Editor's Note: The 10-year anniversary of the Heritage High School was May 20. However, due to concerns for students' safety expressed by some members of the Rockdale County Board of Education, the Citizen agreed to wait until after the last day of the school year, May 29, and after graduation ceremonies, May 29 and 30, to publish this retrospective.CONYERS - Ten years have passed since Heritage High School student T.J. Solomon opened fire in the commons area of the school, injuring six people. The shooting was a seminal moment for the Rockdale County community, which had never before experienced an event so shocking, so dangerous or so senseless. But for the most part, Rockdale County has not allowed itself to be defined by that day in May 1999. Instead, those community members who were there and responded in the aftermath share a bond and a commitment - a commitment to do whatever possible to make sure something like this never happens again."It's been a long time since the Heritage incident, but I can tell you that I remember and am still so proud of how this community came together that day," said Susan Paul Smith, who was director of public relations for Rockdale County Public Schools at the time of the shooting. "A tragic event occurred, but it did not and does not define the Rockdale County Public Schools and the Rockdale community. People from all walks of life, businesses, civic organizations, law enforcement, faith-based organizations - the list goes on - came forward that day and said, 'How can we help?' They showed their confidence in the school system, our employees, parents, students and partners. I believe our school system leaders then and now have the safety and security of our students on the top of their list."School Board member Jeff Dugan, who was on the Board of Education in 1999, said both the school board and the RCPS administration try to make sure safety is adequate for both students and staff at their school buildings.He said he's unsure if students and some staff now ever think about the 10-year-old shooting at HHS, but it has certainly created an awareness for many school staff and RCPS personnel."It's about safety, not only at the schools but the public arena - it's been heightened since (the HHS shooting) and since 9/11," he said.Dugan said most of the changes resulting from the shooting at Heritage deal with personnel - school resource officers are at all of the middle and high schools and RCPS employs a staff member dedicated to school safety now.Additionally, RCPS Superintendent Samuel King implemented a special safety section in his strategic plan, which school administration and board members refer to when making policy and program decisions.Last year, RCPS received a $229,277 Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. The grant, administered under the direction of Smith, is used to enhance the system's emergency management plans and provide training for its employees. "Specifically, our plans for the grant money include enhancing the school system's emergency plans to be NIMS (National Incident Management Standards) compliant - using an all-hazards approach for responding to any type of emergency from an accidental fall to a tornado," she said. NIMS is a nationwide protocol for responding to emergencies that is used by first responders, such as fire, law enforcement and emergency management personnel. "Having our plans and procedures in sync with those of our first responders makes our response to emergencies a more coordinated and cohesive effort," Smith said. In the wake of the Heritage shooting, other subtle changes are noticeable, including the presence of police officers and sheriff's deputies positioned as school resource officers in all the high schools and middle schools. Lockdown procedures have also become more formalized in the schools.Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington, who was first elected in 1996, said one of the first moves he made as sheriff was to place a school resource officer at Heritage and Salem high schools, something the Conyers Police Department had in place for years at Rockdale County High School. Wigington said that the day the shooting occurred, May 20, was the date when the Rockdale County school board was set to take up the issue of adding resource officers to middle schools as well."Hopefully the parents and students realize the importance of having a law enforcement presence in the schools," Wigington said. "Obviously, it makes the resource officers and deputies realize that things like this don't just happen somewhere else - it does happen here."The sheriff said the Heritage shooting shed light on the critical need for communication within and between government agencies. He said the school resource officers know the students and are familiar with who is friends with whom. Wigington said deputies have made arrests based on threats and rumors of threats that may not have been known if the officers weren't so engaged in the schools. "Our investigators start working immediately upon learning rumors," he said. "When we hear about a possible threat one day, we will track it down and sometimes make an arrest before school starts the next morning."The deputies assigned to schools realize how closely they need to work with the school and communicate better and work together with the school system, and it's bound to only get better," he said.Conyers Police Chief David Cathcart, who was a captain with the Conyers Police Department in 1999, said, "Law enforcement in general has probably changed quite a bit in the way we think about and look at these situations. There is a lot more attention given to these types of incidents and more preparation for these types of incidents. ... (The shooting) took everybody here by surprise. Nobody ever thought anything like that would ever happen in this community."Cathcart emphasized awareness is the key to prevention. "Something like this puts everyone on guard that this is the reality and this can happen, which in turn sparked more training and got everybody to sing from the same sheet of music on awareness," he said. "This community always has been very good about coming together - public safety, the school system, transportation - whatever need came at the time, we've always been able to gather resources and handle situations effectively. Unfortunately, that was from a reactionary standpoint. Since that time, we try to prepare and prevent."Citizen Staff Reporter Michelle Floyd and Staff Intern Brittany Binowski contributed to this article.Aimee Jones can be reached at email@example.com.
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