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News
Amid shootings nationwide, local officers discuss preparedness

WATAUGA — The nation becomes increasingly more on edge with each mass shooting tragedy, and local law enforcement are continuing to see the need for preparedness and prevention — both on the part of the public and their agencies.

“These acts of mass violence are concerning for all of us,” said Appalachian State University Police Chief Andrew Stephenson. “It fundamentally changes our thought process; it alters the culture of our society.”

Just this month, the nation became aware of a shooting in El Paso, Texas, and another in Dayton, Ohio — the two not even 24 hours apart. According to CNN, 22 people died and more than two dozen were wounded when a shooter opened fire in an El Paso Walmart. The Dayton Daily News reported that a gunman killed nine people and injured 32 more in less than 60 seconds outside of a bar in Dayton.

“We certainly take these incidents seriously and have been preparing for years for such a possibility,” said Boone Police Capt. Andy Le Beau. “In our business, while we hope and pray it never happens, we do say ‘when, not if.’ We never want to lull ourselves into a false sense of security with the mindset that it can’t happen here.”

Le Beau stated that the Boone Police Department conducts an active shooter training yearly — sometimes even more often — in conjunction with all Watauga County law enforcement agencies as well as fire departments and medic services. Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said that cross-agency trainings have been taking place over the summer. The trainings use simulations to bring a “safe, but effective, reality to various scenarios,” he said.

Aside from App State Police and WCSO, Le Beau said Boone Police also tries to work with fire services, medics, Watauga County Emergency Management, Watauga County Schools, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, Watauga Department of Social Services, Daymark Recovery Services and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. Le Beau, Stephenson and Hagaman all discussed the importance of local agencies working together when it comes to ensuring the safety of the community.

“We rely on our citizens, visitors, students, schools, businesses, neighbors and all first responders to be vigilant and report anything suspicious,” Hagaman said. “None of us can be everywhere at all times; we must partner with each other to hopefully ensure citizen and officer safety.”

Boone Police also offers an active shooter training to businesses, organizations and other groups on how to respond in case of some type of threat. This training also includes recognizing potential threats by teaching employees what to look for and how to react to a threat.

“The time to plan for a crisis is before that crisis occurs,” Le Beau said. “We help people plan their response and discuss their options in certain situations based on location, environmental design and individual needs.”

Subsequent to the El Paso and Dayton tragedies, the Boone Police Department responded to a suspicious person in the parking lot of the Watauga County Public Library, according to Le Beau. The person was gone before officers arrived, and it was not determined if the person was an actual threat. The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office soon after responded to a suspicious social media post made by a minor, according to a WCSO shift report.

One of the important responsibilities that Le Beau said Boone Police assumes is the investigation of possible threats.

“We see so many times across the nation in the aftermath of a shooting that ‘red flags’ were missed,” Le Beau said. “We have developed systems in the county and the state to make sure that information does not fall through the cracks.”

Le Beau explained that each local agency has instituted a system to ensure that information gets funneled to a specific person — whose job it is to follow up on the information and share reports with partner agencies. Le Beau said Boone Police routinely follows up on tips, shares the information with other agencies and then works with many partners to determine what the best course of action is for the particular situation.

This past April, the N.C. SBI announced the creation of its Behavioral Threat Assessment Unit, whose focus is to work with local law enforcement and communities to identify, investigate, assess and manage threats of targeted attacks. These attacks could be mass violence at schools, places of worship or other areas of large gatherings. The SBI hosted a threat management training course that same month in conjunction with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Police Department and the UNC System for local and state law enforcement agencies.

Additionally, each of the three officials encouraged citizens to speak up if something seems suspicious. Stephenson said, “If you see something, say something” — a common phrase to urge citizens to report suspicious activity.

“If you’re concerned about someone’s wellbeing or someone has made statements about harming themselves or harming others, report that to authorities,” Stephenson said. “Most of these shooters ... there have been signs,” Stephenson said. “There’s been things on social media, they write things down or people noticed a change in behavior before they commit these acts. Those things need to be reported to police departments. Maybe it amounts to being nothing, but maybe lives are saved.”

People are able to contact the local Crime Stoppers to submit anonymous tips. Crime Stoppers can be contacted by calling (828) 268-6959 or (828) 737-0125 as well as submitting a tip at www.tipsubmit.com/webtips.aspx?AgencyID=1251 or texting “NCTIP plus your tip” to 274637 (CRIMES).

While the two aforementioned mass shootings took place in public places, there have been others that have happened in schools — such as the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said the school district works closely with local law enforcement and mental health partners to ensure that schools are safe and that students are getting the attention they need.

“We work hard to be vigilant and observant with students, parents and the public. There are things that in the past we might have overlooked, but recent events nationwide now cause us to stop and pay more attention,” Elliott said. “If I determine that someone is acting in an unsafe or threatening manner toward a school or our staff, I have no problem taking legal action or working with law enforcement to ban someone from campus.”

Last year, the Watauga County Board of Education invested in significant facility upgrades to improve school safety that included electronic access controls on doors, additional security cameras and a visitor management system. The addition of school nurses, school counselors and school resource officers were also seen as a component of improving school safety.

“We have emergency response plans in place at every school and continually review our practices to try our best to be prepared for any kind of situation. I continue to advocate for additional school resource officers and for additional in-school mental health services for our schools.”

Additionally, Elliott said WCS will be implementing the Say Something school safety phone app that is funded by the state. The app will allow students or staff to submit an anonymous tip when there is a concern about a student or a situation on campus. Elliott said the state plans to conduct regional training for school personnel and law enforcement with plans to implement the system in October.

When it comes to the local higher education institution, Stephenson said App State Police immediately and thoroughly investigate any threat or potential threat and act upon it accordingly. The department also conducts reviews of nationwide events such as the death of University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot by a person she had formerly dated, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. This is an addition to a review of an incident that was a little closer to home — the April shooting on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

Stephenson said the department looks to see what policies and procedures the department needs to change based on the study of those incidents, how department officers would have responded in a situation and what the responding agencies did well and what could have been improved upon.

Something that “desperately needs to change” in the nation is the focus on being reactive instead of proactive, Stephenson said. He stated that those who control federal and state budgets need to invest more in proactive safety measures.

“If you look at changes that come about, whether it’s law changes or investments in capabilities for law enforcement agencies, those always seem to happen after the fact,” Stephenson said. “There’s very little investment in prevention.”

Stephenson advised that police departments need more technology to increase their capabilities as well as improved training, additional employees and added security measures in their jurisdictions such as cameras.

“Most police departments are underfunded; most police departments don’t have a very large training budget,” Stephenson said. “The officers at those agencies suffer and those communities suffer as a result.”


News
Public invited to share input on future of Elk Knob State Park

Representatives from the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation met with local community members on Aug. 22 to solicit input on the master plan for the Elk Knob State Park.

The master plan will be a 20-year plan — developed with the help of E2 Landscape Architecture in Asheville — that covers the entire state park, which contains over 4,200 acres spanning Watauga and Ashe counties. A drop-in-style meeting was held at the Boone Optimist Club with plans posted around the room for community members to view. Staff were also on hand to answer questions and hear comments.

Dave Head, the planning program manager for the Division of Parks and Recreation, said Elk Knob has been a growing park and has gotten to the point where officials need to plan for the future in a “holistic” fashion.

According to the Division of Parks and Recreation, the goals for the planning process include expanding the park to further conserve important surrounding landscapes; connecting the park to surrounding communities; celebrating and preserving the natural, cultural and viewshed resources; improve the park user’s experience through facilities; and increase recreation access and connectivity while also enhancing the unique existing opportunities.

Meeting attendees were able to look at materials that showed four development sites where park officials have flatter land to use. These sites have been deemed the south, north, park entrance and and peak road sites. Head explained that organizers have identified the following uses for those sites — day use (like picnic tables and shelters), a visitor center and camping or other amenities. It has not been determined what the programming in these areas would look like, though.

“No decisions have been made yet,” Head said. “This is the time we want to hear from (the public); we want to hear from them through the process but now is really important.”

Attendees were asked to fill out a paper survey with approximately five questions to gather input on the plan. An online survey on the plan is also available, and can be found by visiting www.ncparks.gov/elk-knob-state-park/future-development.

The survey closes in roughly two weeks, Head said, but people can still reach out to him throughout the process. To contact Head, email dave.head@ncparks.gov.

We’ll take that and look at what we’ve heard from the community, financially what we can do, operations and ongoing maintenance of all of that stuff and come out with a plan,” Head said.

Head said most of the questions he had received in the first hour of the meeting were about where the development sites would be in relation to community members’ land. However, he said most of the feedback he was receiving — even from those with property questions — were positive.

State Trails Planner Smith Raynor was at the meeting to answer questions about trails at the park. She said most of the questions she had received were about the layout of the park’s trails and how they would go about obtaining land for trails. Raynor explained that officials would develop trails on public land first and then connect to willing land owners.

Raynor added that sometimes during these public meetings across the state, people can be hostile because of disapproval of plans or concerns about their land. However, Raynor said “everybody is thrilled” about the Elk Knob State Park plans.

Likely sometime after the winter season, Head said another public meeting will take place where a draft master plan would be presented and input would once again be solicited. A big idea map of the park and development sites can be found by looking at the online survey.


Steve Behr / Photo by Steve Behr 

Appalachian State Athletic Director Doug Gillin likes the direction in which the athletic department is headed.


Photo submitted 

Watauga High School senior Bailey Whitehead-Price and junior Aaron Mutio work on their school Chromebooks during an art class.


News
Public meeting on new Valle Crucis School to be held Sept 3

VALLE CRUCIS — The Watauga County Board of Education and the Watauga County Board of Commissioners are hosting a joint public meeting on Sept. 3 to discuss and hear public input on the proposed construction of a new Valle Crucis School.

The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. in the gymnasium of the current Valle Crucis School. The school board is not planned to conduct any other business during the meeting; the commissioners will still meet for their regularly scheduled meeting that morning at 8:30 a.m.

In February 2018, the commissioners heard from Chad Roberson — an architect with Clark Nexsen — about multiple capital needs Watauga County Schools was facing. It was recommended that it would be more cost effective to fully replace a few of the schools rather than renovate, including Valle Crucis School. At that time, it was said that the current Valle Crucis School was not above base flood elevation and therefore had a higher chance of flooding as well as the worst traffic and parking issues in the school system.

On March 11, the board of education approved a contract to purchase a 14.4-acre tract of land in Valle Crucis for the eventual replacement of the existing 82-year-old school. The property is situated along Broadstone Road between the Mast Farm Inn and the Mast Store Annex — approximately one-quarter mile from the existing school. This tract of land has since been referred to as the Hodges property by school officials and others.

At the March commissioners meeting, WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott stated that the school system would enter into a 120-day due diligence period where it would be investigating if the land is viable for a school building. The board’s purchase of the Valle Crucis property would be contingent on several tests to determine such things as soil structure, the availability of water and other construction-related considerations.

The commissioners hosted a public hearing on its 2019-20 budget in May, with a majority of those who spoke showing support for the construction of a new Valle Crucis School. However, a few people voiced concerns that not enough community input had been solicited on the potential placement of the new building. During the public hearing Henri Deschamps — owner of the Mast Farm Inn — requested officials host a public hearing about the location of the building before closing on the property.

A website containing an open letter and petition was posted on July 26 by a few people with concerns about the movement of the school impacting the Valle Crucis historic district and neighboring businesses. The letter calls for the officials to reconsider the placement of the new Valle Crucis School on the Hodges property and build a school on the site the school currently sits on.

Elliott has said that the primary advantage of building on the Hodges site is that Watauga County Schools can build a school higher above flood level, minimizing the risks of potential flooding. He added that Roberson and engineers had determined that it would be more expensive to rebuild on the current site — even with the addition of the former Valle Landing site that is under contract by the county.

At the Aug. 12 board of education meeting Elliott said that his hope was that the due diligence tests and engineering studies of the Hodges property would be completed by the Sept. 3 meeting. He added that he hoped there would be a report from the architect and a presentation to the public about the proposed school and its search for land.


Photo by Anna Oakes 

Boone’s water intake pump station, housed in a barn structure, is visible on the left side of the photo on the south bank of the South Fork New River.


Photo submitted 

Appalachian Mandela Fellows Naomi Ndunge Muindi, center, and Fadimatou Buba work together to dig a deck footer for a Watauga County Habitat for Humanity home. This community service was part of Mandela Day 2019, an annual international day that honors the late South African president Nelson Mandela.