure they are returning students to the proper person.

Beasley said the new bells and whistles were purchased with money from the district’s general fund budget, along with some fee money from families.

He believes the tools will be helpful for non-gun-related disturbances as well.

“We want to put a stop to suicide, bullying and any other kind of disruptive behavior that inhibits everyday school life,” Beasley said.

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