Dr. Jeanny Burress, Oneida Special School District's Director of Schools, greets Millie Hill, an Oneida High School student, outside the school on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Ben Garrett/IH)

Smooth.

That’s the first word that comes to mind in the student drop-off line at the Oneida Middle School/High School complex Friday morning.

It’s 7:45 a.m., and a new school day is beginning. One by one, cars pull up to the rear entrances of the adjoining schools to deliver students — first a trickle, then a steady stream of cars. There are no long waits; no confusion. It looks like the rear entrance has been the only way into the school for students all along, rather than just five weeks.

“It was a nightmare when we first started. But our kids do phenomenal. They are accustomed to it,” said Dr. Jeanny Hatfield, Oneida Special School District’s director of schools.

The new drop-off procedure is one of several measures implemented by the school system in an effort to beef up its security and safety protocols. The brainstorming that ultimately led to the new routine began after the Valentines Day school shooting in South Florida that shook America’s education system to its core.

Baby Steps

“This is the best part of my day right here,” said Hatfield, as she greeted students unloading from their parents’ vehicles — first on the middle school side, then on the high school side. Hatfield is front-and-center at the drop-off line as many mornings as her schedule allows, along with a number of other administrators and educators who pitch in to make sure the morning’s routine is as smooth as possible.

Early on, Hatfield caught flack from parents who were not happy with the new measures being implemented. She remembers some stopping in the drop-off line as students were greeted with the new routine upon their return from spring break last month — stopping to have a word with her. But, soon, everyone had the new procedures down pat.

“That first week was pretty hectic but by the end of that week it had died down,” Hatfield said.

Melinda McCartt, the school system’s safety coordinator, credits the buy-in from students and parents alike.

“One of the biggest positives about living in a small community is you have the outreach of many community partners,” McCartt said. “Everyone has gotten on board and helped us. Our school is empowered by parents and community members. It’s not just administrators’ responsibility; it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

In reality, the new drop-off routine isn’t much different from parents’ perspective. The back doors have always served as the primary entrance — about 80 percent of students were dropped off behind the school, by Hatfield’s estimation. The difference is the front doors are now locked at the beginning of the school day, eliminating the ability of students to enter the school from that side. Prior to last month’s switch-up, some parents would drop their students at the front of the school to save time — sometimes even stopping in the middle of Main Street to let their students out of the vehicle.

OSSD administrators had attempted to switch the drop-off routine in the past — not so much for the sake of security as for the sake of logistics; private vehicles mingling with school buses in front of the school can create a headache. But the new routine didn’t work, and was abandoned within a week.

This time around, stubborn administrators have stuck to their guns — and it’s worked. The rear drop-off works without hiccup. 

Inside the doors is where the biggest change is immediately evident. Each student is stopped upon entering the school, their backpack checked by staff. They also stop for a quick check by a staff member holding handheld metal detectors. On the high school side Friday morning, Principal Kevin Byrd and Guidance Counselor Evie Thomas were handling the metal detector checks. 

Hatfield said the backpack searches have turned up items that aren’t allowed in schools.

“It’s been very helpful because we can educate our students,” she said.

Students and parents have a few more weeks to get accustomed to the new routine before school lets out for the summer. When classes resume in August, Hatfield anticipates some changes, as administrators continue to refine their approach and add more security protocols.

“We’re taking baby steps,” she said. “Right now we’re trying to get them used to going through the bag checks and the detectors. When they start back to school it’ll be the same procedure; it’s just that other things will be added.”

Cool Entrance Music

From the middle school entrance Friday morning, the lyrics of Queen’s “Under Pressure” can be heard as students make their way into the building for the start of a new school day. Things are calmer on the high school side, enticing one student to quip as he enters the building, “We need some cool entrance music over here.” 

Middle school principal Kelly Posey said she and her staff have fun with the start-of-the-day routine.

“We have to be here, we might as well have fun, right?” she said.

The lyrics of the classic rock song are somewhat appropriate. In the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, which left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, school administrators across the country were under pressure to protect their schools: under pressure from parents, even from lawmakers.

McCartt remembers a late-evening brainstorming session with Hatfield that same day. From those first talks, she and her husband donated the metal detectors that are being used, and the new security measures were eventually hatched.

“We already knew that we needed something for security. The latest shooting in Florida prompted us to take it a little more seriously and act on it,” McCartt said.

McCartt said that school safety has different components, from addressing students’ emotional and mental concerns to school health to character education and life skills training. With those components already in place, she said, OSSD needed to beef up security to make sure weapons and drugs aren’t entering the school.

“It’s gone quite smoothly,” she said. “Dr. Hatfield has done a fantastic job communicating with the community. I’m thankful all of our parents have been on board with this and the students have been fantastic.” 

It’s also ongoing. A recent training session at the high school involved an active shooter scenario, with participation by Oneida Police Department, Scott County Sheriff’s Department, Campbell County Sheriff’s Department and Claiborne County Sheriff’s Department.

Back outside, Hatfield’s phone alerts her to a new text message as she greets students. It’s from a staff member at the elementary school. “We’ve got a lock-down,” Hatfield said. Then, she quickly added, “It’s just a drill.”

The training will continue, but for now, the main thing is just how smooth it’s gone to this point.

“Everybody was saying the traffic was going to be horrible back here,” Hatfield said. “But it’s not been.”

This story is the May 2018 installment of Focus On: Education, presented by S.T.A.N.D. on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print version of this story appears on Page A3 of the May 10, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.