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Many school districts don't comply with safety law

Liberty, Long apparently have complied

POSTED: December 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
ATLANTA - Nearly a decade after Georgia passed a law requiring school systems to get state approval of security plans, nearly 20 percent of the state's districts haven't complied.

The list of schools that have not complied with the law does not include Liberty and Long counties'. The closest schools not in compliance are McIntosh County's.

And half of the 32 districts without approval have never bothered to turn their security plans in to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, according to an Associated Press review of state data. But state officials have little power to enforce the law because the statute includes no penalties for districts that don't seek approval.

"We would like to think a school system would comply because it is the law," said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "We would like to have 100 percent, but we realize that's very unlikely."

State officials say all 184 school systems in the state have some type of security plan in place, but not all of them have been OK'd by GEMA.

To get GEMA's approval, each school must create a security plan addressing a variety of potential threats - from severe weather to a gunman on campus - and turn them into the district office. The district then hands the plans over to GEMA, which can ask for changes before granting approval.

Administrators in many of the delinquent districts reached by The Associated Press say they are working with GEMA to get in compliance with the law. They blamed budget and personnel constraints, which often keep them focused on meeting federal No Child Left Behind mandates.

"You've only got a few people to do it," said Billy Thompkins, director of operations for Sumter County Schools, which has 5,300 students in eight schools in south Georgia. "We've got a solid plan in place for protection of our staff and kids. Getting it approved by the state is a good thing, but we went ahead and implemented our own safety plan."

The district is working on getting GEMA approval, he said.

Most of the districts that don't have approved security blueprints are small - less than 5,000 students. But a few are among the largest districts in the state, including the troubled Clayton County school system with 48,000 students.

Clayton County lost its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in September because of problems with its school board. John Walker, director of school safety for the district, said he has gotten a letter from GEMA granting approval.

"We have received documentation that we have an approved plan," he said.

Weiss said GEMA is working with the district to get each school's security measures in line.

The Georgia law was passed in 1999 just before the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in April.

The idea was that GEMA can better help school districts in emergencies if the agency knows the school's protocol in advance. And districts that have emergencies can better fend off lawsuits filed by angry parents if they have a state-approved security plans in place.

"The average parent drops off their kid in morning at school and assumes all i's are dotted and t's are crossed," said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland, Ohio-based school safety firm. "In reality we should not have to have any state laws or mandates for schools to have safety preparedness in place because it's the right thing to do."

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