GASTONIA An East Gaston High annual photo from the 1980s shows student Bill Melton in a cowboy hat on Western Day, pointing a BB gun at a classmate.
Back then, nobody paid much attention to an act like that on campus.
“Today, it’s a Class I misdemeanor,” said Melton, 46, a captain with the Gaston County Police Department. “That’s how much things have changed.”
Melton began working with school security in 1997 and co-chairs a newly formed task force re-evaluating safety issues at Gaston’s 55 schools. This comes after December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Made up of educators, parents and law enforcement officers, the 20-member group will announce its recommendations March 13. Ultimately, it will be up to the school board to decide which measures to implement and for Gaston County Commissioners to supply the money, if needed.
To prevent attacks, school systems throughout the nation are looking at ways to improve security.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted unanimously in February to ask Mecklenburg County Commissioners for $33.7 million for cameras, fences, screening systems and other safety improvements. Commissioners will vote on the proposal March 19.
On Tuesday, the Lincoln County school board will consider recommendations from a safety initiative that’s been going on at the county’s 24 schools for the past several weeks.
Matt Stover, assistant superintendent for human resources, said suggestions include securing entrances with a swiping system, installing cameras and making sure people are funneled through a central area rather than having access to the entire school.
Among the 10 largest school systems in North Carolina, the Gaston district has the lowest school campus crime rate. According to a state report released in January, incidents of crime at Gaston schools decreased for the third consecutive year, from 4.11 to 3.81 incidents, which is less than the state average.
Gaston schools Superintendent Reeves McGlohon said that even before the Sandy Hook shootings, school safety was already the system’s top priority. The Connecticut elementary school had an outstanding security system with well-trained teachers and safety in the forefront.
What happened at Sandy Hook prompted immediate measures at Gaston schools, including increased police presence, McGlohon said.
Meanwhile, a task force formed with subcommittees looking into four major areas: facilities, personnel, training and mental health.
McGlohon said many Gaston schools are 30 to 50 years old, designed and built “in a time when the public demanded access. They wanted us to make it easier to get in. Now, that’s totally changed.”
Structural changes may be needed at some schools, along with upgraded security cameras and increased police presence.
The mental health issue includes what can be done to identify individuals in schools who are having problems, and working with the mental health system to help them.
All meetings of the task force have been open to the public. When the recommendations come down, the system will be faced with finding the money to implement them as it struggles with budget cuts, McGlonon said.
However difficult that may be, he said, school safety “will continue to be the top priority.”
“This is an issue we have to deal with as a society – what do we want our schools to be?” McGlohon said. “If it’s more like a jail, it suffers. Could what happened at Sandy Hook happen in Gaston County? Yes, it could. But we’ve got to make it less likely. Or if it did happen, how to respond appropriately. We’re doing the best we can to make schools as safe as we can.”
Ashbrook High Principal Joey Clinton, who chairs the training subcommittee, said members include a parent with a child in the school system, a teacher, a school administrator and a Gaston County police officer.
“We’re going back over things already in place and putting different eyes on them,” Clinton said. “Each school is different. There’s not one size that fits all. We’re trying to standardize enough of the general stuff so everybody is on the same page.”
Additional training for school personnel may be one option. Without being specific, Clinton said, “we plan to recommend several things.”
Meanwhile, the subcommittee continues to meet.
“They’ve put in a lot of hours,” Clinton said, “and really dug deep.”
Co-chairing the safety task force with Melton is his former East Gaston history teacher, Mark Hollar, who is now assistant superintendent.
As Melton looks back to high school, it’s hard for him to believe those innocent times. “Lockdown” was a term used in prison systems, not schools. Melton remembers the day a fellow student walked into the lunchroom with two loaded Mauser 7.62 mm assault rifles.
“When I asked what he was going to do with those, he said, ‘I’m taking them to history class for show and tell,’ ” Melton said. “Nobody batted an eye.”
He sees the new task force as a dynamic mix of key players creating an energy “in thinking out of the box and brainstorming. It’s a chance to think openly and freely about what we need to do.”
Much already has been done – from surveillance cameras to metal detectors. County police have radio contact with schools and can view building floor plans on computer screens in their offices or patrol cars.
Despite all this, “you can always do better,” Melton said. “There’s no 100 percent guarantee, but our job to is get as close to that as we can. Our job is to keep campuses as safe as possible. In fact, it’s the responsibility of all in this community to do that. Students can’t learn if they can’t feel safe.”