By Mike Marsee
A new day is dawning at North Laurel Middle School, and Bobby Day and Dan Smoot are looking for trouble.
The two men may have a smile and a fist-bump for every kid who wants one as they enter the building, but they also have a trained eye for things that don’t seem quite right. Smoot and Day, both retired Kentucky State Police officers, are part of a unique team installed in the Laurel County schools to improve security.
The team consists primarily of retired law enforcement officers who are prepared for the worst, but who also are doing their best to make sure the worst never happens. They are not school resources officers and don’t have the same duties; rather, they are there for the safety and security of students and staff in emergencies and everyday situations.
The idea for Laurel County’s Security Response Team was born in the weeks following school shootings in Marshall County and Parkland, Fla., last winter. Those shootings led to the hiring of additional school resource officers in Laurel County and prompted Superintendent Doug Bennett and the Laurel County Board of Education to look at ways to improve the safety and security of the district’s schools.
“Nothing was off the table, but we wanted to come up with something that was truly beneficial to the students,” said Day, who has served as the district’s director of school security since 2013.
“What we learned is that a force or team focused entirely on school safety and security does not exist,” Bennett said. “We said, ‘Let’s build that ourselves for our kids, and personalize it to the safety and security needs of Laurel County.’
The board created a program that employs retired law enforcement personnel certified through the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, a 2004 federal law that permits current and retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed firearms anywhere in the United States.
Team members are essentially volunteers, though they are paid a small stipend to give the district liability protection. The first members began showing up in schools last spring, and this school year began with 13 officers spread among the district’s 18 schools who have more than 225 combined years of law enforcement and security experience.
“We’ve heard a lot of positive comments from staff and the community, and we’ve continued to build on that and put in place more layers of security,” Bennett said. “It’s just taken a while for folks to understand that this is a very specialized team and they’re actually part of our school system. They’re a huge part of our team.”
Bennett said the team works to increase the safety of students without making it a concern for them.
“The idea is not to change the focus of the school day to safety for the students,” he said. “We don’t want them to focus on the potential of a shooter. We’re working behind the scenes and under the radar to create an environment that’s conducive to learning.”
Bennett said the impact of the team already has been felt, from defusing “small incidents” to helping weed through the increased number of threats – primarily on social media – that followed shootings at other schools.
“Without the team we have in place, that would have just about shut down the schools,” he said. “What our team was able to do was quickly investigate those with the assistance of law enforcement and determine there wasn’t a threat. We were able to continue the focus on education and do the very thing that we’re trying to do.”
The members of the team will likely be the first line of defense if someone means to do students or staff members harm at one of their schools, but their job also involves responding to medical emergencies, assisting with evacuations, accident prevention and a fair amount of psychology.
That is part of the work that is taking place when Smoot and Day greet students in the drop-off line at the start of each day. Yes, they want those students to feel comfortable around them, but they also want to know if something is wrong with one of those students – whether they could be a threat to others or if they’re just having a rough time at home.
“We force them to engage for a reason,” Smoot said. “You can tell so much. I’ve had a few that wouldn’t fist-bump and then they start crying. You can tell if one of them is hysterical or mad or whatever, and that’s the red-flag moment when you call one of the teachers to talk to them inside.”
One of the teachers waiting just inside the doors at North Laurel Middle, 6th-grade reading teacher Robin Hacker, said most students look forward to being greeted by Day and Smoot.
“They’re out here every morning – rain, snow, shine, whatever – greeting these kids. The kids get out of the car coming for a fist-bump. They love it,” Hacker said. “The kids see them out in public and come up and want to fist-bump them. So they’re building relationships outside of this school. It goes beyond just greeting them at the door.”
The engagement doesn’t stop when school starts, either. Team members are walking the halls and checking doors throughout the day, but they’re also interacting with students.
For Charles Parker, a team member assigned to South Laurel Middle School, that means popping into classes as well as walking the halls. Parker, who retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in nearby Manchester, is greeted with hugs as he makes his way through the gymnasium where special-needs students are playing volleyball or through the music room where young band students are practicing.
“It’s phenomenal how they’ve treated me, the love everybody has shown. I never would have dreamed this when I took this job,” Parker said. “You can walk around this school every day like I do, and you can just see they’re so happy that somebody’s here for their protection. It makes you emotional sometimes.”
Team members are assigned to particular schools, but they can be moved as needed. They also serve at many after-school activities.
“We have a communication network, and we can marshal resources and personnel wherever needed very quickly,” Bennett said.
Day said team members can respond to an emergency much quicker than local law enforcement agencies – their response time is zero in most cases – particularly at schools outside London, the county seat.
“We’re out of the city. The sheriff’s department could be somewhere else in the county and they’ve got to come all the way over here,” said Dan Parks, a retired federal air marshal who spends his days at Bush Elementary School. “We’re here, and that’s a big plus.”
Parks knows that any threat to an elementary school isn’t likely to come from inside the walls, so he keeps an eye on who comes and goes and on the grounds.
The Security Response Team has been carefully assembled through recruitment within the tight-knit law enforcement community and open applications.
Team members have gone through background checks and specialized firearms training. They have been trained in school-based scenarios on the same police shooting training simulator used by KSP and the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice.
However, they also are trained in school-specific areas such as restraint, crisis control, CPR, tourniquet application, hemorrhage control, Narcan use and even student privacy and confidentiality.
And Day noted that the team isn’t for everyone – even if they’re qualified.
“If you’re too intimidating, this is not the environment for that,” he said. “They’ve got to see you as someone they can approach, and also see you as the protector. It’s a fine line and something not everybody who fits the requirements can do.”
In most cases, the Security Response Team members have a vested interest in the schools where they patrol. Many of them have children or grandchildren who attend school or work there.
Parks is as vested as any of them. One of his daughters teaches at Bush Elementary, another is the secretary and three grandchildren are students there.
“I would’ve taken any school, but I was tickled to death when they gave me Bush,” he said. “If somebody comes through one of these doors intent on doing harm to these kids, I’ve got a gun on my side and I’m charging head first at them. I’m going to stop them from hurting these kids.”
Heather Comeens, a 4th-grade reading teacher and one of Parks’ daughters, said she and her colleagues are glad her dad has their backs.
“We feel a lot safer with him being here,” Comeens said. “We know that we’re secure and protected. The kids like him and we like his presence here.”
Bennett said he’s confident that any of the team members would do whatever it took to keep students safe in a worst-case scenario.
“If something were to happen, God forbid, we have got guys that will give their life to protect the students and staff,” he said. “If everyone knew what these guys would be willing to sacrifice, that would make them feel even more comfortable.”
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