As Midlands districts prepare for the start of the new school year this month, many have bolstered the presence of school resource officers patrolling the halls and grounds of elementary, middle and high schools.
Most of the additions have been to elementary schools, a response in part to the 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 people dead, including 20 students. Some districts, including Richland 1 and Lexington-Richland 5, now have a school resource officer for each elementary school, while some other Midlands districts have shared officers in those schools. All districts use officers in middle and high schools.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said staffing a resource officer in every school has been a goal since his election in 1996.
“The idea then was that you had them in your high schools and your middle schools, but you didn’t have them so much in your elementary schools,” Lott said. “What I have seen change now is that they need to be in elementary schools just as much as anywhere else. So that has been our goal, to have every school covered, and we have achieved that.”
Lott said 22 resource officers have been added to the sheriff’s department’s school resource officer program since last year, bringing the force up to 82 officers operating within multiple school districts.
“With 82 SROs, that is as large as most police departments in the state,” Lott said. “We made a conscious decision to dedicate resources to the schools and that is why we haven’t had as many problems in our schools as you see in other areas.”
Ed Carlon, Richland 1’s chief operations officer, said students feel more comfortable having a resource officer on campus during the school day. Richland 1 put an additional 14 school resource officers in its schools, totaling 48 resource officers to cover the 48 schools within the district — something Carlon said makes students feel safer.
“The city and the sheriff have really come through and worked with us to get SROs in every school,” Carlon said. “I know the elementary schools feel more comfortable with that because of the age of the students and the population they have. Last year at Piney Grove, when they had the shooting in the apartment complex near there, they felt comfortable knowing they had an SRO there.”
Carlon said the county and the school district split $1.6 million to employ the 14 new officers. This year, the school district will foot the $900,000 bill to keep the officers in the schools.
Libby Roof, a spokeswoman for Richland 2, said 23 resource officers will be in charge of covering 33 schools for the upcoming school year.
“Providing a safe learning environment for all students is always our top priority,” Roof said. “The district’s in-house security force provides coverage for the entire district 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our security force utilizes watch commanders, dispatchers and security officers as well as a districtwide video monitoring system.”
Michael Harris, chief student services officer with Lexington-Richland 5, said his district spent about $1.7 million last year to add 14 new officers, bringing the force up to 23. Those 23 officers, 12 from Richland County and 11 from Lexington County, provide security for all of the schools in the school district, with a couple of high schools sharing officers.
“The needs of the safety and security of our students demanded it,” Harris said. “Their safety is of paramount importance to us.”
Deputy Dave Adams, school resource officer at Richland 1’s A.C. Flora High School, said when students come to his office they enter the “four walls of reality,” a place where he helps students find a way to open closed doors in their lives.
Adams, selected as the Midlands and South Carolina School Resource Officer of the Year for 2014, said he sees himself as a one-person police department, a source of protection for more than 1,300 high school students as well as someone they can come to for help.
“We have general SRO meetings once a month and every school has its own challenges,” Adams said.
The number of resource officers being put into schools is something Lott said helps curb juvenile crimes and gang crimes within schools.
“The SROs have that intelligence and networking through their students that come and tell them about the gangs and the drug dealers,” Lott said. “Some people miss the point on how far-reaching an impact SROs have. People think it’s just in the schools they have an impact, but what goes on in the community comes to the schools.”
Claire Thompson, principal of Lake Murray Elementary School in Lexington-Richland 5, said the lack of having a resource officer constantly staffed during the school day was something that inhibited the building of relationships between officers and students.
Thompson said last school year was the first time her elementary school and others in the district had a full-time officer. In the past, she said, they would only see a school resource officer one or two days a week.
“The effectiveness of a full-time officer cannot be overemphasized due to the trust that is built through being at recess and lunch; greeting students and parents each day at arrival,” Thompson said. “Having a consistent person in that role means that safety for our schools is a priority.”
School resource officer Adams said districts that don’t employ a resource officer full-time are missing out.
“I am at A.C. Flora and another SRO is at Crayton Middle and if you’re looking at an active-shooter situation, I can drive from A.C. Flora to Crayton in three minutes. But three minutes is a lifetime.” Adams said.
“You never know what gets deterred with having a patrol car in front of a school, that’s the statistic you won’t see.”