Richland County conflicted over putting cops in elementary schools

dhinshaw@thestate.comJune 15, 2013 

— INSIDE

Richland 1 plans to assign a resource officer to each of its elementary schools, a move endorsed by Sheriff Leon Lott as a strategy that “keeps crazies from coming in” to harm students.

But school officials say they may not have $1.6 million to hire 14 new officers by the start of the school year, and their overture to Richland County Council for partial funding has been met with uncertainty.

The mass murder six months ago of 26 people – 20 of them students – at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has heightened the need among some officials to address the issue.

“School resource officers need to be in all the schools. Elementary schools are no different,” said Lott, who said he began staffing schools with the specially trained officers when elected in 1996.

Just the presence of an officer inside a school, or a patrol car in the parking lot, could deter an intruder, the county’s top cop said.

But some on County Council say they can’t take responsibility for paying the bill for new officers this late in 2013-14 budget planning. Objections also have been raised about having armed officers around young students, while others suggest addressing children’s mental health issues would do more to protect vulnerable children.

Not all Richland and Lexington county school districts are adding elementary school resource officers this fall. Most, including Richland 2, have roving officers who move among elementary schools and other schools nearby.

“Our current deployment of SRO’s is an efficient working model that provides coverage for all of our schools and augments our own security staff and school-security plans,” Richland 2 spokesman Ken Blackstone said. The district has 18 school resource officers and 30 schools.

Richland 1, though, has a goal of one school resource officer per school, said Ed Carlon, chief operations officer.

“In light of recent events throughout the country, and the way things are going nowadays,” Carlon said, “we felt that was the way we needed to go.”

The issue is to be resolved Wednesday as part of finishing touches to the Richland County budget.

Footing the bill

Initially, Richland 1 intended to add the 14 new officers and pay the entire tab. The 14 would supplement the 14 existing school resource officers shared by the county’s 28 elementary schools.

Already, Richland 1 has 33 school resource officers assigned to high schools, middle schools and elementary schools, spokeswoman Karen York said.

But superintendent Percy Mack followed up with the council, saying he expected Richland 1 to be hit by federal budget cuts to special education programs.

Now, Carlon said, the school district would like to share the cost with the county, 50-50.

That’s how it pays for its existing school resource officers, most of them sheriff’s deputies. (Seven Columbia police officers are assigned to in-city schools, district spokeswoman Karen York said.)

County Council’s initial discussion of the issue centered on finances.

Councilman Jim Manning said when the state and federal governments cut important programs, or develop new programs without funding them, they look to the county to pick up the tab. On this, he said, the county should hold the line.

Some suggest the school district should pay for the new officers with savings; Carlon said the district has between $16 million and $17 million on hand.

Others took the discussion beyond finances.

Councilman Bill Malinowski said officers at elementary schools aren’t necessary. “It’s a touchy-feely thing,” said Malinowski, a former special agent with the FBI who teaches classes for concealed-weapons permits. “I’m guessing when kids are coming to school, they’re at the front door to keep an eye on things.”

Councilman Damon Jeter, a former school board member, said school resource officers were introduced in schools to address discipline problems, not to prevent casualties.

And Councilman Norman Jackson said he doesn’t like the idea of armed officers at elementary schools. “I know times have changed,” he said, “but it’s becoming like a police state, where everything has to have security.”

One way or another, Councilman Seth Rose said, he’d like to see the officers hired.

If a tragedy were to happen, a decision not to fund the resource officers could come back to haunt the council, Rose said.

Concerning mental health

Councilman Greg Pearce highlighted the difference of opinion between those who favor guns in schools and those who advocate for more mental health services for kids.

Pearce, an NRA member and retired S.C. Department of Mental Health psychologist, said the county would be better off boosting the $1.9 million taxpayers provide to Columbia Area Mental Health, which serves 13 Richland 1 schools and another seven schools in Richland 2 with mental-health counseling.

Pearce said kids with mental health problems that go untreated sometimes grow up “to buy handguns and then they go back to the schools to get even.”

“Look at what happened in Connecticut,” Pearce said. “That boy was an unresolved mental health case. If you look into it, there’s a mental health issue related to most of all these nationally recognized school-based crimes.”

While no mass violence has hit elementary schools here, Richland 1 suspended two children for weapons offenses involving firearms in 2010-11, based on the most recent statistics available.

One was a first-grader. The other was a fifth-grader, according to data compiled for the S.C. Department of Education under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The report only captures data on students, not outsiders, who commit crimes on campus, said Education department spokesman Jay Ragley.

No firearms offenses were reported in Richland 2.

Both districts, though, had elementary school students at every grade suspended for “other” weapons offenses that could involve anything from knives to brass knuckles, Ragley said. Richland 2 reported 25 suspensions in grades one to five in that category; Richland 1 had 24.

Ideally, schools would provide both school resource officers and school psychologists, said Allison Jacques, the former principal at Brookland-Cayce High School who’s an assistant dean at the University of South Carolina’s school of education.

Though Jacques did not know the trend, she said “it makes complete sense” for school districts to expand resource officer programs to elementary schools.

She’s convinced relationships among officers and students create safer schools and neighborhoods.

“They’re building relationships,” Jacques said. “They’re teaching students at a very young age that officers are their friends, they’re there to help.”

Getting more mental health professionals in the schools is the top priority of a coalition called Partners in Crisis, a group made up of advocacy groups, law enforcement and the USC medical school, said Bill Lindsey, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness S.C.

Lindsay said 1 in 5 children experience some sort of mental illness. Without treatment, he said, those children often are victims of violence by their classmates.

“I think money is better spent getting mental health professionals in the schools,” he said. “I don’t want to come out and say I don’t want resource officers. It comes down to choices.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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