By Kendal Groner

While the country is still dealing with the aftermath of the recent Florida school shooting, local law enforcement is working with the Unicoi County School System to ensure students and faculty are prepared to respond to active shooter situations.

During the first week of March, the Erwin Police Department and Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office will be conducting active shooter training drills at all county and city schools.

“We take this really serious, and it’s good training, especially in the times we live in and with what’s gone on recently,” said Mike Hensley, Unicoi County sheriff. “We are going to be blocking off the roads to the schools, and it will also be broadcast over the police radio, so if anyone hears anything we want them to know that this is a drill.”

The drill will mimic an active shooter situation, and prepare students and faculty to respond in a timely manner. The drills are meant to instruct students and faculty how to safely and efficiently evacuate the building or lock down a classroom.

Director of Schools John English said that these drills with local law enforcement are conducted at least annually, and other emergency preparedness drills for lockdowns, fires, tornadoes, or site evacuations are conducted on a monthly basis.

“We have several requirements by state law that we do these, but we will probably take this drill further than we have to in light of recent events,” English said. “This is all to make sure our students and staff are as prepared as possible.”

Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said these drills are important to refresh skills and refamiliarize the officers with the different school buildings and familiarize the students and faculty with their response time. He said that these drills have been done in the past, and back in December his department trained at the Unicoi County High School to prepare for an active shooter situation.

“The difference between those drills and the ones that will be carried out during the first week of March is that we are doing these upcoming drills jointly with the county,” Tilson said. “We are going to respond together, so it is important that we are also training together.”

Tilson said that he and Sheriff Hensley have worked out a mutual agreement that regardless of whether an emergency situation occurs in a city or county school, both departments will respond.

“We are both small, and so we are going to pull those very precious resources together,” Tilson said. “This will allow us to work on the unification of those resources, because the last thing we want to do is divert those.”

Sheriff Hensley said that previously there was a School Resource Officer (SRO) in all of the county schools, but due to budget cuts it is no longer possible.

“If you asked me if an SRO should be in every school my answer would be a definite yes,” Hensley said.

There is currently an SRO at Unicoi County High School, Unicoi County Middle School and Rock Creek Elementary School.

“We can’t say an active shooter situation is never going to happen, and I hope and pray it doesn’t,” Hensley remarked. “But if it does happen, we have the training to take care of the situation. The way I look at it is we are protecting our future. Our children are our future, and we want a safe environment for the school teachers as well as the students.”