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January 17, 2013

SC senators: Put police officers in every SC school

Every public school in South Carolina would have a trained police officer on-site, if a bipartisan bill introduced in the state Senate on Wednesday becomes law.

Every public school in South Carolina would have a trained police officer on-site, if a bipartisan bill introduced in the state Senate on Wednesday becomes law.

The state also would pay for all officers who school districts, counties and municipalities currently pay to have in schools, said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, is a cosponsor of the bill, which by the end of Wednesday had 14 cosponsors in the 46-member Senate.

The plan could cost the state between $30 million and $40 million a year, Setzler estimated, freeing up money that school districts now spend on school resource officers to use in other ways.

Setzler said he introduced the bill after comments by SLED Chief Mark Keel at a meeting last week where state law enforcement and education leaders discussed school safety. That meeting was called in response to last month’s slaughter in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman shot and killed 20 children at an elementary school. Keel said having school resource officers in every school is the best defense.

After the Newtown massacre, the National Rifle Association endorsed having armed guards at every school. School resource officers differ in that they are police officers trained to work in schools. They provide security, counseling and teach.

“You’re not going to be able to always prevent it, but it’s another step in trying to prevent tragedy here,” Setzler said.

In South Carolina, school resource officers largely have been placed on high school and middle school campuses. However, in the wake of the Newtown shooting, districts across the state – from Spartanburg to West Columbia to North Charleston – have taken steps to place more police officers in more schools.

But not all school districts can afford that expense, supporters of Setzler’s bill say.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokesman was noncommittal on whether the governor would support Setzler’s proposal.

“As a former legislator herself, the governor knows what was introduced today may not be what ends up on her desk,” spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “When a bill arrives on her desk, she’ll be happy to weigh in.”

Speaking broadly about education in her State of the State speech Wednesday, Haley said she wanted to start a dialogue with lawmakers, including Setzler, about how best to address the challenges facing the state.

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said he has not read the bill yet, but he applauded the Senate for “putting a bill out to begin this dialogue. ... We need to figure out how we make sure that our kids are protected.”

Asked whether the House’s conservative Republican majority would support paying the added expense, Harrell said: “I don’t know whether there will be support for that kind of money being spent at the state level as opposed to finding other ways to encourage and help local districts.”

However, state Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, who chairs a House education budget subcommittee, said helping school districts hire school resource officers is his “highest priority” – one, he added, that other House budget writers share.

The approach likely would be to provide supplemental support rather than taking on the full cost of paying for resource officers statewide. The challenge will be finding an approach that is fair to all districts, Bingham said.

State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, introduced a similar bill in the S.C. House last week. It has no cosponsors.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, among the Senate bill’s four Republican and 10 Democratic cosponsors, said he cannot understand how some people think that “evil stops at the schoolhouse door.”

People protect their money and homes with guns, he said. But “somehow we don’t protect our most precious possession, our children, with guns.”

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