COVINGTON -- The Newton County School System continues to support its school families, after the elementary school shooting in Connecticut that left 27 people dead, including 20 kindergarten students, on Friday.
NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews issued a letter to parents on Saturday, announcing that school counselors and administrators are available to respond to students and parents as needed.
"The safety of our students is our main concern," he said.
He added that schools have crisis plans in place and that they each practice emergency response drills.
"We continually evaluate our safety and security procedures," Mathews said. "Unfortunately, the events in Newtown, Connecticut, serve as a stark reminder for the importance of these school safety procedures."
Additionally, he said Monday that a code yellow soft lockdown will remain in place from Friday for at least this short week before winter break "out of an abundance of caution" -- staff are expected to be especially diligent, outer doors to schools are locked and front doors are monitored.
Jeff Meadors, vice chair of the Newton County Board of Education, said that he received calls over the weekend that not every school complied with Mathews' requested lockdown on Friday.
"That's unacceptable to me," Meadors said, adding that he's also heard from people who complain about the ease of gaining access into schools. "This has to end, and it has to end now."
Principals met for a mandatory meeting on Monday afternoon to review school safety procedures, Mathews reported.
"While no amount of planning can guarantee that a tragedy such as this will not occur, we do everything we know to keep students and staff safe while at school," Mathews said in the parent letter.
He encouraged parents to talk to their children.
"As we learn more details about this tragic incident in the days and weeks ahead, it will be important for you to spend time talking with your children and helping them cope with this news," Mathews said. "We know that children may raise questions and concerns about this tragedy."
The American Psychological Association advises parents to talk with their children about their worries, keep them home in a safe place during times of crisis, limit constant exposure to the crisis and watch for signs of stress, fear and anxiety.
"I have elementary-age children enrolled in our school system, and the events that unfolded on Friday in Connecticut hit very close to home," said school board member Abigail Coggin. "My daughter is the same age as many of the innocent victims. I cannot begin to imagine what those students and teachers went through or do I even want to imagine what their families are living through right now. I, as a parent, have many concerns about our children's safety, and I know our school system and personnel will do their best to keep our children safe."
In a response to questions from The Citizen, Mathews said that system officials have not yet "had substantive discussions" about placing School Resource Officers in the county's 13 elementary schools.
"Budget reductions, rather than additions, have been the norm," Mathews said about discussions. "The addition of SROs at each of our elementary schools may be something to really look at in light of the assault on little children and teachers and principal in Connecticut."
Currently, NCSS pays the Newton County Board of Commissioners about $735,000 annually for providing 14 SROs at the system's middle and high schools. Peggy Bullard, business manager at NCSS, said it would cost another nearly $787,000 to add SROs at the 13 elementary schools, the Newton County Theme School at Ficquett and the Newton College & Career Academy, based on the current contract amount.
"I would rather look at spending dollars on student safety than capital projects. Our students are our greatest capital, both intellectually and otherwise," Meadors said. "I would like to see zero-basing of our budget to go item by item to determine if the dollars we currently spend are being spent well and wisely, and place a high priority on ensuring the safety of all students, Pre-K to seniors."