Gov. McMaster wants police officers in every SC school. One big obstacle — money

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday he will push the General Assembly to find enough money in the state’s new budget to pay to put a trained law enforcement officer in every school in the state.

McMaster made that pledge at a school-safety summit he called in Columbia. There, law enforcement officials, educators and mental health experts convened to discuss how best to keep the state’s nearly 750,000 public school students safe.

In his executive budget, the Richland Republican asked S.C. lawmakers to put $5 million in the state’s roughly $8.2 billion general fund budget, which takes effect July 1, to cover the cost of hiring officers.

That proposal, made before the Florida high school shooting that claimed 17 lives on Valentine’s Day, only has become more important now, the governor said.

“That is the very first step that must be done in all counties and all schools, every day, any time a child is there,” McMaster told reporters.

But, according to some estimates, far more than $5 million would be needed.

Of 1,195 public schools in the state, 607 have school resource officers, a state Education Department official said Tuesday, citing a January 2017 survey of school districts. In some cases, however, officers could be serving more than one school.

That could leave about 590 schools without officers.

The state Education Department official also said that, according to a local law enforcement agency, the average cost of hiring and training a new school-resource officer is about $110,000, for an officer that is not already employed at the agency. About $43,000 of that cost is a one-time expense.

Putting 590 new resource officers in schools would cost more than $60 million in the first year, based on those numbers. In the second year, the cost could be about $40 million.

So far, there is no money in the upcoming state budget for school resource officers. McMaster’s $5 million request was not included in the S.C. House’s proposed budget, slated for debate this month.

However, the House did agree to spend $500,000 for school-based mental-health services to better identify students who might pose behavioral problems, doubling what McMaster requested.

Arming teachers, a controversial proposal for which McMaster, President Donald Trump and some Republican S.C. legislators have expressed support – and one law enforcement has opposed in the past – did not come up as a potential solution at Thursday’s safety summit.

Asked whether he would sign a bill arming teachers if it made it to his desk, McMaster demurred, saying he wasn’t backing off that stance, but the issue needed extensive study.

“The first is arming, not the teachers, but it’s the ... certified law enforcement officers,” he said. “The teacher does not have, most school personnel does not have, the kind of experience ... as a trained officer would.”

‘We’ve studied this enough’

Panelists at Thursday’s safety summit said more social workers and mental health counselors could help make schools safer.

Now, there are more than 350 mental health professionals embedded in more than 640 schools across the state, said Allison Farrell of the S.C. Department of Mental Health.

But like the state’s growing teacher shortage, there is a national shortage of qualified mental health professionals, Farrell said. Many of those professionals now are paid roughly the same as S.C. teachers, despite having more training, higher degrees and national certification.

“We know that mental-health issues exist in our schools,” Farrell said. “They existed yesterday. They are here today, and they are going to be here tomorrow.”

Now, some teachers identify mental-health problems with students, but when they take that concern to a superior, “they don’t have the resources” to address the child’s needs, said state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

Panelists also expressed frustration that they are meeting again, talking about how to make schools safer.

The issue has been studied before, and the same recommendations are made “over and over again,” State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said. “We’ve studied this enough.”

Keel called for mandatory training for school administrators, teachers and staff on how to spot and report the red flags that indicate a student might be troubled and capable of doing harm.

Audience members also made, sometimes, emotional requests.

Pastor Rick Cope with Trinity Baptist Church in Lancaster gave an impassioned plea for the state to address the problem, doing whatever it takes, even if that means raising taxes.

“It is a matter of time. ... We are going to see this again,” he said. “Talk is over. We have got to lock this school down, and we don’t care how much it costs.”

The “$10 million football stadium” could wait, he said. “What good is the AstroTurf if we have to clean the blood of our children up off of it?”

Asking lawmakers to send more resources to rural schools, Dillon High School student Jacorie McCall said his school has numerous entrances that someone could use.

McCall said he wishes his school had a single-entrance point with a buzz-in system to let people in.

“They have so many access points, but they don’t have enough technology,” McCall said, adding the school has a daily issue with people walking on campus that are not supposed to be there.

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter, Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself