Hundreds of Limestone County teachers this week learned the use of pepper spray, tactical batons and other tools aimed at helping them keep their students safe in a crisis.
The school district is the first in Alabama to arm its teachers and other staff members with SafeDefend, which company CEO Jeff Green describes as a comprehensive “active shooter system” that combines technology and self-defense tools to arm a school’s staff. Green and a group of local law enforcement officers were in some of the schools Monday and Tuesday to train teachers on the system.
Teachers were given fingerprint-activated safes for their classrooms that include gel pepper spray, batons, arm cuffs, a strobe light and other items they can use to deter a school shooter. The system, when activated by a teacher, sends automatic texts to the school’s main office, all teachers and staff, school resource officers, district officials and local law enforcement.
Limestone County Superintendent Tom Sisk said Tuesday that he takes students’ safety seriously. At an initial cost of $400,000 and a $10,000 annual monitoring fee, he is putting about 600 SafeDefend safes in the schools.
Truthfully, it is a system I hope we never, ever have to use. – Limestone County Superintendent Tom Sisk
“It’s the only system nationwide that I’ve found that does two things,” Sisk told a group of teachers undergoing training Tuesday at Elkmont High School. “It empowers every educator and staff member to be the one to sound the alarm. It also empowers you to take (the shooter) down.”
Sisk pointed to the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which six educators and 20 children were slain. Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach were the first two people killed in the massacre.
“At Sandy Hook, everybody trained to sound the alarm died in the first 30 seconds,” Sisk said. “Truthfully, it is a system I hope we never, ever have to use. But I want to send a clear message: Limestone County is not an easy target.”
The teachers in one classroom at Elkmont High on Tuesday jumped, startled by the sound, when Terry Zills, a criminal investigator with the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office, first demonstrated how to hit a target with a tactical baton. The goal of the weapon is to strike a shooter’s arm with it and either stop a shot from being fired or cause the gunman to drop his gun.
“We’re not talking about two students in here and they’re having a fight, so, ‘Oh, let me get my baton,'” Zills told the teachers present. “We’re talking about somebody who just killed three or four people in the hall and now he’s coming in here to kill you.”
Zills talked the group through a variety of scenarios in which a teacher could stop or slow down a shooter, including using the SafeDefend-provided strobe light to blind the shooter before using the baton and pepper spray to subdue him. He also suggested throwing chairs and desks to the floor to block the shooter’s path and explained how to break the classroom’s window and help students out to safety.
“There are a lot of little things that, in a split second, save lives,” Zills said.
The teachers paid close attention and soaked up the lessons they received, including learning how to use pepper spray. Tina Murphy, a teacher at Piney Chapel Elementary School in Athens, said she thought it was beneficial to prepare educators for potentially dangerous situations.
Her colleague, Jennifer King, agreed.
“And it’s educational, getting the information that we do about why we need (the training),” King said.
Limestone County Deputy Jason Pendergrass, the SRO assigned to Elkmont High, gave rave reviews to the SafeDefend system, particularly the automated texts that are sent out.
“This will definitely help us out a lot,” Pendergrass said. “It sends the text to let the SRO know what’s going on, but also exactly where the crisis is.”
Green, himself a former longtime school principal, said the system is a collaboration between education and law enforcement. Thus far, SafeDefend is being used by 25 school districts and businesses in six states.
None of his clients have had to use the system to stop a shooter, Green said.
“No, thank goodness,” Green said. “And we hope they never do.”