Full-time police presence lacking at Midlands elementary schools

jmonk@thestate.com, tflach@thestate.comDecember 18, 2012 

— More deputies were deployed at some Midlands-area public schools Monday as concerns about school safety rose in the wake of Friday’s elementary school slaughter of 20 children in Connecticut.

At other schools, security procedures were being reviewed.

But as interviews with spokesmen for most of the seven public school districts showed, none of the 43 elementary schools in Lexington County or 52 elementary schools in Richland County has a full-time, armed school resource officer because districts and law agencies say they don’t have the money.

Officials estimated it costs from $50,000 to $100,000 to deploy one full-time school resource officer. They not only are trained armed guards but teach children about the dangers of drugs, gangs and other youth hazards.

In Richland County, Sheriff Leon Lott said each elementary school shares a school resource officer with another elementary school. The deputy “bounces back and forth” from school to school at unscheduled times, so a deputy is either on one of two elementary schools’ premises or could show up at any moment, Lott said.

“So we’ll have an armed deputy to confront them — not an unarmed teacher, not an unarmed janitor with a mop,” Lott said of possible armed school intruders.

Moreover, Lott said, each Richland County elementary school has emergency security procedures that Lott didn’t specify but said would allow school officials to quickly summon help in an emergency.

“We’re not doing anything differently, because we’ve been prepared for something like this for 16 years now,” Lott said. “Kids are used to us being there.”

Elementary schools are “soft targets,” Lott said, particularly for terrorists or those who want to hurt young children because of the shock value. Lott said he was particularly alarmed by the 2004 takeover of a Russian school by Islamic terrorists in which 186 children died.

However, an armed guard is both the best deterrent and the best way to offer serious resistance to someone bent on harming children, Lott said.

Lexington County Sheriff’s Department spokesman John Allard said his department stations armed school resource officers at each middle and high school, but not at elementary schools.

However, beginning Monday, Sheriff James Metts dispatched deputies to all Lexington County elementary schools, Allard said.

“We had directed patrols at all the schools today,” Allard said, adding that deputies went into each school.

Allard said the school-oriented patrols will continue “as long as citizens and school administrators ask that we continue to do it.”

Both Lexington and Richland counties have full-time school resource officers at all middle and high schools, Allard and Lott said.

Lexington County school officials estimate it would cost more than $4 million to put an officer at each of the 43 elementary schools in Lexington County.

“We’d like to have them at all our schools,” Lexington 2 assistant superintendent Jim Hinton said. “It’s very successful.”

The focus has been on having such officers at middle and high schools, where discipline problems tend to be more frequent, educators say.

About half of the schools with officers are near elementary schools, doing unofficial double duty by covering both sets of classrooms.

Some educators are starting to look at the idea of putting officers in the lowest grades, asking law enforcement officials for advice.

“If that is the answer, we’ll do it,” Lexington-Richland 5 spokesman Mark Bounds said. “But we don’t want to rush into a knee-jerk reaction.”

County Council members are waiting to see if educators feel it’s imperative to add the officers, a cost shared with the sheriff’s staff.

“It’s got to be a school-driven decision,” council chairman Bill Banning said.

Lexington 4 superintendent Linda Lavender said the presence of deputies at her small district in the Gaston and Swansea communities was welcome Monday.

“We just wanted to have a heightened level of security for people’s peace of mind,” she said.

Currently, for her 3,500 students in seven schools, she has two school resource officers, but she would like one more, she said.

Although older students have been targeted in mass killings, Lavender said, last week’s massacre in Connecticut was the first such incident she knew of that took place in a U.S. elementary school.

“This changes the landscape,” she said.

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